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There was only one close game over the wildcard weekend, but for the most I still found it enjoyable, although it was another painful end for the Bengals. In a league where only one team wins it all, thirty one teams end in disappointment so lets take a moment to say goodbye to the four teams we lost before going on to look at this week’s games.

As was feared, the Cardinals ran out of steam with too many players injured and a disastrous third string quarterback that couldn’t move the ball. What I didn’t expect was the dreadful performance of Cardinals’ punter Drew Butler, which you can ill afford if your offensive is not moving the ball. There was only so much that Bruce Arians and his staff could do despite the excellent job they have done all year.

The Steelers felt the loss of Le’Veon too much to get the balance they needed in the offence and their defence couldn’t play up to the level they needed to win this game. It would seem a overhaul is required in the Steelers secondary with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu coming to the end of storied careers, and Michael Mitchell has not been convincing all season and was not good in this one.

The most painful paragraphs of this whole blog are these concerning the departure of the Bengals for another season. All I wanted from this season for it to be a success, was for the playoff drought to finally end. However, this was not a healthy year with major pieces of both the offence and defence injured, but the major issues being discussed after the game were the usual questions surrounding Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton.

I think people often underestimate the huge turn around Lewis has affected in Cincinnati, who for years were dreadful. He has created the structures that enabled this team to become one of the most talented in the league, who now draft consistently and considered one of the better teams in the league at this. There’s no getting around the game management and tactical issues that people raise, but he is by far not the only coach who suffers from these problems and I don’t see a coach that makes me leap out and say they should replace him. I also believe in consistency and given the injuries, plus the breaking in of two new co-ordinators I feel like another season is more than fair. There simply aren’t that many teams who have made the playoffs every year for the last four, yet alone in a division as competitive as the AFC North.

As for Andy Dalton, he is not as good as Andrew Luck, but then few quarterbacks are. Nor have many won forty games in their first four seasons or taken their team to the playoffs in each of those seasons. The big game jitters are a worry, but with something more like his full set of weapons and a burgeoning run game that is part of a coordinator’s plan to help him, Dalton can win games. The contract is not the horror that is frequently quoted, and after next season he is pretty easy to cut from a salary cap point of view. However, I think a second year working with Hue Jackson will see improvements, and even a functional quarterback is not easy to come by so the question for those who would get rid of him is, and replace him with whom? I would much rather have the Bengals’ current quarterback situation than say, the Bears.

The final team leaving this week were the lions, whose own playoff woes rival the Bengals with twenty-three seasons separating them from their last playoff win, and an eight playoff game losing streak that is tied for the longest in the league. If there are questions about Andy Dalton, then surely more must be made of Mathew Stafford who is now 0-17 in road games where the opposing team finished with a winning record. This might be one of those slightly made up stats, but it speaks to the mistakes that pepper his game, and whilst he has tantalising physical skills that allow him to make some amazing plays, he had ample support from his defence this year and still couldn’t get the win this weekend. Unfortunately, the offence just wasn’t good enough and it will be interesting to see what happens to this team in the offseason, particularly with Suh on his way.

So having waved goodbye to four more teams, we should take a look at what should be a brilliant set of games.

Ravens @ Patriots

DVOA:                       Ravens                        Patriots

Overall                        5th                                2nd
Offensive                    9th                                3rd
Defensive                    6th                                11th
Special Teams 2nd        2nd                                5th

The Ravens will be heading to New England knowing that they have beaten the Patriots in the playoffs on the road, and will have no fear of them.

The Patriots got off to a rocky start this season, but we should have known better than to question if this was the end of the Brady/Belichick era as having gone 2-2 and losing heavily to the Chiefs on Monday night football, the Patriots won seven straight and finished the season 12-4.

The Patriots offence struggled to begin with, as protection issues meant that Tom Brady did not get the protection he needed, but these got cleared up and as Rob Gronkowski got better over the course of the season so did the offence. They don’t have the classical receiving corp that one would expect for such a high ranked offence, but the structure of the routes in this offence does not demand that and they are a threat to whatever defence they face. The Ravens defence has been good, but they were only twentieth by DVOA in the regular season against tight ends, so the Patriots may well be able to make very good use of Gronkowski in this game. They will need to as the real weakness for the Ravens is their secondary, but if there is a shortcoming in the Patriots offence, it is that they don’t have the receivers to stretch the field and take advantage of this, but I wouldn’t bet against Brady taking the short passes he can get and slowly whittling away to beat the Ravens.

If it is business as usual for Brady and the offence, things have looked a lot better for the Patriots defence this year. They reconfigured their secondary, and server times this season they double teamed the opposition’s best receiver and smothered their second receiver with Darelle Revis who really returned to from this season. They have made great use of Akeem Ayers, who has been a revelation since his trade from the Titans, and they’ve been effective in both the pass and run game, improving their overall ranking by nine places from last season, and giving Brady the support that he has been missing for a number of years.

That said, the Ravens offence has also improved a lot this year under new coordinate Gary Kubiak as I mentioned last week. That said, whilst they did enough to win last week, there are questions about Tory Smith’s fitness and Eugene Mornoe is listed as questionable and could be a huge miss for the Ravens. However, Joe Flacco maintained his impressive record in the playoff, but it will be interesting to see what his receivers can do against the Patriots secondary..

The Ravens’ secondary may be questionable, but they did okay last week and there front seven are really good. In Suggs and Doomerville they have two outstanding edge rushers, but the real problem for Brady could be Haloti Ngata, who gets excellent pressure through the middle and could really cause Brady problems this week.

I still expect the Patriots to win this week, but no one would be surprised if the Ravens nick it and I think this should be one hell of a game.

Panthers @ Seahawks

DVOA:                       Panthers                      Seahawks

Overall                        11th                              1st
Offensive                    18th                              4th
Defensive                   3rd                                1st
Special Teams            29th                              19th
The Seahawks season were another team that had a shaky start to the season that they turned around, although this time it was on the defensive side of the ball. However, in the opening game of the season they looked excellent as they battered the Packers at home and everyone though the Champions would be strong all year.

However, there were problems on defence with players adjusting to new roles on the defensive line and injuries at linebackers meaning they had young players out there. As the season continued they got players, and for weeks now they have looked like the terrifying team from last year and they managed to finish 12-4 to get the number one seed.

The Seahawks offence is built around the run game, but whilst they are deficient in receivers, yet Russell Wilson continues to impress with both his arms and legs. There doesn’t need to be too much written about how good Marshawn Lynch is, but he’ll need to set the tone for the Seahawks offence to be effective.

The Panthers have played the Seahawks close in their last few meetings, but these have all be in Carolina, I can see this as being a close game as the Panthers have a defence that can keep the Seahawks close, but I don’t fancy anyone to go into Seattle and win.

This could particularly be the case as Cam Newton still misses too many simple throws that you have to convert to compete with the best teams. It is rare that you will see a good quarterback with such little touch, everything is just fired in. It also doesn’t help that they lost rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to a broken foot that he picked up in training this week. His numbers may not be amazing, but he had really come on late in the season and he protected Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly so they could make plays at the linebacker position.

I wouldn’t write of the Panthers, but they are the team that I would be most surprised about if they won.

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