Sunday 18 March 2018 / 05:11 AM

Wild Card Weekend Preview

It’s time for a brief Wild Card history lesson.

The concept of a Wild Card team was introduced in 1970 when the National Football League and the American Football League merged to form the NFL that we know today. Since then, 10 Wild Card teams have run the gauntlet to make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

Six of those teams actually won: 1980 Oakland Raiders, 1997 Denver Broncos, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants, and 2010 Green Bay Packers.

The Wild Card games really matter.

This isn’t the NBA where the bottom two seeds are simply place-holding fodder* who weren’t quite bad enough to earn an extended offseason vacation.

Hold tight Cardinals, Lions, Ravens and Bengals fans, you’re still in this bad boy. Welcome to CBS’s 2014 Wild Card Weekend Preview.

*For the record, this comment is not meant to be a slight to professional basketball in any way, shape or form. It’s simply a fact that no 7 or 8 seed has ever won an NBA Championship and the only 6th seed to ever win a title was the 1994-5 Houston Rockets.

Those Rockets were hardly a true #6, either. Not only were they the defending champs, but their line-up included Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell and Clyde Drexler. Seriously, how did this team lose 35 games?

Arizona @ Carolina: two teams trending in opposite directions.

The Cardinals have dropped four of their last six games and they aren’t playing nearly to the level you’d expect from an (11-5) ball club. Carson Palmer may not be an elite quarterback but this team is a hell of a lot better when he’s wearing a helmet and not a baseball cap.

This team fell apart when Carson went down and not even Coach of the Year candidate Bruce Arians has been able to hold them together. Only their stunning (9-1) start allowed them to stumble in to the playoffs period.

Whether it’s Saturday in Carolina or the following weekend in Seattle or Green Bay, this team is not making it to the NFC Championship – and I’m not really going out on much of a limb to make this prediction.

The Panthers probably aren’t advancing past the Divisional Round either, but at least they’re peaking at the right time.

Carolina heads into the playoffs riding a four-game win streak and in the NFL this is significant, regardless of who you’re playing.

I mean, let’s not count the Panthers out – they ALMOST won half their games.

Expect a defensive battle and potentially a final score that looks more like an out-of-control hockey match than a football game. Oh yeah, the fans are pumped about this one.

I jest. I jest. I love all playoff football and you should, too.

Here’s how each team can win this Wild Card match-up:

The Cardinals won’t get much going on the ground against a stout Carolina line, so they’ll be relying on Ryan Lindley to find a way to somehow become a veteran quarterback in his sleep. The former sixth-round pick did make huge strides in the team’s week 17 loss at San Francisco, but he tossed 3 INTs en route to racking up 300 yards.

Lindley completed 60 per cent of his passes and finally popped his NFL cherry with not one but two touchdown passes. Prior to finding Michael Floyd from 20 yards out on a gimmick flea-flicker play, Lindley had thrown well over 200 passes without once hitting pay dirt.

If Arizona’s defensive backs can shut down Kelvin Benjamin, they may only need a touchdown and a trio of field goals on offense to eke out the win – but three turnovers from your QB is almost always a one-way ticket to a loss.

For the Panthers, it’s simple. The Cardinals won’t be putting a lot of points on the board and so a great game out of Cam Newton could provide all the firepower they need to score 20 points and advance to the next round.

Carolina needs to get Newton into open space so that he can make plays with his legs and give his other receivers time to get open if Benjamin is taken out of the game-plan by Patrick Peterson.

He’s had an up-and-down season (and career) but there was a time that #1 looked like his namesake, Superman.

I’m taking Carolina in this one, 20-13.

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh: No preview necessary.

Whenever Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet you can more or less throw the playbook out the window. Ever since the Browns stiffed Cleveland and changed their name to the Ravens, these two teams have provided perhaps the NFL’s best rivalry.

But there is one major news item worth noting, and that’s the health of Le’Veon Bell.

Recent medical reports state that it “doesn’t look good” for Bell to suit up on Saturday and if he can’t go the team will be forced to rely on a pair of seldom-used backs to lead the rushing attack, Josh Harris and Dri Archer.

Bell’s significance to this offense cannot be understated. In just his second season he ripped off a franchise-record 2,215 yards from scrimmage and is the #2 rusher in the NFL.

Despite the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is having a career year of his own, having Bell in the backfield is imperative to setting up the play-action and Bell also provides a dangerous safety valve for Big Ben in the flats.

With Bell out, the Ravens can pull a man out of the box to double up on Antonio Brown. Brown torched the Baltimore secondary for 11 catches and 144 yards with a touchdown in their last meeting.

The best way for the Steelers to neutralize the loss of their top offensive player will not be to replace him but to find a way to shut down the rushing attack of the Ravens. Justin Forsett is the only reliable source of yardage on this entire Baltimore team.

Justin Forsett is averaging an incredible 5.4 YPC this season and his 2014 stat line has his former teams wondering where “this” Justin was for all those years.

Baltimore’s offense is far from prolific but along with Forsett’s consistency they seem to get clutch plays out of Torrey Smith at just the right time and enough occasional brilliance from Flacco to pull out wins.

I like the Ravens’ chances in a defensive ballgame, but even without Bell I see Pittsburgh putting 20 points on the board and Baltimore scoring less than that. I’ll go with Pittsburgh 24 – 17 Baltimore.

Cincinnati @ Indianapolis: Can Marvin Lewis & Andy Dalton get that 1st playoff win?

Andy Dalton can shut the entire NFL up by just doing one thing: win a playoff game.

Seriously, nobody has faith in this guy.

To be fair, Dalton has led his team to just 33 total postseason points – in three games. So it’s squarely on his shoulders to turn the naysayers into Red Rocketeers (this isn’t a thing, I just made it up).

The time for Cincy to win is now. They’ve been too good for too many consecutive seasons and fans are tiring of hearing excuses (not that the Browns faithful wouldn’t love to have a shot at losing four straight playoff games).

Will they get it done? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine and both of these clubs have been wildly inconsistent in 2014.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is that winning won’t come easy in Indy. Despite his slippery grip on turnovers, Andrew Luck is truly a superstar in the making and he too understands that this is the season to take his promise to the next level and on to the conference championship.

I’m really swinging 50/50 on this one, so I’m going not with my gut but with who I’d “like” to see win.

Bengals 31 – 28 Colts.

I think Dalton gets hated on too much in a league where half the teams start shitty quarterbacks, and multi-millionaires with “homeless” beards is a pet peeve of mine.

Detroit @ Dallas: One of these two teams is for real.

I’d like to avoid going off on a diatribe about the Ndamukong Suh suspension controversy so in short I’ll just say that I hope Suh is on the field this Sunday in Dallas.

The guy’s a dickhead and he plays dirty. And there are plenty of instances where he deserves to be fined for illegal hits. I just don’t see this as one of them and I’d hate to have the outcome of a playoff game altered by the league office trying to make an example out of one player.

Former head of officiating Mike Pereira is spot on in his analysis:


Moving along…

There’s really only one way the Lions win their first playoff game since MC Hammer was still relevant, and that’s if Matthew Stafford out-duels Tony Romo.

Romo may be (1-3) in the playoffs but check out this laundry list of discouraging statistics on Stafford:

  • (0-16) on the road against winning teams
  • (1-4) against playoff teams in 2014
  • (3-31) against teams that finish the season with a winning record

Stafford puts up huge numbers against mediocre teams but he simply doesn’t have the moxie to truly lead his team in big games.

He’s got the tools to play well in this one but if history is any indicator, he won’t.

Detroit is first in rushing defense but 13th against the pass. Even if they completely take DeMarco Murray out of the Dallas game plan they don’t have an answer for Dez Bryant. Defense alone won’t win this game.

I predict Jerry Jones does a back-flip in a Cowboys romp, 31-10.

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Michael Airhart

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