With the 2014 season in the books, the NFL playoffs are set to begin this weekend with the Wild Card round. I went 8 for 12 in my preseason picks, including 5 of the 6 AFC teams that made the postseason. Both teams I picked to make the Super Bowl, the Patriots and Seahawks, made the playoffs and are each the top seed in their respective conference, keeping that potential championship matchup in play. Those teams, along with the Broncos and Packers, have first-round byes, leaving the other eight playoff teams to play in this weekend’s four games. Here are my picks for the Wild Card games.
The 5-seed Cardinals, winners of 11 games this season, travel to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to take on the 4-seed Panthers, who won the NFC South with a record of 7-8-1. The Cardinals have been on a downward spiral since losing starting QB Carson Palmer to a season-ending ACL injury in November and the Panthers have been coming on strong lately, winning their final four regular-season contests. With QB Ryan Lindley slated to start the game for Arizona, the Cardinals offense isn’t likely to have much success against a Panthers defense that finished the year 12th in the league in PPG allowed. I think the trends of the last month will continue and the Panthers will beat the Cardinals at home.
In the nightcap Saturday, the 3-seed Steelers host their division rivals, the Ravens. The teams split their two games in the regular season, with the home team winning both. As they meet in the postseason, the Steelers will be without star RB Le’Veon Bell, but they should be able to put up plenty of offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger throwing to WR Antonio Brown, who had 129 receptions in the regular season for nearly 1,700 yards. Against a Ravens defense that gave up the fourth-most receptions in the league this season, that QB-WR combo should have a good game. I think the Steelers have a better offense and will claim victory at home.
In the second AFC Wild Card game, the 5-seed Bengals visit the 4-seed Colts. When the teams met in week seven,the Colts shut out the Bengals, 27-0. In this rematch, the Bengals are likely to be without top WR A.J. Green, who is doubtful for the game as he goes through the league’s concussion protocol, leaving WR Mohamed Sanu as the team’s top receiving threat. So the Bengals’ offense will likely be centered around the running game, led by RBs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Hill became the team’s main running back in the second half of the season, rushing for more than 1,100 yards while starting just eight games. QB Andy Dalton is a question mark for the Bengals, though, while QB Andrew Luck will be leading the Colts offense. With Luck throwing to WRs T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne. If the game comes down to the quarterbacks — as you might expect it to — I think the Colts have a big enough advantage at the position that they’ll get the victory.
The 3-seed Cowboys return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 with an offense that scored the fifth-most points in the league during the regular season. RB DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing with 1,845 yards, more than 500 yards more than second-place LeSean McCoy, while WR Dez Bryant led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns. That potent offense will have to take on a 6-seed Lions defense that gave up the third-fewest points in the league during the season. I think the Cowboys’ offense will be too much for the Lions D and they’ll advance to the Divsiona round next week.