For the second year in a row, I like the two No. 1 seeds to advance and collide in the Super Bowl, so with New England and Seattle (both 12-4) taking this weekend off, the temptation is to think the wild-card round won’t hold all that much significance. But history says I’m wrong. Starting with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens making their run to a ring, seven times in the past 14 years the eventual Super Bowl champion has come out of the wild-card round, including Green Bay in '10, the Giants in '11 and the Ravens again in '12. In seven of the past nine years, at least one Super Bowl participant has played in the first round of the NFL’s 12-team Super Bowl tournament.
So pay attention this weekend, because the odds are we’re watching some team that’s about to go on a month-long roll and wind up playing Feb. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. I’m going with three home teams to win this weekend, but in all four games I’m picking the team with the best regular-season record to win. Last year’s first round featured three road winners (San Diego, New Orleans and San Francisco), but both the Saints and 49ers had superior records to the teams they beat in the Eagles and Packers, respectively.
Of the eight teams playing this weekend, Cincinnati and Dallas probably face the most pressure to get a victory and move on. The Bengals have that 0-5 playoff record in the 12-year Marvin Lewis coaching era hanging around their necks, and the 12-4 Cowboys are red-hot and back in the postseason after a five-year absence, with expectations running sky-high, opening at home against a No. 6 seed. If not now, Dallas, then when? Let the single-elimination drama begin.
• Last week: 12-4; Season: 171-84 (.671).
• Best pick in Week 17: San Francisco 20, Arizona 17. (Actual score: 49ers 20-17).
• Worst pick in Week 17: Atlanta 27, Carolina 20 (Actual score: Panthers 34-3).
Saturday, Jan. 3
If this game had been played in mid-November, the Cardinals might have been favored by double digits. But the world has changed dramatically for both of these clubs of late, and now Carolina is actually expected to both to move on to the NFC divisional round and climb back to the .500 mark in one fell swoop. (And I don’t get to write a sentence like that each and every year in the playoffs.) The first repeat winner in the NFC South’s 13-year history is the most improbable division champion ever, with Carolina sitting 3-8-1 on the morning of Dec. 7, as the Sunday of Week 14 dawned. Not even four full weeks later, the Panthers will be hosting a playoff game.
Carolina hasn’t played well at home in the playoffs of late, losing by 20 points to Arizona in the 2008 divisional round and by 13 points last year to San Francisco in the divisional round. With Ryan Lindley starting once again for the Cardinals at quarterback, Arizona’s Super Bowl dreams are on life support. But Bruce Arians does his best work when all appears lost, and for this week at least, I think he’ll have the Cardinals prepared to cobble together an all-hands-on-deck kind of victory built around playing stout defense and getting a big play or two out of the special teams.
The Steelers won’t have the services of superb second-year running back Le’Veon Bell (hyperextended knee), causing Baltimore’s upset chances to soar. And don’t forget, the Ravens know how to win on the road in the playoffs, having won six road games in the postseason in the first five years of the John Harbaugh coaching era.
But I keep coming back to the matchup of the Steelers’ multi-faceted passing game against a Ravens secondary that has gone through cornerbacks like paper towels this season, and that matchup greatly favors what Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be able to do throwing to the likes of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller. Baltimore especially has no answers for Brown, who has snagged 18 passes for 234 yards against the Ravens this season, and is the game’s supreme matchup challenge at the moment. The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Jets in the 2010 AFC title game, while Baltimore is 5-1 in the postseason since that game was played. But the Heinz Field home-field advantage will be the difference on Saturday night, with the Steelers advancing and the Ravens enduring their first one-and-done playoff trip since 2006.
Sunday, Jan. 4
I’m a little confused by the stance this week of 12th-year Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who told his players to not answer questions about Cincinnati’s three straight first-round playoff defeats, and the franchise’s lack of a postseason win since 1990. Back in May, when the Bengals were starting their 2014 offseason workout program, Lewis told me he addressed "the elephant in the room" with his players, specifically tackling last year’s galling loss to visiting San Diego in the wild-card round: "We had to address that game ... There’s no doubt, we have to swallow our medicine. That’s the only way we’re going to fix it, by looking at it and trying to move forward from it. Now we’ve got to go prove it again. We can’t just will it to happen. We’re going to have to go earn that opportunity to reach the playoffs."
That was exactly the right tone then, and I think Lewis should talk about getting that elusive first playoff win in the same direct, head-on fashion. Instead, now that the moment is again at hand, the Bengals seem to be hoping they can now avoid the topic, which almost never works, unless you’re Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Getting an early lead and easing some of the pressure would be huge for the Bengals, but the Colts are resilient. Memories of their 28-point second-half comeback at home against the Chiefs in that 45-44 first-round win are still fresh. As is Indy’s 27-0 beatdown of the visiting Bengals in Week 7 this season. This one will be closer, but not close enough for Cincinnati.
The first year I can really remember getting hooked on the NFL playoffs was 1970, the first year of the new NFC-AFC format under the merger. Detroit was the NFC’s one and only wild-card entry that season (only eight teams made the playoffs) and played at NFC East division champion Dallas, at the Cotton Bowl. The game was by no means a classic, but I was fascinated that the Cowboys won 5-0, in the most baseball-like playoff score I can ever recall.
I expect considerably more scoring 44 years later, with both teams capable of consistently moving the ball, especially through the air. Both clubs have their own demons to exorcise in the postseason, with Detroit not having won a playoff game since 1991, and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo bearing the burden of his past big-game failures. Dallas is a different team this year, and has played with supreme confidence in the final four weeks of the season. I think the Cowboys will have a balanced attack that will pose problems for Detroit defensively, even with Ndamukong Suh having escaped his one-game suspension and returned to the lineup. Lions QB Matthew Stafford grew up and starred in Dallas as a high school passer, but his homecoming won’t be a happy one, and that will drop his career record to 0-18 (including playoffs) when he’s on the road facing a team that finished with a winning record.