The Playbook: Previewing all four wild-card weekend matchups
Ready for some playoff football? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar help you prepare for this weekend's wild-card action with previews, matchups to watch and a prediction for all four games.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN)
On the sexiness scale, this matchup falls somewhere between Steve Buscemi and Clint Howard. Playing the role of the home team are the 7-8-1 Panthers, who needed a four-game season-ending win streak to claim the putrid NFC South. They will be visited on Saturday afternoon by the free-falling Cardinals, losers of four of six to close the year and on their third quarterback.
Try to look past the blemishes. This game could provide an entertaining kickoff to the NFL playoffs, if only because both teams lean on aggressive, physical defenses.
"Overall, this season has not been the prototypical season of a playoff team. But who cares?" said Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, via the Charlotte Observer. "Everybody has an opportunity. There’s some teams that wish they were in our position, so we’ve got to make the most of this and not take this opportunity for granted."
Newton may never have a better opportunity to land his first career playoff win. Now three weeks removed from a scary car accident that left him with multiple fractures in his back, Newton gives Carolina a clear edge at the quarterback spot over Arizona's Ryan Lindley.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians did offer that Lindley is "more than ready to play extremely well" this week, thanks to the experience Lindley gained against Seattle and San Francisco.
Arians does not necessarily need Lindley to light the world afire so much as he needs his fill-in quarterback to avoid any catastrophic mistakes. Despite allowing 35 points in Week 16, the Cardinals finished as the league's No. 5-ranked scoring defense.
Carolina was much further down the charts (No. 21) but closed the year by allowing fewer than 11 points per game in Weeks 14-17.
It was the Panthers' defense that led the way to the postseason in 2013 before a wild-card round loss at home to San Francisco. The '14 Panthers, though, have found a little life on offense, thanks to Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart. Any hope Arizona has of matching its hosts point for point would fall onto Lindley's shoulders, with help from a talented cast of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown.
This may be the least buzzworthy wild-card round game, on paper -- there's a reason it drew the Saturday afternoon time slot. When all is said and done, the Cardinals and Panthers might produce a thriller nonetheless. -- Chris Burke
Some of the faces are different, but the schemes for each of these teams are more or less the same as they were in Arizona's 22-6 win last season. The Cardinals dropped Cam Newton for seven sacks in that game, thanks in large part to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' blitz packages.
Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby -- neither of whom is present on the current Arizona depth chart -- combined for four of those sacks. This year, if the Cardinals can repeat, Foote will have to wreak much of the havoc. He's often the defender tasked with hitting the A-gap blitz, a Bowles staple.
Flustering Newton in the pocket will be critical for Arizona's defense, but equally as important is making sure Newton cannot escape and run. Should the interior line pick up Foote, safety Deone Bucannon or any other Cardinal trying to slip between center Kalil and Carolina's guards, Newton will have ample space downfield with which to work.
Sleeper: Darren Fells, TE, Cardinals.
The Cardinals' two best rushing performances of the season came in Weeks 14 and 15, just as Fells' snap count rose, rather out of nowhere, into the mid-40s per game.
"I think there's a correlation," Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said, "between him blocking the edge with his big body and helping us maintain the line of scrimmage."
Fells has turned into something of a trusted target for Ryan Lindley in the passing game, too. The 6-foot-7, 281-pounder has caught a pair of passes on three targets each of the past two weeks -- nothing game-breaking, but noteworthy on a team that has had myriad issues through the air.
Rookie to watch: John Brown, WR, Cardinals.
Arizona's M.O. right now is no secret: Turn the defense loose and hope the offense can hit a home run or two. Brown has not found the end zone since Week 10, but the rookie burner has the jets to take one the distance if he can get into the open field.
The question is if Lindley can find him. Per Pro Football Focus, the Drew Stanton/Lindley combo is a combined 0-for-6 since Week 15 on pass attempts of 20 yards or more in Brown's direction.
Just one deep completion could serve as the breakthrough the scuffling Arizona offense needs. Brown is capable, if Lindley can get him the ball.
• Pick: Burke -- Arizona 17, Carolina 14. Farrar -- Carolina 23, Arizona 10.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC)
The Ravens are dealing with a Steelers defense that currently ranks 30th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics and 30th against the pass. However, the Ravens are also dealing with their own offense, which has been productive in fits and starts of late. Baltimore has been outscored 41-20 in the first halves of their last four games, with no offensive touchdowns. They've scored no offensive touchdowns in those halves. No question the Steelers have an uphill battle against any offense at this point, but the Ravens' offense, led by coordinator Gary Kubiak, has been stalling of late. Joe Flacco has not been selling the deep ball with just five completions in 15 attempts on passes over 20 yards over the last four weeks, and the offensive line has been dealing with injuries. If Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau is going to see a rebirth of the defenses of old, now would be the time.
Of course, the problem for Pittsburgh's offense is the absence of running back Le'Veon Bell, who was injured in the regular-season finale against the Bengals. The Steelers are missing perhaps the league's best running back, a serious threat as a receiver out of the backfield and a great pass-blocker. The recently-signed Ben Tate and satellite player Dri Archer would play primarily in Bell's stead, which obviously puts more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback has played differently this season -- he's better in the pocket, and he's making more efficient decisions when he does go on the move. Of course, it helps when you have Antonio Brown ripping up opposing secondaries throughout the season, but make no mistake: The Steelers have a fully-developed receiver corps that appears ready to take advantage of Baltimore's own coverage liabilities.
For the Ravens, the key to winning this game will be to keep Roethlisberger off the field, which means that their ground game with Justin Forsett will be crucial. If they can establish that against a defense that has been pretty decent against the run, Flacco would then have the potential to get big plays out of play action. The Ravens can bring pressure with Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and the criminally underrated Pernell McPhee, and they'll have to do that on a regular basis.
If the Ravens are not able to get that established, they're in big trouble -- it would behoove Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley to go hurry-up at that point and spread things out. It's a very different scouting report than you've seen from the Steelers-Ravens battles of yore when defense ruled the day, but neither one of these teams are going to make the Super Bowl on the strengths of their defenses. It's going to be a shootout, and the Ravens will just have to hope they have enough ammo in the first half. -- Doug Farrar
• Matchup to watch: Antonio Brown vs. Lardarius Webb and Rashaan Melvin.
The last time the Ravens and Steelers met, on Nov. 2, Ben Roethlisberger threw for six touchdown passes. Baltimore cut cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown within 48 hours of the 43-23 Pittsburgh win, which featured 11 catches and 144 yards from Brown.
With Bell ruled out for Saturday, the Ravens' No. 1 priority will be on keeping Brown in check.
"I think they’ll do a lot of moves as far as trying to double me, trying to get a bead on where I’m at, and making sure they have a guy on top and a guy in front of me," Brown told The MMQB this week. "Those are things I’ll anticipate. I expect them to try to do everything they can to win the game, and taking me out could be an asset for them."
Five of Brown's 11 catches in Week 9 came against Webb. Neither Melvin nor Anthony Levine saw action in that game, though they figure to see the field plenty on Saturday night.
Of course, added attention on Brown means more room for the likes of Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller. The Ravens would rather go down swinging against those complementary players than see Brown send them packing.
• Sleeper: Kamar Aiken, WR, Ravens.
Aiken's role has been rather limited when both Torrey Smith and Steve Smith are available, as they are expected to be Saturday. Still, if the idea here is to find an under-the-radar guy who could steal some of the spotlight, Aiken fits the bill.
He found the end zone in Baltimore's playoff-clinching Week 17 win over Cleveland, his third touchdown of the season. Touchdown No. 2 came as part of a six-catch, 65-yard showing in a Week 14 victory at Miami with Torrey Smith on the sideline.
While there may not be much on Aiken's NFL resume, he has produced enough when given a shot in 2014 that he should be at least on the Steelers' radar.
• Rookie to watch: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Steelers.
After struggling throughout much of the season's first half, the Pittsburgh D-line played a central role in an AFC North title charge, and it was the combination of Tuitt and Cameron Heyward that set the tone.
Heyward wound up sharing the team lead in sacks at 7.5; Tuitt was more up and down, as rookies tend to be, but he averaged 58.3 snaps per game in Weeks 14-17. Knowing how hard Baltimore will try to establish its ground game (and, in turn, Joe Flacco's play-action options), the Steelers will lean on Tuitt again to help hold the line.
• Pick: Burke -- Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 21. Farrar -- Pittsburgh 34, Baltimore 24.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Throw out the records. Wipe the slate clean. Those are the mantras every team reiterates time and again come the postseason.
And yet, it is tough to totally ignore the Week 7 meeting between these two teams, a 27-0 Colts romp in which the Bengals mustered all of 135 yards. Cincinnati was without A.J. Green in that contest, and it may be down its superstar receiver again Sunday. (Green has been in the NFL's concussion protocol since last weekend and he did not practice Friday.)
The Bengals boast a more competent offense than they did in that earlier matchup, mainly due to Jeremy Hill's Week 9 arrival in the starting lineup. Hill made a push for Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration over the second half of the season, posting five 100-plus-yard performances. He closed the regular season with games of 148, 147 and 100 yards.
Plan on seeing a bunch of both Hill and Gio Bernard, regardless of Green's injury status. Limiting the tough spots for an unpredictable Andy Dalton usually leads the game plan, and the Bengals were the league's sixth-best rushing team in 2014.
On the other hand, one of the reasons Indianapolis' last postseason run ended in the divisional round -- and nearly flamed out in the opener -- was because Andrew Luck had all sorts of issues protecting the football. Luck tossed three interceptions before leading a wild-card round comeback against the Chiefs, then was picked off four times the following week in a loss to New England. Another 16 interceptions followed in the 2014 regular season, although Luck was a high-volume passer with 616 attempts.
Had Trent Richardson turned a corner or Ahmad Bradshaw stayed healthy, both of those numbers may have been lower. For what it's worth, Bradshaw scored twice in the Colts' 27-point October win over Cincinnati.
The main catalyst in the backfield now is Dan "Boom" Herron, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry to Richardson's 3.3 this year. The two likely will split reps Sunday as the Colts attempt to balance out their offense.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is the go-to guy otherwise. He finished the regular season with 1,345 yards receiving. Also worth nothing: tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen combined for 116 yards and a touchdown in the teams' first meeting, so Cincinnati will have to find both guys when Luck drops back.
All of the Xs-and-Os talk assumes that the Bengals will bring a better effort than on their last trip to Indy. If not, the rematch could be just as ugly. -- Chris Burke
• Matchup to watch: Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry vs. Jack Mewhort or Joe Reitz.
The Bengals finished dead last in the NFL in sacks this season, producing just 20 in 16 games. Two of those sacks came in a 27-0 Week 7 loss to Indianapolis. Even more pressure will be needed Sunday to disrupt Andrew Luck and give the Cincinnati defense hope of stealing a road win.
Indianapolis placed starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus on injured reserve ahead of the wild-card round, so Luck will have a relatively unfamiliar face protecting his throwing side. Mewhort kicked out there last week, after the Cowboys ate Xavier Nixon alive in Week 16.
It could also be Reitz who winds up holding down the right tackle spot Sunday, thereby allowing Mewhort to stick at his usual guard spot. Reitz has practiced in Cherilus' place this week.
Regardless of who winds up there for Indianapolis, expect Cincinnati to attack with its defensive ends.
• Sleeper: Adam Jones, CB, Bengals.
Jones will be on the field plenty as Cincinnati's third cornerback, what with Indianapolis able to trot out T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks at any given time. However, his greater impact Sunday could come on special teams.
No return man in the league is as aggressive on punts as Jones, who went 96 straight returns (a span lasting 73 games) between fair catches before calling one in Week 13. Jones also finished second in the NFL in yards per kick return this season, posting a 31.3 average on 27 attempts.
• Rookie to watch: Jonathan Newsome, OLB, Colts.
The Week 17 AFC Defensive Player of the Week, Newsome closed the regular season as the Colts' leader in sacks (6.5) thanks to the two he notched against Tennessee last Sunday. It took Newsome a while to get going off the edge -- he averaged a mere 16 snaps in Indianapolis' first six games. Newsome has since earned regular playing time, and he rewarded the coaching staff with three multi-sack games over the final seven weeks.
"He gives you great presence on the outside and not only setting the edge, ability to escape, get off blocks," head coach Chuck Pagano said. "He’s got good twitch and he’s got good pass rush moves and he uses his hands well."
Cincinnati must account for Newsome when he's on the field Sunday. Its offensive line did a solid job protecting Andy Dalton all season, but this is not a team built to play from behind the chains.
• Pick: Burke -- Indianapolis 31, Cincinnati 17. Farrar -- Cincinnati 27, Indianapolis 23.
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox)
The marquee matchup in this game will be a Dallas offensive line that has been the best in the NFL at facilitating the running game against a Detroit defense that allows fewer yards after contact than any other. But the battle that may decide who moves on to the divisional round pits Tony Romo and his receivers against a Detroit secondary that has quietly been one of the NFL's best this season. Certainly, safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo have been excellent through most of the season, and Quin in particular has allowed first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to move other players around to do different things. In addition, cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay have been much better this season -- not playing at an All-Pro level, but more than good enough. Because the secondary is so much better than it was in 2013, the Lions can bring effective pressure with four down linemen while the pass defenders keep things in check, and linebackers DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead are allowed to be more versatile. Levy in particular is a tremendously versatile player. He can cover, he can blitz very effectively, and he's one of the league's best run-stopping outside linebackers.
This is all important because the Cowboys' offensive line and the overall architecture of their running game is based on power zone concepts that get every lineman going in the same direction with a lot of power. And because those linemen -- particularly left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin -- are so fundamentally sound in what they do, they don't leave a lot of gaps open. Thus, opposing defenses reliant on shooting gaps in the run game are often left hanging -- we all saw this when the Cowboys ran over the Seahawks in Week 6, and it's been a consistent point of success. Whether hyper-talented linemen like Ndamukong Suh and Ezekiel Ansah can split those gaps and get that done is a primary question, but the Detroit secondary's ability to deal with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten should make the difference. Bryant has 21 receptions for 368 yards and six touchdowns in the Cowboys' last four games, and slot man Cole Beasley has been very productive of late. Dallas doesn't test opposing defense with complex route concepts -- it's more, "Let's put our guy against your guy and see what happens." What happens if Detroit's secondary can't keep up? They'll be one-and-done.
On the other side of the ball, we have a Dallas defense that is based more on execution and discipline than pure star power against a Detroit offense with an iffy running game and a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who alternates between hot and cold on a weekly basis. And this is where Dallas' offense ties into their defense -- if the Cowboys take the time of possession battle and keep their defense off the field, it may not matter how many shots Stafford takes downfield to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. -- Doug Farrar
• Matchup to watch: Ndamukong Suh vs. Zack Martin.
Had to roll with Suh here, didn't we? The Lions' briefly-suspended defensive tackle will be in the starting lineup Sunday, and he may be the singular key to stopping the Cowboys' run game between the tackles.
"He’s primarily on the right (Martin's side)," the Cowboys' rookie guard said, via The Dallas Morning News. "He’s a big strong guy, physical, one of those rare players who can do a lot of everything and plays very hard."
Teams in the past have been able to use Suh's aggressiveness against him at times, letting him push upfield and then trapping him to clear space for the run game. Dallas might be able to work a similar strategy, although we know this for certain: Even if Suh makes an impact early, the Cowboys will continue to feed Murray throughout.
The Suh-Martin matchup actually may carry even more importance when Tony Romo drops to pass. Suh is a sensational rusher, having led Detroit in sacks (8.5) from the interior of the line.
Martin has been brilliant throughout much of the 2014 season. He'll need to be on his game Sunday to help keep an agitated Suh in check.
• Sleeper: Cole Beasley, WR, Cowboys.
Beasley topped out at 66 yards receiving for a single-game high this season, but he has 40 or more in five of the past six weeks and has scored four touchdowns over that stretch. As many teams have had to do, Detroit may roll extra coverage in Dez Bryant's direction, leaving some soft spots underneath. Dallas also may ask tight end Jason Witten and his 64 catches to stay in and help block against a potent Lions front four.
Add it all up, and Beasley might be a vital piece to the puzzle Sunday. If the Lions can limit Murray and put some heat on Romo, using Beasley in the screen game and as an early-read option may be a way to keep Detroit's offense off the field.
• Rookie to watch: Eric Ebron, TE, Lions.
The returns have been disappointing on Ebron this season: 25 catches for 248 yards and a single touchdown. That said, he has shown signs of progress, especially as a blocker, which was his main bugaboo entering the NFL.
The Lions are still waiting for a breakout performance from their rookie tight end. Could it happen on Sunday?
As usual, all eyes will be on Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate out wide for Detroit, meaning Ebron ought to find some favorable matchups against Dallas' linebackers and safeties. Whether or not he and inconsistent quarterback Matthew Stafford can turn those situations into positive gains is another story.
• Pick: Burke -- Dallas 24, Detroit 16. Farrar -- Dallas 27, Detroit 20.