Wild Card Preview: Saturday

After watching the NFL for many a year, there has been a few constants. First is that talking about the Pro-bowl will always be far more exciting than actually watching it. Second is that Wild Card Weekend is the most exciting weekend in the NFL Calendar. With this in mind & finally with time to do something other than work, sleep & lay in bed with a ridiculous fever, I figured now would be a good idea to write up a few notes I made for the podcast & put in our predictions. The truth is however we all agreed on the results, so I won’t be doing it in the usual table format, just put in a winner with a brief explanation & with an ‘X-factor’, for the win. Anyway let’s get to it.

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

The Cardinals have consistently been the masters of proving critics wrong. However after a Season of constant injury issues, it appears the Cardinals look like they might finally be slowing down. As I write this 3rd String QB Ryan Lindley has been announced as the starter after the loss of Carson Palmer & Drew Stanton to injury. Along with the loss of 2 QB’s the Cards have also lost starting Running Back Andre Ellington to a Hernia Operation, leaving back up Kerwynn Williams in charge of Rushing duties, against one of the best Line-backers in the league.

On Defence the Cards have schemed their way to relevance, using Defensive Backs to counter the ever increasing speed of ‘No-Huddle’ Offences & more mobility at QB, proving that Todd Bowles seems to be a Defensive mastermind. Without Todd Bowles the Cards would almost certainly be the worst team in the NFC West.

The NFC South has undoubtly been the laughing stock of the NFL Season, with no teams finishing with a winning record. However whilst the league was picking themselves up after a Season long laughing fit, the Carolina Panthers were doing something impressive. After a 7 game losing streak the Panthers found some traction in December & won out through December, putting them in the Playoffs. Yes it was with a losing record, but it was also with something that every Super bowl Champion has had & a word that I’ll be using a lot in this post & every post for the coming month, ‘momentum’. Anyone that listened to the podcast this week will already be sick of me talking about it, but it is one of the most important factors of a Playoff push. Anyway there is no denying that the Panthers have gained some traction & areas that have looked weak all Season, now seem to have solidified. The Offensive Line was an area that I believe drastically needed help & was being criminally overlooked, however they seem to have got it sorted. Byron Bell, Mike Remmers & Andrew Norwell have been particularly impressive after a slow start, with Ryan Kalil being his usual dependable self.

It’s on Defence that this team has really solidified though. Whilst Kuechly has been everywhere & Thomas Davis has been his usual impressive self, it’s been everything around these 2 that’s been particularly impressive. On the Line Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson & Kony Ealy have filled in the gap left by Greg Hardy & are gradually beginning to look like last year’s team. As a result of the improvements in the front 7, the Secondary has upped their game somewhat, with Bene Benwikere & Josh Norman taking advantage of the pressure caused by an effective front 7.

Result: Panthers Win

Whilst the Cardinals have consistently proved us wrong, I have to think that the momentum the Panthers have right now is easily enough to take them past a Ryan Lindley led Cards team. It does feel that these 2 teams are meeting in the middle, with the Cardinals running out of steam & the Panthers seemingly on the up, meaning I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cards get at least one Playoff win, but right now I just feel that the Panthers are the more complete team.

X-Factor: Greg Olsen: There are a few players on the Panthers team that I would consider difference makers that have gone massively under the radar. Greg Olsen has had an unreal Season, not just as one of Cam Newton’s no. 1 weapons, but also as a blocker. Olsen in my opinion has had the best Season of any Tight End who has played in a more traditional sense for the role. When the Line struggled, Cam has been an exceptional blocker. When the weak Receiving Corps struggled, Olsen has acted as a no. 1 Receiver. Olsen is Cam Newton’s Right Hand man & has made up for a lot of boneheaded moves from the trigger man.

X-Factor: Calais Campbell: Calais Campbell’s Season will go under the radar in terms of being in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, as he doesn’t have the Sacks that Justin Houston has & he certainly hasn’t been the human highlight reel that JJ Watt has been. But what Campbell has done, has been able to cultivate pressure as part of a Defensive front that has been more often than not lacked numbers in favour of bringing in additional Defensive Backs. Campbell’s play has been nothing short of astonishing & proof that you really have to dig deeper than simply looking at stats to see that there is some unbelievable talent in this league that are real game changers. Campbell is one of them.

X-Factor: Cam Newton & Jonathan Stewart: This is kind of an obvious one, but probably the most important of them all. When you look at the 2 teams there is a lot of similarities. Both have great Defences, both have struggled to with their Receivers & both have defied the odds to get to the Playoffs. However as I mentioned at the start of this post, the Cardinals injuries at QB & Running Back have left them a little toothless. The Panthers however have got it together behind a solid Offensive Line. Cam Newton still makes mistakes, but makes less of them & generally makes up for it with the odd flash of genius. Jonathan Stewart has been the most solid option Carolina have had at Running back all Season, with a number of injuries meaning they have struggled to do what has been consistently their strong point on Offence. But finally they have found the perfect combination of Running Back & Offensive Line. Now they seem to be moving the ball on the ground & any doubts that Stewart is their no. 1 back have gone out the window. Stewart & Newton will almost certainly be the difference makers in this game, with the Cards simply not being able to keep up with the Panthers.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

There are a few rivalries that outshine the others. Bears vs. Packers will always be a classic game between 2 hated rivals & Niners vs. Seahawks has had more than its fair share of bad blood. But arguably the most vicious of these rivalries is between the Ravens & the Steelers. But what’s weird this time is the inconsistencies of both teams this year & 2 teams that have regularly hung their hat on their Defences, have actually been winning games through dominant performances on Offence.

For a long period of time this Season the Ravens have looked like the most consistent team in a very competitive AFC North. However in recent weeks they’ve slipped slightly & it nearly saw them miss out on a playoff spot, if not for a last minute spark from their QB Joe Flacco who had been struggling. Justin Forsett however has been one of the Season’s biggest surprise package, doing what in my opinion is a better job than Ray Rice would ever have done & at the same time beating out Taliaferro & Pierce for the starting job. Steve Smith started strong this Season & for a while the Ravens & Smith looked like a match made in heaven, however as the year’s gone on the relationship seems to have cooled a little & what looks like one of the Comeback players of the year has now sunk into relative obscurity. A lot of the issues the Ravens have had could be attributed to injuries on the Offensive Line late in the Season, in particular losing both tackles has meant that this team has had to make some drastic moves, with Rookie James Hurst filling in at Left Tackle & exceptional Guard Marshal Yanda filling in at Right Tackle, leaving John Urschel to fill in at Right Tackle. Not an ideal situation. Regardless, this Offence is capable of scoring points, but a recent lull has to be a concern

On Defence the Ravens have looked like a complete unit, but in actual fact have simply done a very good job of covering holes. Maybe that’s a little harsh, I mean the front 7 has been outstanding this Season, even without Ngata for the last 4 games, they’ve been outstanding. This year’s Rookie class has been incredible & the 1st & 2nd Rd picks of the Ravens have been no exception. Timmy Jernigan has been a surprise hit despite falling to the 2nd Rd, even after Receiving almost unanimous 1st Rd grades, including many experts believing he’d go in the early teens. CJ Mosley has been a decent candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year & outside of Odell Beckham Jr has probably been the most consistent 1st Rd. player. But really there is talent overflowing in this front 7, with Suggs, McPhee, Upshaw & Dumervil all having great Seasons. However my concern is on the Secondary that has been masked by how good the front 7 is. Really for me it seems that Ladarius Webb has been the only stand out player of this unit. Matt Elam has shown flashes, but really he’s failed to impress after a distinctive ‘meh’, Season last year. So despite exceptional play from the front 7, the Secondary could have their hands full with the many talents of the Steelers Receiving Corps.

Speaking of which…

The Steelers Offence has had their fair share of issues this Season, putting in ridiculous performances one game & immediately looked incompetent in the next. Roethlisberger has shown flashes of brilliance & put in one of the single best QB performances I’ve ever seen. However the real star of this Offence has been Running Back Le’Veon Bell who in my opinion, has shown flashes of Walter Payton, which is the about the highest compliment I can pay someone. The real kick in the teeth though is that he looks unlikely to play in this one, missing the game with a knee injury, leaving the duties of Running Back to Josh Harris & Free Agent’s most popular Running Back Ben Tate. Whilst this must smart for the Steelers Offence, they have plenty of weapons at Receiver & plenty of opportunities to take advantage of a weak Secondary.

On Defence the team has struggled, but in more recent weeks seems to have found their feet. The main issues revolve around an aging Secondary that has definitely lost a step. But with injuries to Ike Taylor & Troy Polamalu, they seem to have stumbled upon better options in Will Allen, Brice McCain & Antwon Blake, who have all been responsible for an improvement in the Steelers Defence. That being said McCain & Blake are no taller than 5’9 & could struggle against bigger Receivers like Torrey Smith. The front 7 has been pretty solid, in particular I’ve been impressed by James Harrison who came out of retirement to become a staple of this unit, a player who by all intensive purposes was done. Lawrence Timmons & Jason Worilds have also looked impressive & been regular pieces of the Steelers front 7. Whereas the Ravens had a near perfect draft, the Steelers weren’t quite so lucky. Ryan Shazier has struggled since coming back from injury, after a strong start. Stephon Tuitt had a weak start to the Season but seems to have been the reverse Shazier, as he appears to be transforming into a decent player. This Defence has had an up & down Season much like the rest of the team, but on their day they can cause problems for any Offence.

Result: Steelers Win.

It simply for me comes down to not trusting the Ravens Offence after how they’ve played over the last couple of weeks, whereas the Steelers (who themselves have been up & down), have put some wins together & created some form on both sides of the ball. Even without Le’Veon Bell this is a potent Offence that should be able to take full advantage of a weak Secondary. However in rivalry games things can get crazy & outside of the last few games Flacco has looked very impressive this Season silencing any doubters including myself. Even in the last game Flacco did enough to win the game & take the Ravens to the Playoffs. Also the Steelers have the ability to implode at the least opportune moments; I just think the Steelers ability to score points will be enough to win this game.

X-Factor: Antonio Brown: Brown has been arguably the best Receiver in the league this year & would be the standout star of the team if not for Le’Veon Bell. Before Odell Beckham was making catches that set twitter alight, Brown was already doing it. Seemingly making endless circus catches. Brown will almost certainly be going up against Ladarius Webb, who’s been solid all Season…well except for one game…against the Steelers…well, more specifically against Antonio Brown. If Brown is indeed lining up against Webb, it means that Wheaton & Bryant could see more targets, against a weak Ravens Secondary.

X-Factor: James Hurst: Eugene Monroe hasn’t been the player he was last Season at Left Tackle & in truth James Hurst has done a great job as backup. However the loss of Rick Wagner might be the bigger problem. If both Hurst & Monroe are out it means splitting up the Guard duo of Yanda & Osemele who have been the best interior lineman in the league, with Yanda moving to Right Tackle. Ideally Hurst will take over from Wagner, with Monroe well enough to play, but right now it doesn’t look good, injuries to both Tackles makes Flacco & Forsetts job that much harder.

X-Factor: Haloti Ngata: Ngata made probably the boneheaded move of the Season, by taking Adderall, keeping arguably the best Defensive Raven side-lined for an important chunk of the Season. However getting him back for the Playoffs is huge & improves an already decent Ravens Defence. Ngata could be just enough to put the pressure on Roethlisberger who will have to take the lead on the Steelers Offence without Bell. Ngata really is the definition of an X-Factor.

That’s the Saturday of Wild Card Weekend. Enjoy!