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I got up early on Monday to watch the condensed Bengals at Steelers without knowing the score, and was thoroughly miserable about the result, so it was with some reluctance that I went through the final sheet of my picks spreadsheet. However, thanks to the late games, I managed to pull two games back on Dan, and so despite being behind for most of the season I managed to pull out a one game win. This happiness lasted for an hour or two before my worry about the upcoming weekend began to set in.

Still, we now come to the part of the year where I get to see all the games so let’s take a look at the upcoming Wildcard Weekend.

Cardinals @ Panthers

DVOA:                       Cardinals                     Panthers

Overall                       22nd                              25th
Offensive                    23rd                              20th
Defensive                   7th                                15th
Special Teams            21st                              30th

There are times when trying to follow an entire league where you get things wrong. The human brain is used to looking for patterns and narratives, and we are also used to putting labels on things and leaving them there. In something as complicated as sport this can be a problems as we often try to fit a narrative to random events, but it is also possible to miss the development of a team across the season if you are not watching carefully enough. I have seen every play of the Bengals season so far, but it is simply not possible for me to do this for thirty-two teams. Looking back, I still had the impression I got watching the Panthers in week six in mind when I wrote about them last week, and this is despite going through the coaching tape that told a different story in week nine.

I went back and watched them beat up on the Falcons in the final game of the season to get them into the playoffs, and I think is going to be an interesting game. The Panthers are playing better football now than they were in mid-season. The defence has really come together with a physical front seven that is now getting a pass rush, and a young secondary that seems to have coalesced into a functional unit. They may only be ranked fifteenth by DVOA, but I would suggest they are playing better than that currently and they are an impressive unit.

On offence, the Panthers seem to have carved themselves an identity as a running team. They use multiple run options from within the same play, and I’m amazed at how much Cam Newton is running considering that it really isn’t that long ago that he sustain fractures to part of his back in a car crash. He is still firing the ball in the passing game, but there is a little more touch, but mainly there seems to be a coherent identity that is working for this team. They are going up against a run defence that is ranked seventh in the league, but that did give up a pair of two hundred yard games at the end of the season so they may be able to make this work in this game.

The Cardinals have limped their way into the playoffs, and despite having an 11-5 record, this is going to be a much closer game than the gap in regular season win total might suggest. The Cardinals coaching staff have done a brilliant job in coping with injuries, but having powered away to a 9-1 start, their season has limped home and it looks like the week fifteen injury to Drew Stanton was a quarterback too far.

The Cardinals have struggled in the run game for most of the year, but having first lost their vertical passing game when Carson Palmer went down for a second and final time, the loss of Drew Stanton has seriously hampered this unit. Whilst Ryan Lindley can make some good looking throws, he also routinely makes bad decisions and is 0-2 as a starter for the Cardinals, whilst throwing two touchdowns to four interceptions. He will be going against a physical defence that I suspect will be able to get turnovers against a young and inexperienced quarterback.

The defence has been the foundation of the Cardinals season, and ranked inside the top ten by DVOA for most of the season. It is a unit that uses a large number of defensive backs and pressure to force mistakes and cover the modern passing game. They rely on their corners standing up in outside coverage so they can frequently blitz and this pressure has only increased as defensive coordinator Todd Bowles seems to have been given licence to take more risks given the issues the Cardinals are having on the offensive side of the ball.

I think that this should be a fascinating game between two teams with really good defences and I will be interested to see how the Cardinals cope with the Panthers running attack, and how they try to attack the Panthers defence.

Ravens @ Steelers

DVOA:                       Ravens                                    Steelers

Overall                        5th                                8th
Offensive                    9th                                 2nd
Defensive                    8th                                30th
Special Teams             2nd                                12th
The Saturday schedule is rounded out with what should be a bruising encounter between AFC North rivals.

The Steelers have had an erratic season with some huge wins, and horrible losses to bad teams, but they managed to win out in December to take the division. They have mainly done this behind an offence that is ranked second in the league by DVOA, and that can be truly terrifying. The problem is that a major cog in that offence, second year back Le’Veon Bell, who has looked like the best back in the league for long stretches of the season is going to miss this game with a knee injury he picked up in the final game against the Bengals. However, the way to attack this Ravens defence is through the air as their secondary has been hit hard by injuries, and the Steelers have the passing attack to do this. Whether they will be able to use the empty backfield sets with the running back split out as a receiver remains to be seen, but Antonio Brown is as good as any receiver in the league. The o-line has looked much more solid than has often been the case in recent Steelers seasons, and they will need to stand up in pass protection if they are going to have success this week.

Unusually for the Steelers, the defence has been the problem this season, ranked an uncharacteristic thirtieth by DVOA, they have been patchy with injuries and age apparently catching up with them. They have done okay in recent weeks and it has been noticeable that they have been leaving the younger secondary players in the line-up so they have consistent personnel rather than having the stalwarts Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu go in and out the line-up whilst they have been struggling with injuries. It is a sign of the problems that the Steelers have had that they pulled James Harrison out of retirement, but whilst he has shown flashes of his old self and has managed five and a half sacks in eleven games, this is a defence that has been merely coping for large parts of the season.

The Ravens are an interesting team that for large parts of the season looked like the most complete team in the AFC North, but couldn’t quite overcome the problems they developed in the secondary to win the division.

On offence the Ravens have looked good for most of the year, working behind a rejuvenated running game that saw Justin Forsett gain 1266 yards for the season, and a very solid season in the passing game. Joe Flacco has quietly thrown for nearly four thousands yards, and more importantly has throw twenty-seven touchdowns with only twelve interceptions. Steve Smith has been struggled to maintain the early hot start he had, but managed to gain over a thousand yards receiving and added some fire to the offence to go with Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels. This turn around from a DVOA ranking of thirtieth last year demonstrates what a good hire Gary Kubiak was as offensive coordinator.

The problem for the Ravens down the stretch has been the number of injuries they’ve had in the secondary. They have got away with this to an extent as they haven’t really faced a tough passing attack but this is going to change this week. The Ravens will have to hope that the fearsome combination of Elvis Dummervil and Terrell Suggs as pass rushers will get enough pressure to disrupt Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers. It may well help that they are getting Haloti Ngata back from a four game suspension, particularly as the rookie tackle Timmy Jernigan who has been playing so well in Ngata’s absence will miss the game with a foot injury.

Whilst I would never discount the Ravens, I fear that their secondary will be exposed in this game and whilst Le’Veon Bell will be a huge miss for the Steelers, I think their passing game is more terrifying than anything the Ravens have to offer.

Bengals @ Colts

DVOA:                       Bengals                       Colts

Overall                        13th                              12th
Offensive                    18th                              17th
Defensive                    14th                              13th
Special Teams             6th                                8th
The Colts are an interesting case as if you look at the DVOA rankings, you would think this is a well balanced team. However, this is a team that is built on a couple of exceptionally good players that are masking what is to me an unconvincing roster. These are brave words considering the beating they gave the Bengals earlier in the season and how rotten the Bengals playoff results in recent years have been, but I will try to justify them below.

I’m not sure there is a team that relies more on their quarterback to win than the Colts. They have a running game that is ranked twenty-seventh in the league, and are a team who thought it was a good idea to trade a first round pick for Trent Richardson. This team goes where Andrew Luck takes them, but the o-line does not give him great protection and it is only because TY Hilton is amazing at getting open, and the support Coby Fleener and an ageing Reggie Wayne give in the passing game that Luck is able to drag them along. However, Luck has been throwing a lot of interceptions recently and has been having a big problem with fumbles. There is no question that Luck is a really good quarterback, but he can only overcome so much and this team ask him to do a lot.

On defence the Colts have played well in patches, and have a really good corner in Vontae Davis, but in truth I am surprised by their ranking by DVOA. That said, if you look at their record you can see problems against better teams as they got pounded by the Patriots in the run game, giving up 246 yards as part of five hundred yard day, and they gave up over six hundred yards against the Steelers. The Bengals have been running the ball really well recently behind rookie Jeremy Hill and they will need to hold up against this if they want to win.

The Bengals have coped pretty well since losing both coordinators from last year, but having said that it was a playoff win or bust this year, it all comes down to this game.

On offence, the talk of a commitment to the running game that there was in the offseason has solidified in recent weeks around a running game headed up by rookie Jeremy Hill with Giovani Bernard spelling him. There have been problems in the passing game with AJ Green battling injuries for large parts of the seasons and I suspect he will miss this game with a concussion. This is almost a microcosm of the problems this season as he’s been battling a bicep injury he sustained going for a ball that sailed on Andy Dalton, and picked up the concussion when trying to fight for yards at the end of the Steelers game. The problem with Andy Dalton is that whilst he has got his team into the playoffs for the first four years of his career, he can be inconsistent and these problems tend to surface in big games. That said, the Bengals looked good in getting their Monday night win against the Broncos, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is really helping Dalton succeed by focussing on the running game and asking him to do less, whilst it often felt like Jay Gruden was asking him to do too much in past years. The Patriots demonstrated that you can be physical and run on the Colts so hopefully this can work in this game.

On defence, the Bengals have slipped with the departure of Mike Zimmer to be head coach of the Vikings, and have struggled against the run for large parts of the season. They are top ten in pass defence, which is a measure of how good and deep their secondary is as the pass rush has been patchy all season. However, injuries at linebacker, particularly missing Vontaze Burfict for most of the season has really hurt them in the run game. The defence line has not been quite up to where it was last season, but Geno Atkins is still coming back to full form since his ACL injury and Margus Hunt has been out recently as they try to patch up the loss of Michael Geathers to the Buccaneers.

I think that the Bengals can finally win this game, and get revenge for the shut out loss earlier in the season. Both the Bengals and the Panthers came out flat the week after they played five quarters of football, and I think this contributed to the Bengals horrible loss against the Colts. If the Bengals can look after the ball and run the ball effectively, then they can finally get that playoff win and try to push on, but I would never count out a team with Andrew Luck at quarterback.

Lions @ Cowboys

DVOA:                       Lions                           Cowboys

Overall                        14th                              6th
Offensive                    19th                              4th
Defensive                    3rd                                22nd
Special Teams             31st                              13th
The final game of the weekend pits the Cowboys great offence against the Lions top notch defence.

The Cowboys finally got their winning season, but the overhaul on this team was not flashy, it was a sustained investment in the offensive line, which has resulted in one of the most impressive units in the league. The o-line enabled DeMarco Murray to break Emmitt Smith’s single season rushing record for the Cowboys and enabled him to become the only back to start the season with eight straight 100 yard games, breaking Jim Brown’s previous best of six. Not only have done this, but Tony Romo regularly gets such great protection that he can sit in the pocket for five or six seconds without having to worry about the oppositions pass rush. That said, they are going against the third ranked offense by DVOA, that will offer them a real challenge, but Romo has had more support than he’s ever had, and the results in the pass game have flourished alongside the running attack.

The Cowboys defence however, has been held together by smoke and mirrors all season, with co-ordinator Rod Marinelli crafting a credible defence with a dearth of talent. They are not spectacular, but they are playing hard for their coach who has been working overtime to create way to rush the passer and keep his team in games. This unit may be a problem if the Cowboys get deeper into the playoffs, but they might not be in this game.

The Lions have all the talent at the skill positions to be a good offence, even if Calvin Johnson has struggled with injury as they finally have a second receiver to go with him. In fact, Golden Tate has actually led the team in receiving yards and receptions this year, but the problem for this unit has been the o-line that has often struggled and this unit has never quite taken off except from when they’ve played the Bears. The other problem is that Matthew Stafford has never really convinced as a quarterback, and he has a habit of locking onto receivers, and whilst this is not exactly a bad plan when you are throwing to Calvin Johnson, it doesn’t necessarily win you the big game.

What has been winning games for this team has been the defence that I would have said was playing with more discipline this season. However, how Ndamukong Suh won his appeal having stomped on Aaron Rodgers I do not know. He has been part of a fearsome defensive line that has helped this defence lead the league in run defence by DVOA. They also have one of the league’s standout coverage linebackers in DeAndre Levy, and a pass defence that has been just as good as the rush defence.

This could very well be the game of the weekend, but I would think you just have to trust Tony Romo more than Mattew Stafford, who is 0-16 on the road against teams with a winning record. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of statistics, but that one does seem to speak of a problem.

I’m really looking forward to this week’s games, so roll on the postseason football.

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