NFL Playoffs 2015: Previewing The Wild Card Weekend

The regular season is in the books and the National Football League’s Wild Card weekend will be here before we know it. Or in other words, before we can fully recover from our New Year’s festivities.

The New England Patriots (12-4) and Denver Broncos (12-4) finished the regular season by claiming the top spots in the AFC while the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) and Green Bay Packers (12-4) hold those same positions in the NFC.

On Saturday it’s Arizona at Carolina and Baltimore at Pittsburgh followed by Cincinnati at Indianapolis and Detroit at Dallas on Sunday in matchups that’ll advance winners to the divisional round.

Below is a breakdown of the wild card games this weekend. My predictions are included at the conclusion of each summary.

= No. 4 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) vs. No. 5 Arizona Cardinals (11-5) – Sat. at 4:35 p.m.

The details: Carolina is 6-5 all-time in the playoffs but have not won in the postseason since advancing to the conference title game in 2005. The Panthers were bounced last year by San Francisco and in 2008 by Arizona, both times in the divisional round. Arizona is 6-7 in the playoffs and returns for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 2008-09.

The matchup: Carolina’s offense ranks seventh in rushing yards per game (127.2) while the defense ranks 10th in total yards allowed (339.8) and 11th in passing yards allowed (227.8). Arizona has allowed the fifth fewest points per game this year (18.7) and ranks 13th in rushing yards allowed (108.7).

The weather: Rain is expected with a high of 55 degrees and low of 49.

Historically speaking: Carolina leads the all-time series 8-5. The Cardinals won the only other playoff matchup between the teams, 33-13, in Charlotte following the 2008 season before going on to lose in the Super Bowl.

Recent history: The Panthers are 4-3 against the Cardinals since 2007 but have dropped their last two games – 28-21 in 2011 and 22-6 in 2013 – on the road in Glendale, Arizona. Carolina won 19-12 in 2010 in the last meeting between these teams in Charlotte.

Carolina players: Cam Newton has passed for 3,127 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 games. He’s also been sacked 38 times and thrown 12 interceptions and ranks second on the team in rushing with 539 yards and five scores. Jonathan Stewart leads the team with 809 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Greg Olsen (6 TDs) and wideout Kelvin Benjamin (9 TDs) have each compiled 1,008 yards receiving. Charles Johnson (41 tackles) has 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 13 games while Roman Harper (62 tackles) has picked off four passes. Carolina has 40 sacks and 14 interceptions as a team.

Arizona players: Ryan Lindley has started the last two games at quarterback for Arizona after injuries have sidelined both Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Lindley has thrown just two touchdowns and four interceptions in three games while completing only 48 percent of his passes. Kerwynn Williams (246 yards rushing) and Stepfan Taylor (208 yards) have taken over for injured running back Andre Ellington. Michael Floyd leads the team in receiving with 841 yards and six touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald has 784 yards receiving and two touchdowns. The Cardinals have recorded 35 sacks and 18 interceptions as a team. Alex Okafor (29 tackles) has eight sacks and Calais Campbell (58 tackles) has seven sacks while Rashad Johnson (93 tackles) has picked off four passes. Three other players have three interceptions.

Prediction: Carolina by 7

= No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) vs. No. 6 Baltimore Ravens (10-6) – Sat. at 8:15 p.m.

The details: Pittsburgh is 33-21 all-time in the postseason and returns to the playoffs for the first time since back-to-back trips in 2010-11. They have now advanced to the playoffs for the ninth time in 14 seasons. Baltimore is 14-7 in the postseason and returns to the playoffs for the first time since making five-straight trips from 2008-12, the last of which ended in a Super Bowl win.

The matchup: Pittsburgh ranks second in the league in yards per game (411.1) and second in passing yards per game (301.6) while coming in at No. 7 in points per game (27.2). The Steelers have held opposing teams to 100.3 rushing yards per game, good for sixth overall. Baltimore’s offense ranks eighth in points per game (25.6) and eighth in rushing yards per game (126.2) while the defense comes in at sixth in points against (18.9), eighth in total yards against (336.9), and fourth in rushing yards against (88.2).

The weather: Rain is expected with a high of 39 degrees and low of 30.

Historically speaking: Pittsburgh owns a 24-17 lead in the all-time series between these AFC North rivals. It’s the fourth time they’ll meet in the postseason – each time in Pittsburgh – and the first time they’ll play this late in the seasons since the Steelers won 31-24 at Heinz Field following the 2010 season. Pittsburgh also won 23-14 in the conference title game following the 2008 season and 27-10 following the 2001 season.

Recent history: The teams have split their last four meetings in Pittsburgh since 2011 with the Steelers winning at home the past two years. Pittsburgh won 43-23 on Nov. 2 after falling 26-6 on the road on Sept. 11. Baltimore owns a slim 7-6 advantage in this rivalry since 2009.

Pittsburgh players: Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns against only nine interceptions and 33 sacks. Le’Veon Bell leads the way with 1,361 yards rushing and eight touchdowns along with 854 yards receiving and three scores but has been ruled out for the playoffs. Antonio Brown has hauled in 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Cameron Heyward (53 tackles) and Jason Worilds (59 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries) each have recorded 7.5 of the team’s 33 sacks while William Gay (69 tackles) and Brice McCain (25 tackles) each have three of 11 total interceptions.

Baltimore players: Joe Flacco has passed for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions and just 19 sacks against. Justin Forsett has rushed for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns and Steve Smith leads the team with 79 receptions for 1,065 yards and six scores. Torrey Smith caught 11 touchdowns on 49 receptions. Elvis Dumervil (36 tackles) has 17 sacks and Terrell Suggs (61 tackles) has 12 for a unit that’s logged 49 in all. Nine different players have hauled in a total of 11 interceptions.

Prediction: Pittsburgh by 3

= No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) – Sun. at 1:05 p.m.

The details: Indianapolis is 20-22 all-time in the postseason and is playing in the wild card round for the third year in a row. Cincinnati is 5-12 in the playoffs and is back in the wild card round for the fourth-straight year and fifth time in six seasons. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since beating the Houston Oilers 41-14 in 1990.

The matchup: Indianapolis leads the league in passing yards per game (305.9), ranks third in total yards per game (406.6), and is sixth in points per game (28.6). The Bengals defense ranks 12th in points against (21.5) while the 134.2 rushing yards per game by the offense ranks sixth.

The weather: Indoors

Historically speaking: Indianapolis owns an 18-10 lead in the all-time series and is 13-6 against the Bengals since 1987, the first time the teams met after the Colts relocated from Baltimore. The only other playoff meeting between the teams took place in their first-ever meeting in 1970, won 17-0 by the Colts.

Recent history: The Bengals have won just twice in 10 meetings against the Colts since 1998, and both wins came at home at Paul Brown Stadium in 2011 and 2013. The Colts won 27-0 at Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 19 and have won seven in a row at home against the Bengals.

Indianapolis players: Andrew Luck has passed for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns against 16 interceptions and 27 sacks. Trent Richardson (519 yards rushing) and Dan Herron (351 yards) have been filling in for injured Ahmad Bradshaw out of the backfield. T.Y. Hilton leads the team with 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns on 82 receptions. Jonathan Newsome (28 tackles) has recorded 6.5 sacks and Erik Walden (37 tackles) has been in on six sacks for a unit that’s posted 41 on the year. The Colts have picked off 12 passes. Mike Adams (87 tackles) leads the team with five interceptions and Vontae Davis (42 tackles) has four.

Cincinnati players: Andy Dalton finished the regular season with 3,398 yards passing and 19 touchdowns but has thrown 17 interceptions and been sacked 21 times. Jeremy Hill has emerged as the go-to back by rushing for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns. A.J. Green leads the team with 69 catches for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Carlos Dunlap (66 tackles) has eight sacks and Reggie Nelson (94 tackles) has four interceptions for the Bengals, who have tallied 20 sacks and 20 interceptions as a team.

Prediction: Indianapolis by 10

= No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (12-4) vs. No. 6 Detroit Lions (11-5) – Sun. at 4:40 p.m.

The details: Dallas is 33-25 all-time in the postseason and returns for the first time since 2009, when they won their first playoff game since 1996 by knocking off the Philadelphia Eagles 34-14. Detroit is 7-11 in the postseason and returns for the first time since 2011 when they lost to the New Orleans Saints. The Lions have not won a playoff game since beating the Cowboys in the divisional round in 1991.

The matchup: Dallas enters this matchup ranked fifth in points per game (29.2), seventh in yards per game (382.6) and second in rushing (147.1). Detroit has allowed the third fewest points (17.6), the second fewest total yards per game (300.9), and is tops in the league by allowing only 69.3 rushing yards against.

The weather: Indoors

Historically speaking: Dallas leads the all-time series 13-12. This marks the third postseason meeting between the teams. Dallas won 5-0 at the Cotton Bowl following the 1970 season and Detroit won 38-6 following the 1991 season.

Recent history: The teams have split their previous 10 meetings since 2002 with the Lions winning 34-30 in Arlington, Texas in 2011 and 31-30 in Detroit in 2013. Dallas won 28-27 on the road in 2007 and 35-19 at home in 2010.

Dallas players: Tony Romo has passed for 3,705 yards and 34 touchdowns against just nine interceptions and 30 sacks in 15 games. DeMarco Murray has rushed for a franchise record 1,845 yards to go along with 13 touchdowns. Dez Bryant set the new team record for touchdown receptions in a season (16) and has 1,320 yards on 88 catches. Jeremy Mincey (37 tackles) has tallied six sacks and Henry Melton (15 tackles) has five sacks from their defensive end positions. Melton will be sidelined for the remainder of the season. Dallas has recorded 28 sacks in all. Linebacker Bruce Carter (68 tackles) leads the way with five interceptions for a Cowboys teams that’s picked off 18 passes this year.

Detroit players: Matthew Stafford has thrown for 4,257 yards and 22 touchdowns but has been sacked 45 times and thrown 12 interceptions. Joique Bell leads the team in rushing with 860 yards and seven touchdowns. Golden Tate has caught 99 passes for 1,331 yards and four touchdowns while Calvin Johnson closed the regular season with 1,077 yards on 71 receptions for eight touchdowns in 13 games. Ndamukong Suh (51 tackles) was in on 8.5 sacks and Ezekiel Ansah (50 tackles) 7.5 sacks for the Lions, who have reached the quarterback 42 times. Suh’s suspension for Sunday’s game for stepping on the leg of Aaron Rodgers was overturned earlier this week. Glover Quin (72 tackles) has seven of Detroit’s 20 interceptions.

Prediction: Dallas by 1

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