Everything You Need To Know About NFL’s Wild Card Weekend
The 2014-15 NFL playoffs get underway this weekend with four wild card round games. Here’s a preview of all the contests:
Saturday, January 3
NFC Wild Card: Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
Bank of America Stadium; 4:35 p.m. (ET) on ESPN
Quick Take: What the heck are these two teams doing in the playoffs? Defying the odds and ignoring the haters, that’s what. The wild card Cardinals had the best record in the NFC until fading over the regular season’s final weeks. The NFC South champion Panthers managed to become just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record (in a non-strike year). Both are just three wins away from the Super Bowl. Think about that.
Keys to the Game
Arizona: Who Will Play QB? — It’s still possible that Drew Stanton, who took over for the injured Carson Palmer in Week 10, could start under center for the Cardinals. But Stanton developed an infection in the knee he sprained in Week 15, so he remains questionable…so does the Cardinals offense. It hasn’t scored 20 points in a game since Palmer went down. If Stanton can’t go, Arizona is left with the inexperienced Ryan Lindley to lead their attack against a formidable Panthers defense that stops the run well.
Carolina: Establish the Run — The Panthers rode a four-game win streak into the playoffs. While the Carolina defense stiffened during that stretch, the more important development for the team was the production of running back Jonathan Stewart. He averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game in December. The Arizona run defense has been Swiss cheese lately: it’s full of holes and it stinks. If Stewart can get rolling, it may allow Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to melt the Cardinals’ secondary, too.
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Heinz Field; 8:15 p.m. (ET) on NBC
Quick Take: The NFL’s best — and blood-thirstiest — current rivalry goes high-stakes in the postseason. The wild card Ravens and AFC North champion Steelers have managed to continue to hate each other long after veterans like Ray Lewis and LaMarr Woodley have left this ongoing AFC North war. The teams split their two meetings this season, with each winning by 20 points in weeks 2 and 9, respectively.
Keys to the Game
Baltimore: Joe Flacco — When the Ravens get quality play from quarterback Joe Flacco, they win. The former Super Bowl MVP has a knack for making the big throw in the big moment; he also can make bad turnovers and look like he’s running in quicksand. If Flacco can convert third downs and keep the shaky Baltimore secondary off the field, his team can advance into the next round.
Pittsburgh: Le’Veon Bell’s Knee — The Steelers have won eight of 10 games since a 3-3 start. While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown have stretched defenses to great effect, running back Le’Veon Bell has helped create those passing lanes and open routes. If Bell can’t recover from the hyperextended right knee he suffered on Sunday, the Ravens defense may turn up the pressure on Big Ben and double Brown as much as possible.
Sunday, January 4
AFC Wild Card: Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Lucas Oil Stadium; 1:05 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Quick Take: Two oft-disappointing franchises get another chance to crush their fan bases’ spirits. The wild card Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990, when Ickey Woods was spiking footballs instead of cold cuts. The AFC South champion Colts have two Super Bowl appearances and one championship in 30 years in Indianapolis. Indianapolis crushed Cincinnati, 27-0, in Week 7.
Keys to the Game:
Cincinnati: Andy Dalton — This is a crucial game for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. He has led his team to opening-game playoff losses in three straight seasons, and he may be on the verge of proving himself unworthy of franchise quarterback status. Dalton needs to avoid big mistakes and exploit the Colts iffy pass defense.
Indianapolis: Pass Rush — Other than the Bengals and the Ravens, the Colts haven’t beaten a good team all season. Indy’s defense was waxed by plenty of bad teams and humiliated by great offenses. If the Colts can’t pressure “Good” Andy Dalton, they could quickly find themselves in a lot of trouble.
NFC Wild Card: Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
AT&T Stadium; 4:40 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Quick Take: This could be the most entertaining game of the season, not just the first round of the playoffs. The NFC East champion Cowboys have incredible offensive weapons that can score against any defense. Now that the wild card Lions will be without excellent — but dirty — defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who was suspended for stomping Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers last Sunday, Detroit’s edge on defense is greatly lessened.
Keys to the Game
Detroit: Stop DeMarco Murray — Sure, Tony Romo is playing well — 12 TDs and just one interception over his past four games — but the Cowboys offense starts with running back DeMarco Murray. If Murray forces the Lions into single-coverage, Detroit could lose control quickly. The Lions pass rush should also be able to pressure Romo — but not if it’s too worried about the run.
Dallas: Keep the Defense Fresh — The Lions have some serious offensive stars of their own: quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The Cowboys defense isn’t good enough to stop them all, so it would be better if it wasn’t on the field for that long. Third downs will be crucial for the Dallas ‘D.’
Bye into Second Round: New England, Denver, Seattle, Green Bay