AFC Wildcard game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it 21 divisional titles (granted that division’s title has changed from the AFC Central to the AFC North over the years, but still) on Sunday Night Football when they beat the Bengals last weekend. The last 2 times the Steelers won their division they appeared in the Super Bowl so they’re no stranger to long playoff runs.
If they are to go deep into the postseason this year they will need defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor be healthy and back to their vintage best, which they haven’t really been all season, they could also do with Pro Bowl Running back LaVeon Bell to be 100% fit, which after Reggie Nelson’s crunching hit to his right knee is looking increasingly unlikely. Bell’s knee injury is such a worry for the Steelers that they’ve been trying out Ben Tate this week, the Steelers would be Tate’s 3rd different team this season, but needs must and all that. If they do sign another running back I would imagine it’d be to compliment the 2 talented rookies they have rather than replace LaVeon Bell as the main back, with a short turn around between their Sunday Night Football game last week and their Saturday night playoff game it’d be tricky for Tate to learn the entire playbook. Bell’s loss will mean the Steelers will have to adapt their offense quite a lot this week as Bell is 2nd only to Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown in receiving yards, Brown lead the NFL in yards and with his 854 Bell was 40th in the league. Short passes will be the key for the Steelers offence against a Ravens defence that has recorded 49 sacks this season, Tight End Heath Miller who is master at finding the spot in a zone defence stands to be a key target for Ben Roethlisberger and I’d expect a few screen passes to youngsters Martavius Bryant and Dri Archer who have some serious speed. The 6 foot 4 inch Bryant ran a 4.41 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and Archer ran the fastest time at the combine (4.26 seconds) which is no surprise for someone who clocked a 10.49 100 metre time as a High School student.
The Ravens are not without their own considerable injury problems with a massive 18 players on the Injured Reserve list and 4 more players struggling to practice this week just reaching the postseason is a gargantuan feat in itself. After the controversial exit of their former Running back Ray Rice (not controversial because it wasn’t warranted, but controversial because the NFL’s indefinite ban was overturned in court) early in the season and star Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata being banned for 4 games for failing a drug test, the Ravens could be forgiven for struggling through 2014 and starting a fresh next season. It’s a mark of their resilience not just as a team but as an organisation that they’ve made a potentially traumatic time into a relatively successful season. On the field the Ravens have averaged an impressive 664.9 yards per game and have averaged 25.6 points per game, with the Steelers averaging 411.1 yards and 27.3 points per game this doesn’t appear to be one of the titanic battles of field position that the AFC North traditionally served up. In fact when these teams met at Heinz Field in early November there was a total of 66 points, 43 for the Steelers and just 23 for the Ravens and LaVeon didn’t have his best game that night either, he managed just 58 total yards from scrimmage and wasn’t even the Steelers best rusher. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did tear the Ravens secondary to pieces though with Roethlisberger throwing for 340 yards and a whopping 6 touchdowns and Antonio Brown being on the receiving end of 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
I think the Steelers should win this game too because they have only lost 2 home games all season and they were both against NFC South teams. It should be closer than their previous meeting but 2 inconsistent defensive backfield’s on show there could be almost as many points as the Pittsburgh faithful saw in week 9. The one thing you know about any Steelers matchup with the Ravens is there will be no shortage of physicality and even with the improvement the Steelers offensive line has made over the course of this season the loss of LaVeon Bell’s blitz recognition and pass blocking will mean Ben Roethlisberger will be under constant pressure when he drops back to pass.

NFC Wildcard game 1 – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

The major point of interest surrounding this game is whether or not a team who ended the regular season with a record of 7-8-1 should be afforded the luxury of hosting a playoff game against a team who finished the season 11-5. However incongruous this seems to casual observers there’s not much chance of the NFL and NFLPA changing the structure of the season or the playoffs anytime soon, especially given the recent handling of player disciplinary matters and how far apart the 2 parties are in that regard.
The game itself could actually prove to be the exception to the rule that teams with a superior record should be at home as the Cardinals very promising season has been hit by an injury juggernaut and after battling on manfully it could finally collapse in Charlotte. The Cardinals have 8 players on season ending Injured Reserve, which isn’t technically a huge number but it includes their first choice Quarterback Carson Palmer and leading rusher Andre Ellington, they’re also missing another Running back Jonathan Dwyer who is involved in legal proceedings regarding domestic abuse charges. Added to those 9 players the Cardinals also had injury concerns over 14 further players in week 17 including rookie Drew Stanton the second choice Quarterback who hasn’t played since late in week 15’s game with St. Louis. Stanton suffered sprains to both the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and Medial Cruciate Ligament (MCL) in his right knee, as if that weren’t enough it was reported on boxing day that he had undergone surgery to remove an infection in the same knee and may not play again until next season!
Coincidentally the Panthers also have 8 players on the Injured Reserve list and one player missing as he contests domestic abuse charges in court, they have fewer skill players on IR than the Cardinals though instead missing 5 Offensive lineman. The Panthers week 17 injury report only included 2 players so they look to have much less disruption to their starting lineup than the Cardinals have suffered for the last 7 weeks.
If both teams were able to put out first choice teams then this would be an intriguing battle of defences with some dynamic pass rushers on display but with the Panther’s Greg Hardy’s legal issues and the Cardinals missing the injured Darnell Dockett both Quarterback’s can feel slightly safer on Saturday. A brief perusal of both teams statistics this season doesn’t really offer up much hope of a free scoring shootout, the most prominent statistics show that the Panthers kick coverage has really been below par this season and is ranked 31st in the league but the Cardinals have the worst kick return average in the league with just 19 yards per return but if kick return is your main offensive weapon then you’re probably clutching at straws anyway. Obviously with injuries to key players on offence the Cardinals will be relying heavily on their defence to make plays and if they can contain the Panthers run game and put the emphasis on Cam Newtown to make plays through the air then playmakers like Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson could well add to the touchdowns they scored in the regular season.
Regardless of all the seasons statistics the deciding factor in this game could be form, the Panthers have won their last 3 games while the Cardinals have lost 2 of their last 3 games. However scheduling has played a rather large part in that as the Cardinals last 3 games involved a resurgent Seattle team and an emotional denouement to Jim Harbaugh’s career in San Francisco while the Panthers played a self destructing Saints in the Superdome, the Jonny Manziel experiment that was the Cleveland Browns and a Falcons team who along with former Head Coach Mike Smith always traditionally wilted under pressure.
The Panthers have won just 3 games at home all season, (that’s that losing record coming back to bite them) and they haven’t played a playoff team since week 9 when they only managed to score 9 points against the Cardinals divisional rivals the Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals have won 5 road games this season although it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions regarding their form since they’ve lost so many players over the course of the season, but if you were looking for a playoff “upset” this is probably the game for you. I’d like to say it’ll be a nailbiter and decided by a last gasp field goal but if this NFL season has taught us anything it’s that only fools make those sort of sweeping statements.