nfl-2015 playoffs preview

wildcard weekend

It's that time again. Seventeen weeks of pro football have weeded out the contenders from the pretenders. No more this season will the faithful NFL fan base be forced to sift through irrelevant team scores from Jacksonville, Tennessee, Oakland or the Redskins. We can all hope for Roger Goodell's corporate-infused modern product to reveal the real class of America's most popular game. It all starts today, so without further hesitation, let's run through the first set of match-ups:

This time, Newton & CAR get the home crowd

Arizona Cardinals (5) @ Carolina Panthers (4)

One problem with the current playoff format is automatically giving each division winner not only a place in the Dance but also a home game. The Panthers were not a good football team most of the season yet here is a losing (7-8) club hosting an eleven win team who, until decimated by injury at the QB position, were functioning as a top dog under confident Coach Of The Year favorite Bruce Arians. The Panthers have questions up front protecting Cam Newton despite winning four in a row after a putrid 3-8-1 start. They will line up against an aggressive 3-4 defensive front including standout DE Calais Campbell. Although Arizona's stout defense was exposed by Seattle & San Francisco's mobile QBs, the Cards have a deep stable of defensive backs to neutralize a very limited WR corps for Newton sans rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin. His effectiveness could be heavily stifled drawing coverage from Patrick Peterson or Antonio Cromartie.

Will Carolina get relief from the running game? This is key to establish possession and fatigue their opposition heading late into what will presumably be a close game. The Panthers also bolster good talent on the defensive side of Riverboat Ron Rivera's specialty deck with star MLB Luke Keuchly and Star Lotulelei yet the secondary there are not as competent as a year ago. The major caveat to this game is obviously how third string QB Ryan Lindley will perform on the road with high and hostile stakes on the line. An offensive crush for the Cardinals, tailback Andre Ellington will be unavailable for the rest of the way, making life tougher for Lindley, who isn't much of a QB at this point in time. He will have the benefit of battle-tested vet Larry Fitzgerald and imposing target Michael Floyd. We shall see what happens. One would think with a combination of Ellington and either Palmer or Stanton, Arizona wins this game regardless of venue. They are simply heavily affected by medical issues in a scoring league to give the brand of confidence that they go into Bank Of America Stadium and silence the crowd in Charlotte.

Cam Newton still has much to prove as the passer to a possible Super Bowl champion but he will be able to hand off to capable backs like Jonathan Stewart and the returning DeAngelo Williams. If the Panthers can get pressure on Lindley and limit any big turnovers or special teams plays, they should send their fortunate home crowd back content. It's a shame too because a healthy Cardinals team could have challenged for a Super Bowl Birth. Arians is a hell of a coach.

ROC Prediction: CAR over ARI

Here We Go....Again!

Baltimore Ravens (6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3) 

This will no doubt be a fun and intense game to watch, as per usual. Baltimore squeaks into the playoffs after some help from the KC Chiefs and a depleted Cleveland Browns offense. Either way, the Ravens once again get a shot to move on in the one and done rounds going up to Heinz Field to face Mike Tomlin's Steelers and around 70,000 Terrible Towels. This Baltimore team isn't particularly impressive this season but they do boast a strong-armed QB who has proven himself in key games, ferocious competitor Steve Smith (an invaluable asset for postseason play), a viable deep threat in Maryland native Torrey Smith, and a Gary Kubiak zone-blocking scheme that has churned Justin Forsett's productivity into career highs. They will be without LT Eugene Monroe so we shall see how PIT defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau wishes to attack the Ravens' passing game. Gritty vets like James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu must be itching to face a lighter group upfront for Baltimore than what they are accustomed.

John Harbaugh's defense gets a major shot in the arm with DL Haloti Ngata returning rested from a 4-game suspension for Adderall, doctor-prescribed speed. The Ravens also receive another fortunate development as they will luckily avoid standout tailback Le'Veon Bell, out with a hyperextended knee. Baltimore's strong front seven will get to send Pro Bowlers Elvis Dumervil and the ever consistent Terrell Suggs more in pass-rushing scenarios as the Steelers will undoubtedly trust Big Ben to navigate his offense with a plethora of capable receivers, showcased by the dangerously electric Antonio Brown. The Ravens have consistency issues at safety and have been without their best defensive back (Jimmy Smith) for quite some time. Remember, this Ravens defense surrendered 6 passing TD last meeting to this passing game. That does not bode well for the visiting squad, who will be in an environment they are very familiar with yet seemingly does not get easier to conquer. Fans are zoned in on this match-up anytime but making this a Wildcard slugfest should give Pittsburgh an extra surge from their loyal fan base.

Baltimore is always a very well-prepared and coached team. I have no doubt the Ravens will come to play with intensity but ultimately, Sixburgh will prove to be too much. The Steelers have been playing damn good football as of late, going 4-0 in December so all signs point to the Stillers moving on. Then again, with a hated division rivalry game, you never know. It should go to the gun. Typical.

ROC Prediction- PIT over BAL

Will Dalton spill his oil at Lucas?

Cincinnati Bengals (5) @ Indianapolis Colts (6)

The anxiety around Cincinnati, Ohio has been building for a few weeks. The Bengals once again are a quality team that doesn't inspire much confidence in the 'Clutch' or 'Bigtime' game departments. Sure they sport a tough defense but Who Dey Nation hasn't celebrated a post season victory in twenty-four years, so it's understandable if Bengals' faithful are less than confident. Not to mention head coach Marvin Lewis isn't the razor-sharp, intensified personality to lead his teams in playoff appearances. Fortunately, the Bengals are facing an Indianapolis defense that, while at home, have lost steam over the course of the season. Star CB Vontae Davis presents an interesting matchup with All-Pro WR A.J. Green (edit: Green is listed as doubtful)  but who knows what angles S Laron Landry ends up taking in the box or in coverage. Green's main issue is that he has Andy Dalton, or as I not-so-affectionately call him Andy LOLton & Andy Faulton. This is just a guy, despite having a good OL and weapons, who doesn't seem to get it in big time games against divisional opponents and most notably the playoffs. I have learned never to hedge my bets on Fire Toad, who has yet to leap.

The other side of Indianapolis' game features a QB who this blogger thinks will go down as one of the best NFL QBs ever. Andrew Luck still has issues with ball protection but he is a volume passer who is a fierce competitor and has taken his game to newer heights this season. This could very well be a statement round for Luck who made too many mistakes in his last playoff game in Foxborough. Cincy is great up front and at stopping the run so when these units are on the field, the game will be in 12's hands. I feel he will deliver on his end this postseason. What his defense and supporting cast do is more ambiguous. Luck has also been sacked a lot yet he still should be able to utilize T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Donte Moncrief, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and Hakeem Nicks enough to put up points.

The Colts main issue will be containing a hot Jeremy Hill and the versatile, dynamic Giovanni Bernard. If Davis plays steady on Green and they can limit the Bengals' run game, Pagano's bunch moves on and Luck lets his beard get gross again.

ROC Prediction- IND over CIN

The X Factor & Megatron

Detroit Lions (6) at Dallas Cowboys (3)

In Jerry World, a vital game will take place in Cowboys history. Dallas turned in a great season, winning the NFC East with a 12-4 mark after multiple .500 seasons. This successful franchise, however, has but one playoff win this millennium and the pressure is sure to reach a crescendo for Jerruh and his loyalty for QB Tony Romo, who simply has to get a win, regardless of his personal play. Luckily, Dallas has built a juggernaut of road-grating lineman with enough skill to give Romo a very nice passing pocket to deliver balls to star wideout Dez Bryant, faithful security blanket Jason Witten and emerging supporting pass catchers like slot receiver Cole Beasley and Terrence Williams. The Cowboys' most unique strength this year on offense has been the production of running back DeMarco Murray- who rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 TDs on 4.7 YPC and also catching 57 passes out of the backfield. He should be able to be productive despite breaking his left hand late in the season. The Lions present a tough challenge up front as the number one rushing defense, facing dominant DT Ndamukong Suh who won appeal on being suspended for this game for alleged foul play in Week 17. However, there hasn't seemed to be a defensive front all season who could continuously best the dominant Dallas offensive line.

Let us not forget that first year Detroit coach Jim Caldwell has great offensive personnel of his own to bolster. The Lions have exceeded expectations this season and have proved to be a formidable opponent on both sides of the ball. Native Texan Matthew Stafford will head into Arlington hoping to find a fast rhythm facing Rob Marinelli's surprising Cowboys defense who will be without their best DT Henry Melton. Schematically, the Cowboys have been coached to their strengths and shown to be more than competent. Holding All-Pro Calvin Johnson in check is a challenge for any defense but how will Marinelli game plan for possession threats like Golden Tate and RB Reggie Bush among a stable of well-rounded tight ends? If Detroit can execute their game plan without many blunders, the Lions pose a threat to keep Dallas' disappointing recent playoff fortunes in the company of less-than-inspiring. Containing Megatron will surely be key but #81 has had huge games in Dallas before, which also leaves complimentary players more opportunities.

The Lions have been a solid team but this face-off of two aggressive QBs will prove to write either a continued narrative of Tony Romo's underwhelming team success or acension of former #1 overall selection Matthew Stafford's mediocre legacy into more hollowed ground. Especially for a Detroit franchise who has but one playoff win since 1957, which was against the Dallas Cowboys. Romo has one hell of an offensive line and supporting cast but the ball will be in his hands and until he proves he can fully exorcise certain postseason demons, he can't confidently be trusted to move on in the knockout rounds.

ROC Prediction: DET over DAL