If recent NFL history is any indication, there is a strong chance that the eventual Super Bowl winner will be playing next weekend. Six of the past nine champs have earned their way through the Wild Card Round, including three of the past four.
That might sound implausible this year, as there appears to be a four-team hegemony among the teams that earned byes. However, the eight teams playing this weekend will present plenty of battle-tested playoff and championship experience, with many of those players having experienced postseason success as underdogs in the past.
Thus, this upcoming weekend is not about just surviving and advancing, but also putting the rest of the league on notice. For fans looking to catch their fill of postseason football, check out full TV and streaming information for the Wild Card Round below, as well as predictions for the outcomes of the four games.
|2014-15 NFL Playoff Schedule|
|Saturday, Jan. 3||4:35 p.m. ET||Arizona at Carolina||ESPN||Watch ESPN|
|Saturday, Jan. 3||8:15 p.m. ET||Baltimore at Pittsburgh||NBC||NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||1:05 p.m. ET||Cincinnati at Indianapolis||CBS||CBSSports.com|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||4:40 p.m. ET||Detroit at Dallas||FOX||Fox Sports Go|
NFC: Home Cooking
In the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers both stand out as clear favorites over the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals, respectively. Though chalk is far from certain in the postseason, when the talent gap naturally narrows, both Dallas and Carolina hold critical matchup advantages that bode favorably for them.
For the Cowboys, the Ndamukong Suh suspension is a game changer with an impact that cannot be understated. Detroit possessed the top-ranked run defense by virtually every measure, including Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted DVOA metric. But without Suh, the Lions' yards per carry allowed average has spiked considerably:
For reference, the 4.3 yards per carry cited in the ESPN Stats & Info tweet would have tied for 19th (the Lions finished first at 3.2 yards per carry). Suh's impact goes beyond the run game, as he's also Detroit's best pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he's ranked fifth among defensive tackles in pass rushing productivity, while leading the position with 57 total pressures.
Without their catalyst, it's not hard to envision the Lions defense falling like dominoes against the new era triplets of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. Considering the Lions haven't scored more than 24 points on the road all season, it seems like a tall task asking Matthew Stafford and Co. to keep up.
For the Panthers, this essentially boils down to their well-documented defensive improvement against Arizona's woeful offense. Since Ryan Lindley entered the lineup in Week 15, the Cardinals have averaged a ghastly 4.55 yards per play, the seventh-worst mark in the league, per Pro-Football-Reference. On the short week, it's unclear if Drew Stanton will be ready to return to the lineup:
Even more distressingly, Arizona's run defense has abandoned it down the stretch. After holding nine of their first 10 opponents below 100 yards rushing, the Cards have conceded an average of 155.7 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per attempt since Week 12, the third-highest and highest totals in that span, per PFR.
Conversely, the legs of Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton have carried the Panthers offense during their four-game winning streak. During the streak, Carolina has averaged 5.2 yards per carry, the third-highest total in the league over the last month. With the Panthers' two greatest strengths attacking Arizona's biggest weaknesses, it's difficult to envision the reeling Cardinals traveling to Charlotte and pulling out the upset.
AFC: Road Warriors
On the other hand, the deep AFC wild-card field has produced two worthy adversaries to the division champs. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are both early underdogs at Heinz Field and Lucas Oil Stadium, respectively, but there's reason to believe both could pull out wins.
For one, the Ravens may not need to face Le'Veon Bell. The Pittsburgh Steelers' bell cow has been invaluable this season, ranking second in the league in yards from scrimmage and accounting for 33.7 percent of Pittsburgh's total offensive yardage. Indeed, with callow rookie backs Dri Archer and Josh Harris behind him, Bell has established a monopoly in the Steelers' backfield:
Without Bell, Pittsburgh is very likely to be one-dimensional against a Ravens defense that ranks fifth in DVOA against the run. And while Ben Roethlisberger should exploit a dilapidated Baltimore secondary, Joe Flacco should do the same against a Steelers defense that has allowed 26 passes of 30 or more yards this year, second-most in the league, per PFR.
The Ravens have been beloved by the advanced metrics community this season, with metrics from FO and Advanced Football Analytics ranking them higher than the general public might perceive. Regardless of whether or not Bell suits up, Baltimore has a stronger chance of pulling this upset than many may believe.
Whereas Baltimore has a playoff reputation to fall back upon, the Cincinnati Bengals are underdogs in part because they lack that track record. However, Cincy is poised to snap its 24-year drought without a postseason victory, the longest current streak in the league, against an Indianapolis Colts squad that is quietly mediocre.
Indy has been excessively reliant on Andrew Luck ever since he arrived in the league, but that has never been more true than this season. Looking at Luck's game-by-game yards per attempt, take a look at how the Colts have fared when Luck has posted numbers above versus below the league average in that category:
|IND record w/Above Average Luck||8-2|
|IND record w/Below Average Luck||3-3|
Given how one-dimensional the Colts have become offensively, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the Bengals can at least contain Luck. If the Bengals can force a couple quick possessions, the Jeremy Hill-Giovani Bernard tandem should allow them to control time of possession, something they failed to do miserably in the first meeting. Despite the reputation that precedes them, Cincy has a reasonable shot at handing the Colts their third loss in four playoff games during the Luck era.