Carolina saving its best for Arizona

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Happy New Year to one and all. Several former head coaches (like Rex Ryan) might not be that happy following their dismissal after the NFL regular season ended this past season (although coaches may actually feel a sense of relief).

The major news stories for the first few days following the end of the regular season usually involves firing and hirings as the only constant in the world of NFL coaching is change.

But for 12 of the 32 teams that just completed their 16 game regular season schedule the season that truly counts will start this weekend. It is the NFL’s annual Tournament known as the Playoffs. The ultimate prize is the Vince Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of winning the Super Bowl on the first Sunday in February.

The 8 teams that will play this weekend will need to win four games to claim the NFL’s top prize. The four teams with Byes will need to win just three games.

New England had the AFC’s top seed clinched when Denver lost at Cincinnati last Monday night, rendering their season ending home loss to Buffalo meaningless. Denver routed Oakland on Sunday to earn the number two seed and the other AFC Bye.

Defending Super Bowl champion Seattle overcame a somewhat choppy start to its season to claim the NFC’s top seed with its win over St Louis on Sunday while Green Bay’s win over Division rival Detroit earned the Packers the second NFC Bye while sending Detroit into the Wild Card round.

The two final Playoff berths were determined on the final day of the regular season as Baltimore’s win over Cleveland combined with Kansas City’s win over San Diego earned the Ravens the second AFC Wild Card. The NFC South “showdown” between Carolina and Atlanta was a “no contest” as Carolina took early control of their game in Atlanta, winning 34-3, to win the Division title and make the Playoffs with a 7-8-1 record.

Again we have seen a significant change in the composition of this season’s Playoff field compared to last season with 5 of the 12 teams different.

In are Arizona, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Those not repeating from last season are KC, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.

Here’s a preview of the four Wild Card games.

Saturday

Arizona +4.5 at Carolina (38): Despite their 11-5 record the NFL Playoff structure has the Wild Card Cardinals on the road to face Carolina, winners of the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record.

To be fair, the Panthers saved their best football for the games that mattered most, winning their final 4 in a row albeit all against teams with losing records, including a pair of home wins by 2 points over Tampa Bay and by 4 points over Cleveland.

Arizona started 9-1 but dropped 4 of their final 6, largely due to an offense that needed to rely on backup QBs Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley after starter Carson Palmer was injured. Stanton was injured and is out indefinitely. Arizona has not scored more than 18 points in any of the last 7 games.

Notwithstanding the QB issues, Arizona has lacked a dependable running game, topping 100 yards just six times all season. The Cardinal defense has been opportunistic.

The raw stats are not pretty, ranking number 24 in total defense and number 26 in yards per play. But the Cards rank fifth in points allowed. They also played in one of the NFL’s toughest Divisions. Carolina played in the weakest.

The Panthers have gotten healthy with QB Cam Newton playing well down the stretch and the running game has been solid. Arizona’s injuries may just be too much to overcome and their bend but don’t break defense will be severely tested.

Carolina allowed just 43 points over their final four games including just 10 at New Orleans and 3 at Atlanta, both of which have stronger offenses than the one the Panthers will face here. CAROLINA.

Baltimore +4 at Pittsburgh (49): These Division rivals are meeting for a third time this season. The home team won both regular season meetings with Baltimore winning 26-6 in week 2 and Pittsburgh won 43-23 in the return match in early November.

 

The winner of this game could be a spoiler as both teams have won Super Bowls in the past decade with their current QB and coach. There are no secrets between these teams and prior to this season the teams had played 5 straight games, and 8 of the prior 9, decided by a FG or less.

Dating back to 2008, when both coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco joined the Ravens and Mike Tomlin was in his second season as Steelers coach, 10 of their 14 meetings have been decided by a FG or less and another by 4 points. And the road team has won nearly half of those games.

Pittsburgh has the NFL’s second ranked offense and the number 18 defense. Baltimore’s offense ranks number 12 with the defense ranking No.8. Baltimore has the better points differential. Twelve of their 16 games this season were against common foes and the results and statistics were very similar. The Ravens actually had the better rushing game, gaining 4.5 yards per rush vs. 4.1 for the Steelers. And with starting RB Le’ Veon Bell banged up against the Bengals that could be an issue for Pittsburgh where there is now a lack of quality depth.

Given the long history of close games between these rivals, the ability of the road team to win often and the presence of two outstanding QBs there is a case to be made that this game should be priced no higher than a field goal and perhaps even a shade lower. BALTIMORE.

Sunday

Cincinnati +3 at Indianapolis (47): This is a rematch of a midseason game won by Indianapolis 27-0 on this field. It was their fifth straight win following a pair of season opening losses to improve to 5-2. But that win over the Bengals may have been the Colts last impressive performance.

Over the following 9 games the Colts lost to Pittsburgh, New England and Dallas while winning 6 games, all against teams that missed the Playoffs, struggling in several of those wins.

Cincinnati remains one of the most talented teams in the league but one that continually comes up short in big games. Their loss at Pittsburgh Sunday night with the Division title at stake is the latest such game. It was their second loss to the Steelers in four weeks.

The Colts have the edge at QB with Andrew Luck quickly developing into the star signal caller he was expected to be when he graduated from Stanford. Bengals QB Andy Dalton has been capable but unable to elevate his game and take his team to that next level. Cincy is in the Playoffs for a fourth straight season but has been one and done the past three seasons.

The Bengals strength has been a strong running game and they ran for at least 170 yards six times this season, including over 200 yards in each of the two games prior to Sunday’s loss at Pittsburgh.

The Colts have a weak running game but a strong passing attack – Luck finished third in passing yards. The Bengals played in a Division that sent three teams to the Playoffs, and last place Cleveland was a respectable 7-9. Two of the Colts Division rivals, Jacksonville and Tennessee, went a combined 5-27.

Statistically these teams are fairly close defensively but the Bengals faced much better offenses. Still, it is hard to ignore that first meeting in which the Bengals were limited to just 135 yards of total offense while allowing the Colts 506, including 171 on the ground, 4 yards short of Indy’s best rushing total all season.

While this rematch should not be nearly as one sided the result should be the same. The line is suggesting these teams are equal on a neutral field. In terms of overall talent most observers give Cincinnati the edge. But in terms of intangibles and leadership Luck and the Colts rate the nod.

Recall last season they dug a huge hole on this field against Kansas City yet came back to win 45-44. The poor start in that game will be on the minds of the players and coaches this week as they seek to avoid a repeat. INDIANAPOLIS.

Detroit +7 at Dallas (48): This may be the most intriguing of the four Wild Card matchups on several levels. Not much was expected from either team back in August, especially Dallas.

Even owner Jerry Jones told his large legion of Cowboys fans not to expect too much. But a sustained commitment to the running game behind an offensive line considered the best in the NFL by many allowed the offense to flourish and QB Tony Romo is in strong consideration for MVP although he is likely to split votes with teammate RB DeMarco Murray.

Detroit has plenty of skill players on offense but it was the Lions’ defense that set the tone for this season’s success under new head coach Jim Caldwell. It will be mentioned multiple times this week that Detroit QB Matthew Stafford has never led the Lions to a road win against a team that ended the season with a winning record.

Of course, to cash a ticket this week the Lions merely need to put forth a competitive effort. And Dallas’ defense, despite improved play this season, still is a concern. Despite his failure to win on the road against good teams Stafford is still a second tier QB and WR Calvin Johnson, now healthy, is a threat every time he runs a pattern.

Detroit’s defense may be without Ndamukong Suh who has been suspended for his actions in the loss to Green Bay. Against 5 common foes the teams put up similar stats with Dallas stronger offensively and Detroit better on defense.

In those games both teams were 4-1 SU with nearly identical margins of plus 7.3 points per game. Dallas was a perfect 8-0 SU on the road but just 4-4 at home. The Lions were 4-4 on the road. This game has the largest spread of the four Wild Card games and the one most likely in which the spread comes into play. DETROIT.

Last week: 7-9

Season: 129-126-1

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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