It seems months ago that Week 17 ended, cementing Wild Card Weekend in the process.
The excruciating wait is over, but that period birthed plenty of outlook-altering news items and analysis to consider when one looks at the pair of Saturday and Sunday games.
As the top teams wait for the chaos to sort itself out, those who participate in the NFL picks realm need to be up to date on final details. The job is tough with each of the four games truly featuring no heavy favorite.
Before things kick off Saturday afternoon, be sure to digest a look at the bracket and details.
2014-15 NFL Playoff Bracket
Wild Card Weekend Predictions and Viewing Info
|Saturday, Jan. 3||4:35 p.m. ET||Arizona at Carolina||ESPN||Watch ESPN||CAR|
|Saturday, Jan. 3||8:15 p.m. ET||Baltimore at Pittsburgh||NBC||NBC Sports Live Extra||PIT|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||1:05 p.m. ET||Cincinnati at Indianapolis||CBS||CBSSports.com||IND|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||4:40 p.m. ET||Detroit at Dallas||FOX||Fox Sports Go||DAL|
The Arizona Cardinals are in big trouble.
Coach Bruce Arians is an offensive whiz, so it was silly to write off the team after the season-ending loss of Carson Palmer. Drew Stanton took his place and played well enough, but he is unable to go for Saturday's encounter with the Carolina Panthers.
Things rest on the shoulders of third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss.
The same Lindley who, over the course of his past two games, failed to complete better than 59 percent of his passes and threw a total of two touchdowns to four interceptions in a pair of losses.
"Obviously, we're all much more comfortable with Ryan after his performance today," Arians said. "And we look forward to the challenge."
Ditto for defensive end Calais Campbell:
I told Ryan if he's our quarterback and he's the one leading us, I believe he can win a Super Bowl. That's just the way it is. He's a great player when he gets into a rhythm. He's young, he'll make young mistakes. But he showed he can make every throw. He showed he knows where to go (with the football). He made good reads. He gained a lot of belief from a lot of people today.
Positivity is key, but it only gets a team so far.
The Cardinals are not only on the road for the biggest game of Lindley's career. It also happens to come against a Panthers defense that continues to improve and now ranks 11th against the pass.
Just last week in what amounted to the NFC South title game, Carolina held Atlanta's Matt Ryan to 260 yards and picked him off twice.
Arizona is an 11-win team that faces an opponent with a losing record, sure. Injuries this time of year are unavoidable, but worst of all at critical positions.
Carolina has the ability to take advantage of the Cardinals' poor luck, as Cam Newton can ride a seventh-ranked rushing attack to dictate the pace and his defense can minimize big plays through the air en route to a comfortable win.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Cardinals 17
Airing It Out
Things are not as dire for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it sure hurts to be without a player who should probably be in the MVP conversation.
This, of course, refers to star back Le'Veon Bell, who was on the wrong end of a massive hit by Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson last weekend. As NFL on ESPN illustrates, Bell says he will give an appearance his best shot:
Pittsburgh can only hope that the owner of 1,361 rushing yards and eight scores, as well as 854 yards and three scores as a receiver, can suit up against a Baltimore defense that ranks fourth against the rush.
The Steelers front office did bring on Ben Tate this week in order to reinforce the position, but it sounds as if Bell will be nothing more than a decoy if he even suits up—meaning the air attack will take precedence.
Considering the Ravens rank 23rd against the pass and Bell never rushed for more than 59 yards in each of his two outings against Baltimore this year, it figured to regardless.
It is a forgone conclusion that Antonio Brown (1,698 yards, 13 scores) will produce, but Ben Roethlisberger sounds as if he expects other wideouts such as Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant to produce, too.
"I think we're continuing to improve every week, guys are stepping up and making plays," Roethlisberger said, per Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. "We're getting more contributions from a little bit of everybody."
As good as Roethlisberger can be, his only triumph against Baltimore this year came at home when he exploded for six touchdown passes. He has thrown more than two TDs in a single game just once in the seven games since.
Funneled into a one-dimensional attack thanks to Bell's absence, Baltimore will know what is coming this time around. Look for the Ravens to bend but not break while an eighth-ranked rushing attack grinds the clock.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Steelers 20