The 2014 regular season has come and gone, and the 2015 playoffs are set to get started. Exactly 20 teams have already been eliminated to this point, leaving 12 to fight for the ultimate prize of the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
Until that point, everyone will speculate about who deserves to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Whether it's one of the three AFC North contenders, the top-seeded New England Patriots or the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, there are several scenarios that can take place.
This year's bracket features some obvious teams like the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers but also a few surprises. Can the Carolina Panthers pull off a few wins after finishing with a losing record? Will the Baltimore Ravens make another improbable run?
Before the first game kicks off in Charlotte, North Carolina, here's a look at the full bracket and picture along with some analysis of the Wild Card Round.
Analysis for Saturday Matchups
The first matchup of the playoffs will pit two quarterbacks against each other on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. In general, the Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals have been on different courses to close out the season.
For Arizona, the loss of Carson Palmer was a huge hit earlier this year. Then, the franchise was rocked again with backup Drew Stanton going down. That leaves inexperienced quarterback Ryan Lindley to lead the team, via NFL's official Twitter account:
Being without a quarterback is hard enough, but the Cards will also have to lean on virtual unknown running backs like Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor in the backfield. Due to those struggles and more, Arizona lost four of its last six down the stretch and the final two games.
On the other side, Cam Newton has been resurgent since a car accident in early December. He suffered a back injury but has still been able to put the Panthers on his back. The team won the final four games of the year to simply make the playoffs, something Newton doesn't take for granted, via Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer:
Overall, this season has not been the prototypical season of a playoff team. But who cares? Everybody has an opportunity. There’s some teams that wish they were in our position, so we’ve got to make the most of this and not take this opportunity for granted. ...
Playoff football is different. You have to turn it up just another notch, and appreciate the great things that this game has to offer. No matter if it’s first down, second down, third down ... you have to be ready to go because every chance or opportunity is very valuable.
During his career, Newton has never led the Panthers to a playoff win. Getting his second chance on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how he performs under immense pressure.
Injuries have shaped the NFL season, but none has come at a worse time than for one Pittsburgh Steelers star. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh's leading rusher, has been ruled out for the Wild Card Game due to a knee injury, via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com.
That puts more pressure on the passing game for the Steelers, meaning Antonio Brown will have to step up huge against the Ravens. Here's a look at his career numbers at home against Baltimore:
|Antonio Brown vs. Ravens (in Pittsburgh)|
John Harbaugh is hoping to start another long playoff charge with the Ravens after missing out last season. Following the 2012 season, Harbaugh led Baltimore from a familiar situation as a wild card all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
Given a chance to do it all over again, Joe Flacco needs to get the process started with a huge game on Saturday. Four teams will be eliminated this weekend, so imperfections are not allowed this late in the season.
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