|Can DeMarco Murray lead Dallas to their first play-off win in two decades?
The NFL play-offs are finally here, and while the top two seeds from each conference will enjoy the action from the comfort of the living rooms having earned a bye, four teams from both the NFC and AFC will duel for the right to face them in the divisional round next week. For American Football Focus’s predictions for each of the four games this weekend just keep reading.
Arizona @ Carolina
The Cardinals quarterback woes continue with Carson Palmer’s original back-up Drew Stanton ruled out of action for this wild-card match-up, meaning third-stringer Ryan Lindley starts in his place. Lindley threw two touchdowns and four interceptions in the regular season, so don’t count on the Cardinals passing game pulling up any trees in the post-season. With starting running back Andre Ellington also sidelined for the remainder of the season the Arizona offense figures to remain as anaemic as it was towards the end of the regular season. Carolina meanwhile come into the game in fine form, having destroyed Atlanta in what was effectively the NFC South championship game. Cam Newton struggled throughout most of 2014, throwing for just 18 touchdowns and missing time due to an unfortunate car crash, but the Panthers defense has shown signs of real improvement in recent weeks and led by Luke Kuechly it’s hard to see Newton failing to outscore Lindley and the Cardinals. Home win for the 7-9 Panthers. Cardinals 10, Panthers 17
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
These two AFC North rivals do battle for the third time this season, with the Steelers relying on an explosive offense rather than a stout defense, as would normally be the case. Antonio Brown has without question been the best receiver in the NFL this season, certainly on a statistical front, and his 129 receptions have been backed up by running back Le’Veon Bell and his 1,361 rushing yards. Ben Roethlisberger threw 32 touchdown passes on the year, including a two game stretch where he tossed for 14 scores. Baltimore’s defense isn’t the force it used to be either, although Terrell Suggs is still going strong having recorded 12 sacks on the year. Ultimately home-field advantage and the fact that Roethlisberger should outplay Joe Flacco gives the Steelers the edge at home over their rivals.
Ravens 16, Steelers 27
Cincinnati @ Indianapolis
AFC North and South do battle in Indiana as the Colts host the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the absence of any sort of a running game Andrew Luck has carried the Colts, tossing 40 touchdown passes and throwing for over 4,700 yards, with T.Y Hilton emerging as his favourite target. Hilton averaged 16.4 yards per reception in the regular season, and his speed has helped stretch opposing defenses as veteran Reggie Wayne has slowed down. Bengals QB Andy Dalton had a mediocre touchdown to interception ratio of 19 to 17 in the regular season, and he’ll be without his favourite target in A.J Green, who will miss the tie with concussion. If the Bengals are to keep pace with Luck and Indianapolis it’s likely their ground game will have to do the damage, with Jeremy Hill topping the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career this season. Unfortunately for the Bengals it might not be enough, not with the inconsistent Dalton leading the offense.
Bengals 24, Colts 31
Detroit @ Dallas
This game is the best of the four when you consider the records on show, as both the Lions and Cowboys finished 2014 with 11-5 records. Dallas has managed to recreate the triumvirate of play-makers that characterised their title winning teams of the 90’s, with Romo, Bryant and Murray performing the roles of Aikman, Irvin and Smith. The Dallas offensive line is also one of the best in football, with rookie guard Zach Martin earning all-pro honours earlier this week. The Lions offense revolves around Calvin Johnson and he’s Matthew Stafford’s primary target on most downs, however the likes of Reggie Bush and Golden Tate are more than capable of picking up some of the slack. One area in which Detroit definitely have an advantage is one defense, where Ndamukong Suh leads a ferocious pass rush and water tight run defense. That edge, combined with the struggles Dallas should have when it comes to covering Johnson, has led me to pick the visitors and the upset, setting up an NFC North rematch with Green Bay next weekend. Lions 28, Cowboys 27
Who do you think will progress to the Divisional Round of the play-offs? Leave a comment or have your say on twitter by tweeting @fredjstanley