Saturday, January 3rd
(5) Arizona Cardinals @ (4) Carolina Panthers -4.5
4:35 PM, ESPN, Charlotte, NC
State of the Cardinals:
It’s been as difficult to quantify the Cardinals’ season as it was determining how to start talking about their prospects of winning this game. Despite comparisons, regardless of how apt, of this team to last year’s Chiefs, the Cardinals have proven to be more like the NCAA’s Florida State in their dogged refusal to lose.
Three quarterbacks with a fair share of starts would be a problem for most, but the Cardinals weathered that adversity well up until the final weeks of the season. The Cardinals have not been a favorite since week 14—and even then, they were just a 1.5-point favorite at home to, guess whom, the Chiefs.
The Cardinals were getting little to no respect despite a 10-3 record, entering week 15. And It was a case where saying, “Well, who have they played” simply didn’t apply.
Regardless, the attrition required for the NFL makes the final weeks of the season an entirely different set of circumstances. Thus, the Cardinals are likely to start Ryan Lindley for the third straight game, barring Drew Stanton’s return to the practice field by Thursday per Arizona Cardinals.com reports.
Sticking with Lindley would not be the worst option for giving Arizona some stability at the quarterback position. Lindley’s performance against the 49ers was one of the better performances against that 49er defense from anyone this season, starter or not. Lindley threw for 260 yards and a pair of TDs in the first half, which had the head coach, Bruce Arians, claiming it to be one of the best performances in a half he’s seen all season.
Sure, Lindley threw 3 INTs in the second half and let things slip away. In his defense, the 49ers lead the league this season in interceptions with 23. In addition, the 49ers gave up the 5th least total yards this season, and Lindley managed to post 316 of the Cardinals’ 397 total yards.
The Cardinals aren’t exactly rolling into the playoffs, but they’re certainly getting close to finding that perpetually elusive stable ground on the offensive side of the ball to help out their defense.
State of the Panthers:
It was projected that the Panthers would take a step back this season after losing Steve Smith and an uncertain future of Greg Hardy. The ensuing start of the season more or less substantiated the projections.
By week 14, the door for a playoff chance was barely allowing light through the slimmest of cracks. Then a quasi-miracle, for anyone watching the NFL this season would understand, appeared through this simple yet loaded appellation: the NFC South.
As the weeks flew off the calendar of the NFL season, so too did the number of chances each of these teams had to claim any sort of lead among the others. It got the point that an abrasive cartoon character on ESPN’s SVP & Russillo was referring to the Saints as the “Ain’ts,” the Buccaneers as the “Suck-aneers,” and the Panthers as the “Can’t-thers.” While potentially hyperbolic, it was comical to see NFL telecasts having to list the Buccaneers at 2-6 as “in the hunt” for the playoffs.
The Panthers, however, finally stirred from whatever mid-season hibernation they took and have put together a 4-game winning streak to close the regular season. Sure, those 4 teams had an average of 5.5 wins, but one has to recall that the Panthers themselves only had 3 wins entering week 14.
In those last 4 games of the regular season, the Panthers averaged under 1 foot less than 400 yards per game, which is 53 yards more than the team’s season average. On the other side of the ball, they gave up an average of 278.25 yards in those 4 games, which greatly trumps their season average of 339.81 yards.
It seems as though the Panthers were content with packing it in for the rest of the season after their 6-game losing streak until someone mentioned to them, “You actually have a shot at the playoffs,” to which the Panthers said, “Oh.”
It’s hard not to attribute the Panthers’ little streak to end the season to the slew of haphazard defenses they faced. To that end, two of the games were convincing wins, but they were also both on the road.
It certainly does feel as though all of the momentum is on the Panthers’ side and they have the home game and they are riding a winning streak and…it feels flimsy.
Just looking at the NFC playoff teams’ records in order has to give one a chuckle, as the Panthers look like the little kiddie that got the shot to play with the big boys. The NFL has to be thinking, “The playoffs are strong. In the NFC we have two 11-win teams, three 12-win teams, oh, and, a 7-win team, while muttering that last bit under its breath.
Regardless, the Panthers have had a case of a good statistical year not equating into wins. They’re 7th best in rushing and are holding passers to 227.8 yards per game. The Cardinals have done quite the opposite: The Cardinals have a great record but nothing convincing enough to back it up. They’re 24th in points and total yards, they have the second worst offensive rushing total in the game, and they’re holding (misnomer) opponents to a 29th worst 259 passing yards per game.
It’s remarkable to think that a 7-win team would have a 4.5-point edge in a playoff game against an 11-win team, but certain situations call for certain measures. The Cardinals have been slowly injuring their way out of the season; this seems like the perfectly unlikely time for it to happen to allow us to tack up another example on the Great Wall of China-esque board of NFL anomalies this season.
Winner ATS: Carolina
(6) Baltimore Ravens @ (3) Pittsburgh Steelers -3.5
8:15 PM, NBC, Baltimore, MD
State of the Ravens:
As the Ravens situationally got themselves into the playoffs, their performance in the last few games of the regular season was less than convincing. The whole offense will fall on Justin Forsett, Steve Smith, and Joe Flacco’s arm. That’s right, his arm.
Those watching the Ravens over the past half of a decade or so know the experience of watching a game and having it feel like Flacco literally just rolled out of bed. A few 3-and-outs lead to a stoic looking Flacco whose stoic nature is sourced more by the morning malaise still covering his eyes than an attempt to conceal his feelings about the poor play of him and his team.
Flacco and the Ravens seem to have fallen into another of these periods of general grogginess that has them getting ugly, mistake-ridden wins allowed by weaker opponents.
It’s entirely possible that the Ravens boost up their interest level in playing football on Saturday. Forsett nursed a knee injury for a portion of the latter half of the season, but says he was good to play in the remaining 2 games of the season. He then went on to rush for 19 yards against the Texans.
I would not doubt that the Ravens use some sort of amnesia to drop their mediocre final games of the season and attempt a playoff run like that of 2012.
State of the Steelers:
The health of Le’Veon Bell came into question after hyperextending his knee against the Bengals on Sunday night. Call the tackle dirty, call the tackle clean; the resulting injury was the same. Reports from all over say that he says he’s fine, which can mean a number of things.
Bell has meant a lot to the Steelers, not so much in terms of eating up yards and running clock but as a point producer. In the final 4 games of the season, Bell gained 5 of his 8 TDs on the season and was looking to be trouble for opposing teams.
Should he be less than optimal, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown will need to carry much of the offense. This is not exactly a bad thing.
After last years’ pretty forgettable performance out of the Steelers, it was relatively easy to forget that Roethlisberger has done a lot of winning in his career. This season has gone largely under the radar with a couple confusing losses early, but Roethlisberger is having a career year: He has a career high in completion percentage, total yards, and quarterback rating; he had tied his best in TDs; he has just 9 INTs, contributing to a career best TD to INT ratio.
The Steelers feel like the most dangerous team that no one’s talking about.
Divisional games are always tough, especially when it happens to be the playoffs.
Typically, the games between these teams turn into all out field goal fests. In the past 3 seasons, the 6 games between these teams have yielded 28 field goal attempts. In 2012 and 2013, the average win margin between the two teams was 2.75.
The games this season have been 20-point victories, each side claiming one of their own. I suspect neither defense will allow that type of scoring this time around, but the Steelers will have a decided advantage in the passing game against the 23rd pass defense of the Ravens. The return of Haloti Ngata from suspension likely will help to clog anything the Steelers try to do on the ground.
The Ravens will have to exploit the weak passing defense of the Steelers due to their 6th best rushing defense.
Though the game should be close, the Steelers have scored at least 20 in each of their last 4 games and are unlikely to squander home field where they’ve lost just once this season.
Winner ATS: Pittsburgh
Sunday, January 4th
(5) Cincinnati Bengals @ (4) Indianapolis Colts -6
1:05, CBS, Indianapolis, IN
State of the Bengals:
The Bengals have followed the same story for every week of the season except for 1. The Bengals have a great time wailing on 2 types of teams, under-.500 teams in the 1:00 window and the Baltimore Ravens. They then struggle in the national spotlight and look like everything one doesn’t want their team to look like. The one exception was at home against the Broncos as the season wound down.
It’s hard to place any sort of confidence in the Bengals going into the playoffs when they lost 2 of their final 4 games to the same playoff team. Furthermore, they went 3-4-1 against playoff teams this season, meaning all sorts of potential trouble down the road.
Andy Dalton has had his share of ups and downs this season, to put it mildly. However, it seems that regardless of what type of performances he has produced during regular seasons, the post season is added pressure under which he cannot perform.
Dalton has a career playoff record of 0-3 in which he has 1 TD, 6 INTs, and an average QBR of 18.1.
To make matters worse, Dalton is having a less productive season this year despite what their record says. Other than his completion percentage, nearly every other QB stat is down from last season and his TD to INT ratio is decidedly down, which will not work well against the better defenses of playoff teams.
State of the Colts:
The Colts are another team able to pounce on the feeble and struggle against the elite. The end of the season for the Colts doesn’t say much, as they’ve had the 4 seed in the AFC locked up for a couple weeks.
Locking up the 4 seed still doesn’t exactly create immunity against injury. RT Gosder Churilus has been placed on season-ending IR according to RotoWorld. He’s been out for the past 2 games, but they were hoping to see him back on the field. His loss is just another hurdle the offensive line has faced this season. Mike Wells reports that the Colts will start their 11th different starting line on Sunday, which won’t help Luck and the Colts’ 4th worst QB hits allowed this season at 101.
The Bengal defense took a nice snooze in the middle of the season, after being one of the more dominant defenses through the first quarter of the season. They’ve played well as of late, but Luck leads the league in passing yards, which won’t bode well for the Bengals. Minus the open road that was the Browns in week 15, the Bengals have given up over 300 yards passing in their last 4 games.
The Colts will need to get something of a running game going to mirror when they defeated the Bengals earlier this season and rushed for their second highest game total of the season at 171.
The Bengals away from home in the spot light still has too much merit to it to like them here.
Winner ATS: Indianapolis
(6) Detroit Lions @ (3) Dallas Cowboys -8
4:40 PM, FOX, Arlington, TX
State of the Lions:
The Lions put up a good performance against the Packers in Lambeau where a lot of teams have gone, frozen up, and folded. Everything aside, the availability of Ndamukong Suh is some of the best news the Lions have received all season.
Even though the Lions have the best rushing defense in the league, they struggled against the Packers to keep the ground game in check. Eddie Lacy in week 17 was the 1st and only time the Lions have allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
Joique Bell’s string of 60+ yards rushing games will help the Lions balance the run and the pass and keep the Cowboys off of the field.
State of the Cowboys:
It’s never a bad thing when 22/34 passing for 229 yards, a pair of TDs, 1 INT, and an 88.5 QBR is the dull spot as the season came to a close for the Cowboys. There’s little doubt that Tony Romo is have an MVP caliber season, there is, however, doubt in whether or not he can bring that performance home.
The gap between Romo and the Cowboys’ performance at home versus the road is like some sort of crappy Jekyll and Hyde remake. Before their last game against the Redskins, the Cowboys had a streak of 5 road games where Romo threw a total of 15 TDs and 0 INTs. Over a comparable 5-game home streak, Romo posted a more modest 8 TDs and 3 INTs. I know it’s kind of like complaining that your cake has the wrong color icing, but the compounded fact that all 4 of their losses came at home this season makes the numbers slightly more eye opening.
The Cowboys are making a lot look simple at the moment including being a running back in the NFL with a healing broken hand.
Undoubtedly, the key match up to watch for is DeMarco Murray versus the running defense of the Lions. After starting the season with 8-straight 100-yard games, Murray finished the season with just 2 games of such numbers over the Cowboys’ last 5. Rest may have been a factor, which is something he will definitely need for this game.
The most effective way to stop the Cowboys’ offense this season has been to avoid them. In 3 of their 4 losses this season, the Cowboys have controlled the ball for under 30:00, while their season average of 32:25 is 1st in the league.
The fact that Detroit will be going dome to dome and will likely have lots of supporters at Jerry Jones’ house of fun, combined with the Cowboys’ home game hex leads me to believe the Lions will at least cover, if not win.
Winner ATS: Detroit
Spreads courtesy of CBSsports.com