Riffs, rants, observations and dissenting opinions from the voices in my head: Here's a warped and dented take on the Wild Card round playoff games, featuring repo men, medieval Venetian merchants and Baron Batch.
Note: All times listed are Eastern, lines are via Odds Shark and game capsules are listed in the order you should read them.
Cardinals at Panthers
Saturday, 4:20 p.m.
Line: Panthers -6.5
They don't give awards for the kind of season Cam Newton had.
Quarterbacks don't earn MVP votes for leading their teams to 7-8-1 records (with two of the victories led by a different starter) and fluky division crowns. Quarterbacks don't make the Pro Bowl with 3,127 passing yards and 18 touchdowns; not in this century. There is no Comeback from Scary Vehicular Accident Player of the Year Award, no Making the Most of Your Situation Award, no Patron Saint of Lost Causes canonization. We value perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, but we don't give trophies for it. If Russell Wilson can't make the stinkin' Pro Bowl, Cam Newton is lucky to even get the most grudging approval for what he did in 2014.
But Newton deserves something: admiration, appreciation, the realization that if he isn't a franchise quarterback, maybe the term needs to be redefined. To watch the man who battled rib injuries, a truck accident, wisdom tooth extraction and an offensive supporting cast that would have a hard time winning a Grey Cup move the Panthers down the field and into the playoffs with guile, guts and will is to see a player who demands reevaluation. Newton doesn't complain or quit. The kind of old-fashioned, grizzled soldier sportswriters and fans are supposed to fawn over lurks beneath the bow ties, goofy grins and junior-high jokes.
Not much has changed about the Panthers offense around Newton during the team's four-game playoff surge. Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert returned to rescue the running game from the likes of DeAngelo Williams and Fozzy Whittaker. The offensive line is playing better than it did against opponents like the Eagles, but Panthers linemen still get knocked backward on their butts more often than you would expect from a playoff team. With his acrobatic leaping ability and tendency to drop any pass that won't show up on the highlight reel, Kelvin Benjamin is a kind of Odell Scissorhands. If the Panthers have a No. 2 receiver, he does a good job of concealing his identity.
The Panthers offense is defined by the Newton option, the threat of the Newton option, his arm and his rollout ability, not to mention his willingness to take a hit and, yes, his improved decision making. He has not had a truly great year—it's not fair to lay all of the things that went wrong during the Panthers' midseason slump at the feet of his teammates—but he has certainly had a remarkable one.
The Cardinals were remarkable in their own way, building a tower out of defense and a few offensive big plays that the NFC has been laying siege to for weeks. Ryan Lindley, pressed into an untenable situation, has been tearing the Cardinals apart as efficiently as Newton has held the Panthers together. Lindley throws a fine deep ball, and he can fool you when he is working from a script. Sack him, confuse him or move him from his mark, though, and everything comes unglued fast: Lindley's dropback and delivery get weird, the ball starts leaving his hand in odd ways and he starts making desperate decisions. Flea-flickers and running back option passes are just delay tactics. The Cardinals are not looking for ways to beat you with their quarterback, but instead for ways to save themselves from their quarterback.
Drew Stanton is doing everything possible to work his way back from a complicated knee injury and infection. The fact that the Cardinals are seriously considering rushing him onto the field with ligament damage and a brace shows just how hopeless their quarterback situation has become. Bad quarterbacking has even taken its toll on the Cardinals defense. Defenders crowd the line, sell out on blitzes and gamble on fakes in search of interceptions or stuffs that can act as an offensive bail out.
The Panthers defense, with some confidence that their offense can provide more than a wisp of production, has improved in recent weeks. Rookie safety Tre Boston replaced the awful Thomas DeCoud, and fellow rookie Bene Benwikere has closed a revolving door at cornerback. Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are playing well after midseason slumps. The Panthers defense is not nearly as good as it was last year, nor as good as the Cardinals defense can be when allowed to play within itself. But Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson now have some help, and they do not have to play as though one touchdown allowed spells automatic doom.
The Cardinals were the feel-good story of the autumn. The Panthers were not even good enough to muscle their way into the Falcons-Saints punchline until the final weeks. But if the season extended to 18 games, it's likely that the Panthers would have a respectable 9-8-1 record, and they would be bracing to face the Eagles. If Carson Palmer were healthy, things would be different. If Cam Newton had Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to throw to, he would be an MVP candidate.
Some might argue that the Panthers don't "deserve" to be in the playoffs. But you cannot argue that they don't belong. They did not quit. They found ways to survive and get better. Their quarterback was a big part of that. Look for Newton to win his first career playoff game on Saturday. After the season he has had, that should mean more than any award.
Prediction: Panthers 22, Cardinals 13
Ravens at Steelers
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Line: Steelers -3
No backup running back? Now that's a problem you don't see every day. No backup quarterback, sure—the 2013 Packers can relate. No backups in the secondary? The Ravens have lived through that nightmare for half the season. Some guys follow the ex-coordinator to Detroit, others get hurt, and the next thing you know you are crossing your fingers that the opponent's injured quarterback takes the receivers to Pitbull's Boxing Day Bash so the rookie third-stringer cannot exploit your starting right cornerback Melvin the Martian.
No starting running back? That happens sometimes. But not to this year's Colts. They have a starting running back. Just ask them.
Not having a backup running back is a unique weakness, because decent backup running backs are a dime a dozen. But Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley have always been unique in their handling of running backs. They cycled through Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Mewelde Moore, Chris Rainey, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling and World War I flying ace Baron Batch in the last three years before finally finding satisfaction with Le'Veon Bell.
Past running backs found themselves deep in the doghouse for a variety of crimes: Fumbling, for example, could result in a two- or three-game disappearance. It's shocking that LeGarrette Blount lasted as long as he did as Bell's backup. Lock Blount and Haley in a hotel room for three hours, and you can say goodbye to the running back, the coordinator and the hotel room.
The Steelers lack patience with backup running backs. Even when Bell struggled as a rookie, Dwyer or Felix Jones might only get exactly one carry to prove their worthiness to share the load. Dwyer once gained 30 yards in his lone carry (last November against the Patriots) and still wasn't given a second one. Blount merited a few more touches—he often did little with them—but speedy third-string rookie Dri Archer got to enjoy the Haley One-Touch Experience this year.
Archer had five one-carry games this season, including last week's Bengals victory, when he rushed one time for a loss of one yard after Bell was hurt. Archer also played in six games where he was thrown just one pass (some of them also one-carry games), usually a telegraphed screen that might result in a loss of five.
Blount's departure did not mean an increased role for Archer, but the promotion of Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie from Wake Forest who merited five carries for seven yards as the Steelers ran out the clock against the Bengals. (He also had a long gain negated by a holding penalty.) Harris looks the part of a starting running back, and Archer has electrifying speed to go with college experience as a between-the-tackles squirter, but Tomlin and Haley lack the faith to let these two combine for 20-25 touches. The Steelers signed Ben Tate midweek, fresh off failed stints with the Browns and Vikings, where he lost his job to rookies with roughly the same pedigrees as Archer and Harris.
Zone-stretch running requires significant timing and familiarity between the running back and his offensive line, the kind Tate is not going to build in a half-week of practice. There is simply no way that the Steelers will run enough to keep the Ravens defense honest. Haley will turn to his wide receiver screen game to set up the depleted Ravens secondary so Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and the rest can beat them deep. Haley's receiver screen game is pretty effective, but he can get carried away with it, and of course the Ravens have seen everything the Steelers have to offer, and vice versa.
Even without Bell, the Steelers will prevail in Roethlisberger-Flacco XIII. The Ravens secondary depth chart is so full of career deep-dive reserves like Rashaan Melvin and Darian Stewart that it is impossible to imagine who will cover Bryant, Heath Miller, Markus Wheaton and others when the Steelers throw downfield. (Lardarius Webb will presumably handle Brown for most of the game, with mixed results.) The Ravens offense is in one of its regular funks, drooping through three quarters and then hoping the game is still close enough to be settled by a Torrey Smith bomb. That strategy works against Connor Shaw, not Ben Roethlisberger.
The last few Steelers-Ravens games have not been typical of this rivalry. Each team recorded a blowout this year, and there has been a surprising amount of offense. Only the brawling has remained constant. Look for this matchup to return to its roots now that it has returned to the playoffs. The Ravens will use their pass rush to slow the one-dimensional Steelers, both teams will land a few deep-bomb haymakers and the game will hinge on a strip sack or a roughness penalty to set up a field goal. And a classic Steelers-Ravens game must end with a classic Steelers-Ravens score.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Ravens 20
Bengals at Colts
Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
Line: Colts -3
The strict AFC hierarchy remains as follows:
Tier One: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Tier Two: Bengals and Colts.
Tier Three: Everyone else.
It's like one of those medieval cosmological maps, starting with the throne of heaven, down through angels to kings and bishops, all the way down to lowly peasants, beasts of the field and birds of the sky, and finally the Tennessee Titans. Only the Ravens and Steelers have any class mobility in this strict Feudal structure, like Venetian merchants always at war with one another.
The Bengals and Colts have occupied their comfortable second rung for three years. The Colts are stuck in perpetual adolescence. Being the best team in the AFC South is like being the coolest bar band in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The Colts are always one step away from challenging the Broncos and Patriots, but this year they were one or two defensive injuries away from becoming the Falcons, a passing game in search of everything else.
The Bengals experienced the giddy high of defeating the Broncos two weeks ago, then crashed hard in a season-ending loss to the Steelers. Unlike the Colts, the Bengals appeared to be built to upset the AFC caste system at the start of the year. Then they lost Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. A.J. Green spent this week in concussion protocol; he may play on Sunday, but don't expect his deep-ball timing to be sharp. Jermaine Gresham, who appeared to be getting injured by the impact of the football against his body in the Steelers game, will either be unavailable or ineffective this week due to a combination of injuries. Without Green, Andy Dalton had a miserable game in the Bengals' 27-0 loss in Indianapolis in Week 7. At least Dalton got to throw micro-short passes to Gresham in that game.
The Bengals have no pass rush. The Colts have no running game. The Colts can come back against any team, but any team can come back against them. The Bengals typically beat who they are supposed to beat and lose to the teams that are supposed to beat them, give or take the occasional Broncos upset or Panthers tie. The Colts are unimpressive by the standards of 11-win playoff perennials, but the Bengals have lost in the playoffs to worse. They were letting the Texans beat them in the playoffs when Andrew Luck was a big man on Stanford campus.
Neither the flashy, flawed Colts nor the steady-but-unspectacular Bengals are any threat to the AFC hierarchy. The best they can do is grind each other down in a futile effort to get slightly further ahead. That's what is so bad about a Feudal society, and about the AFC in general: It's nearly impossible to get ahead. The Colts need a running back, the Bengals need defensive playmakers, but more than anything else, the entire conference needs a renaissance that may still be over a year away.
Prediction: Colts 26, Bengals 24
Lions at Cowboys
Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
Line: Cowboys -7
The repo man is skulking around the back fence. The Benz will soon be taken away. So will the snowmobiles. The jet skis? They have dry-rotted, anyway. That's the trouble with years of credit card roulette: lose track of your old splurges in the rush of new spending.
The Cowboys and Lions have been the NFL's poster children for credit abuse for a long time. Like lottery winners, they discovered that money cannot buy happiness, only the services of Matthew Stafford. The Lions spent so many seasons outlaying huge contracts to high draft picks that the NFL changed the rookie salary structure to save them from themselves. Meanwhile, Jerry Jones kept paying his core veterans outlandish sums, with prorated cap balloon payments extended into the next geological epoch, in the unlikely event that his Cowboys would finally enjoy a season more-or-less like this one.
So this is the last big bash with the Champagne fountain and the single-malt waterfall before the bank lowers the Cowboys' and Lions' credit ratings to "Don't Let Them Take Pens." Ndamukong Suh, re-activated for this game after his suspension appeal hinged on the Johnny Cochrane-worthy numb feet-versus-numskulls defense, has one foot out of Detroit and the other on Aaron Rodgers' neck (and yes, he can feel them both). Jones could find some way to keep Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray—Jones is so financially crafty that he could declare Tony Romo and Jason Witten national monuments and supplement the salary cap with federal subsidies—but it will be a heck of a trick. Murray will end the postseason with over 500 touches anyway. There may not be much of him left worth franchising or refinancing.
This is the party the Cowboys and Lions spent themselves into debt for half a decade to throw, so somebody had better enjoy it. The Cowboys are in a partying mood. Prevailing wisdom states that the Seahawks are the hottest team in the NFC right now, which can only mean that no one watches the first halves of Seahawks games.
The Cowboys averaged 41.25 points per game in December. Their defense has also played well, though some garbage production by the Bears and Redskins skews the stats a bit. The Cowboys will be the team without a linchpin defensive tackle on Sunday—Henry Melton, a difference maker when healthy, is out with a knee injury—but they have the blocking, balance, physicality and explosiveness to hang at least three touchdowns on the stout Lions defense, even with Suh on the climate-controlled field.
Three touchdowns would be a major problem for the Lions offense, which likes to hover in the 20-22 point range when not facing some Buccaneers/Bears-type pushover. Jim Caldwell came to Detroit to turn Stafford into Peyton Manning, but instead created Joe Flacco without the unflappability. Stafford still has no idea what the third option on a pass play looks like. It doesn't help that Caldwell is as insistent on limiting Joique Bell to 13 carries per game as the Cowboys are on giving Murray 25 carries per game. A defense does not have to be great to stop the Lions—just capable of holding Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to below 150 or so combined yards. The Lions then stop themselves.
Deficit spenders always find themselves with too many luxuries and not enough of the basics (banks usually repossess chandeliers, not insulation). The Lions have Reggie Bush stumbling around as a backdated speed threat and Stephen Tulloch collecting dust on the IR with a cap figure north of $5 million (via Spotrac), but their special teams stink and their offensive line crumbled under the weight of too many low-cost solutions this year. Jones discovered the joy of investing in infrastructure in recent years, drafting offensive linemen and letting pricey big names like DeMarcus Ware leave in the name of financial sanity.
The Cowboys changed their ways, at least a little, and are starting to reap the rewards. The Lions are still finding their way out of the debt cycle. The bills will still come due soon for both teams, but at least the Cowboys are finally in position to enjoy what they paid so much for.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Lions 17
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.