The Nickel Package – Wild Card Preview
At long last, the NFL regular season has come to a close. The regular season is great, exciting, and the world would be a terrible place to live in if there was no fantasy football, but the postseason is when the real fun starts with compelling matchups, win-or-go-home drama, and stars, teams, and coaches trying to etch their legacy in stone. Today the Nickel Package takes a look at what to expect on opening Wild Card weekend.
Game of the Week
1) Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4) – Our Game of the Week happens to be the last game of the playoffs’ opening weekend, a late Sunday afternoon tilt at the Jerry Dome between what feels like two of the only teams playing that really have a shot at making much noise beyond this weekend. Detroit is still searching for its first playoff victory since 1991 and their chances got a big boost when DT Ndamukong Suh’s suspension was overturned, allowing him to suit up this weekend, as the key matchup will be between the Lion’s stout, league leading run defense vs. the Cowboy’s mauling offensive line and the league’s leading rusher this year in DeMarco Murray. If the Cowboys can get anything going on the ground it will open things up for Dez Bryant on the outside, which could lead to a long afternoon for the Lion’s secondary. All four of the Cowboys’ losses came at home, so home field advantage may not mean much. However, they just completed their first 4-0 December since 1993 and appear to be playing their best ball of the year.
2) Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – The Ravens and Steelers renew their hard-hitting playoff rivalry for the 12th consecutive year Saturday night! Well, not quite but it sure feels that way. In fact, they have met in 3 of the last 7 years and the image of Willis McGahee getting knocked out cold a few years back is hard to forget, but this will be the 3rd primetime matchup between these two shown just in 2014 alone so forgive us if we have lost some enthusiasm for the “rivalry”. The teams split their regular season matchups and it should be a great game, but the uncertainty surrounding Steeler’s RB Le’Veon Bell’s knee injury makes this game hard to handicap mid-week. The Ravens seem like a solid team, but further investigation reveals that 6 of their 10 wins came against the NFC South, the Titans, and the Jaguars and they have struggled down the stretch, losing to Case Keenum & the Texans and barely beating the Connor Shaw-led Browns in Weeks 15 & 16. However, if Bell is out the Steelers become much more one-dimensional which plays into the strength of Baltimore’s pass rush, where losing Bell’s pass protecting ability also hurts.
3) Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5) – The Bengals and QB Andy Dalton are looking to avoid losing their opening playoff game for the fourth consecutive year and finally get a playoff win under head coach Marvin Lewis, but may find it tough having to hit the road and face Andrew Luck and the Colts at home. Dalton has shown a propensity to shrink on the big stage, with some ugly playoff lines the last few years. However, the Bengals have moved to a run-heavy approach, utilizing the two-headed tandem of RBs Giovani Bernard & Jeremy Hill to take some of the pressure off Dalton to carry the team. The Colts will be hoping for a repeat of Week 7 when they shutout the Bengals 27-0 and completely dominated them in yardage 506-135 for the day. Andrew Luck is coming off a great fantasy football season, but still has a tendency to be loose with the ball. Which QB can limit turnovers will be the deciding factor in this one.
4) Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) – The opening playoff game Saturday afternoon features a team with a losing record hosting a division winner coming off two straight losses and likely starting their 3rd string QB… I’m pretty sure Carrie Underwood just politely set down her mic and walked away because absolutely nobody has been waiting for this one. However, while the Panthers were 3-8-1 at one time and literally went two whole months without winning, they seem to have rediscovered themselves late in the year, winning four straight to make their 2nd straight playoff appearance. The run game has really gotten going as the offensive line has come together, Jonathan Stewart is actually healthy and freed from his timeshare with DeAngelo Williams, and Cam Newton is back to his mobile self following his slow recovery from offseason ankle surgery. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have fallen apart offensively following the loss of their top two QBs and RB Andre Ellington while injuries finally seem to be catching up their defense as well, as that unit has given up chunks of yards and points the last month of the season.
5) Our quick picks for the weekend: Dallas (Can’t see Stafford winning a big road game versus a Cowboys team that is legit), Carolina (Arizona just needs to be put out of their misery, and Panthers are playing well), Pittsburgh (Almost impossible to know which Jekyll or Hyde team will show up, on either side of the ball, and Bell’s injury only adds to the uncertainty but taking Big Ben/Antonio Brown vs. that Ravens secondary) and Cincinnati (Upset pick of the week, think the Bengals find success on the ground and limit Dalton’s turnovers. Scary picking against Luck at home, but no way all the home teams win… just doesn’t happen.)