NFC Wildcard game 2 Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Cowboys haven’t actually made the postseason since 2009 and the Lions haven’t played a playoff game since the turn of the century but as that famous Detroit native Henry Ford said “History is bunk!”. Two teams with such poor records in recent times won’t be paying much attention to what has gone before and instead enjoying their current success.
Statistically it’s a matchup of a very good offence, the Cowboys have averaged 29.2 points per game which makes them 5th in the league and a defence which has allowed an average of 17.6 points per game which is the 2nd fewest this season. It would be appropriate to point out how the Dallas defence has greatly improved this season and they have conceded on average just 22 points per game, which when combined with the Detroit offence’s inability to score more than 24 points away from home this season should hint at which way this game should go.
The Cowboys have the best running back in the league this season with DeMarco Murray and his 1845 yards on the ground, the leading touchdown pass catcher in Dez Bryant and the Quarterback with the best passer rating in the league this season so the Lions defence is facing an uphill struggle even if they do have the 2nd highest tackler in the league and the player with the most interceptions on their side. Allied to their standout individual performances this season the Cowboys averaged 41.25 points per game in the last 4 games of the regular season while the Lions offence averaged just 22.5 points per game.
If the Lions are looking for a ray of hope it’s that they will be missing fewer players with injury than the Cowboys, they have just 7 out and a further 3 concerns over players who have missed practice this week while the Cowboys have to deal with having a rather significant number of 11 players in Injured Reserve and a further 4 who have had their practice schedule effected by injury this week. By far the biggest problem for the Lions this entire season has been how to get the best out of Calvin Johnson when he’s clearly not been 100% fit since week 5 when he injured his ankle, to compound Megatron’s loss Reggie Bush the Lions second most explosive player on offence has also been trying to manage an injured ankle since week 4 and missed 5 games this season.
Those who know these things will tell you that defence win Championships and the Lions could welcome back defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the trip to Dallas but it would take a gargantuan effort for the Lions defence to hold the Cowboys to a score that their failing offence could achieve. Obviously the Lions offence can help their defence by staying on the field for as long as possible but since they’ve been averaging just 94.5 rushing yards away from home and the Cowboys offence has averaged 32.15 minutes of possession per game at home and they have a defence who allowed just 1 yards of rushing in their last home game it looks more than tricky for the Lions to progress. Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn’t had the best protection this season and the pressure that opposing defences have been able to apply to him has resulted in 12 intercepted passes and a whopping 45 sacks so the winning margin bet of Cowboys by 6 points that is favourite with some bookies seems awfully generous to the Lions.

AFC Wildcard Game 2 Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

Theoretically this a matchup of a team who pride themselves on having a strong defence; the Bengals, against a team who have one of the best passing attacks in the NFL with the Colts’ Andrew Luck leading the NFL in touchdown passes this season, breaking Peyton Manning’s franchise records for pass yards in one season and in doing so breaking the Colts record for consecutive games with 300 or more yards passing. However when the teams met at Lucas Oil Stadium in week 7 the Bengals defence was treated with serious contempt as the Colts rushed for 171 yards on their way to a comprehensive 27-0 victory!
It’s being billed as a clash of 2 Pro Bowl Quarterbacks but apart from sharing a Christian name there’s nothing really comparable about them, mainly due to the ways both teams go about their business. Luck and the Colts offence lead the NFL in pass yards this season while Dalton’s Bengals were 21st in that category a full 1473 yards behind. Dalton was also 21 touchdown passes Luck, this is largely due to the Bengals reliance on their run game, they were ranked 6th in the NFL with an average of 134.2 yards per game on the ground and only Seattle scored more rushing touchdowns with rookie Jeremy Hill’s total of 9 only being bettered by Marshawn Lynch and DeMarco Murray. The one similarity both Luck and Dalton both have is neither of them have performed to their potential during the postseason, in the 6 games they’ve appeared in between them they have combined for 1,780 yards, 7 touchdowns and a mesmerising 14 interceptions! In Luck’s favour he has actually won 1 playoff game and he’s responsible for 6 of those touchdowns and 1,062 of the 1,780 yards.
This season the Bengals pass defence was ranked 20th in the league after allowing 243 yards per game but the 18 touchdowns they allowed through the air was the 3rd fewest in the NFL, they did allow the 4th most rushing touchdowns though so the reason not many touchdown passes were scored on them may have been because teams didn’t feel the need to pass in the redzone. The Colts had the 12th best pass defence in the NFL this season and the 18th best rushing defence but their redzone defence as hardly been earth shattering just 1 playoff team (the one with the losing, the Panthers) have conceded more points than the 369 points they have allowed.
Dalton and the Bengals have racked up an impressive 5 road wins this season but the Colts haven’t lost on their home field since week 2 and while neither quarterback is exactly reliable when it comes to the playoffs Luck and the Colts have their astonishing 45-44 win in last year’s Wildcard game when they scored 35 points in the 2nd half to inspire them and propel them toward a Divisional Championship game in Foxboro next weekend.

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.