2014 NFL Playoffs: What to watch for on Wild Card Weekend


The wild-card round of the NFL playoffs is sometimes viewed as the warm-up act to the divisional round, when the top four seeds in the league start postseason play.

Those who take that viewpoint are missing out, though. Nine Super Bowl champions have played in the wild-card round, including three of the last four and six since the 2005 season -- which is, perhaps, an indication of how little separates playoff teams, as free agency and the draft have shaped parity.

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This season, the wild-card round also showcases the turnover among playoff teams. Just three teams playing this weekend were in the playoffs last year: the Bengals and Colts, who square off on Sunday, and the Panthers, who just become the first repeat champions in NFC South history, drawing a matchup with the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday. All four of the top seeds, meanwhile -- the Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers -- were in last season's tournament.

This weekend, then, is the chance to figure out if there is an upstart team capable of toppling those four. This is also likely the last time we will have this playoff format. Playoff expansion is expected to be approved in time for the 2015 postseason, and that will likely add another two teams to the mix -- an additional wild card in each conference -- changing the schedule of games and perhaps even how many teams get byes. The most likely structure would give a bye only to the top team in each conference, which means Wild Card Weekend would feature six games instead of four. This weekend might seem calm and quiet compared to that.

And now, a look at the games:

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN

No team since 1936 has scored fewer points over its last six games than the Cardinals and still gone on to make the playoffs. Arizona scored just 73 points in that span, going 2-4. With starting quarterback Carson Palmer going on injured reserve after a Week 10 win and backup Drew Stanton going down in Week 15, the Cardinals will be forced to rely on third-stringer Ryan Lindley under center.

The 7-8-1 Panthers are, famously, a division champion with a losing record. Carolina is also the first team in history to make the playoffs despite enduring a seven-game winless streak during the regular season. The Panthers won their final four contests, albeit against teams that finished the season with losing records.

The big-picture question is whether either of these teams has enough offense to make a run beyond this game. The shorter-term question is whether Arizona's capacity for withstanding injuries might have run out with Stanton, whose knee injury -- which was followed by an infection -- will keep him out Saturday. While Arizona's offense has struggled without Palmer -- the Cards have scored just four offensive touchdowns in their last 27 quarters -- it has nearly ground to a halt in the last four games, averaging 13 points per contest. The Panthers' defense, meanwhile, has allowed just 10.8 points per game in that span.

A matchup to keep an eye on: Can Arizona's defense slow the Carolina running game and contain Cam Newton? The Cardinals have struggled against mobile quarterbacks, going 1-3 in games against Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Kaepernick and Wilson combined to average almost 70 rushing yards per game and nearly 8 yards per carry against Arizona. The Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in their last 11 games, and Newton averaged 65.7 yards per game in his last three games, adding a rushing touchdown in each.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

This year especially, this AFC North rivalry -- a split during the regular season -- has been turned on its head. It used to make for some of the most physically brutal games on the slate, with Baltimore and Pittsburgh building around smothering defenses that were so imposing, Ravens safety Ed Reed said he was reminded of football from the 1970s.

Now? These are two of the top scoring teams in the league, with strong-armed quarterbacks (both set career highs in passing yards this season) and dynamic receivers, and two of the top five running backs by yardage.

But of course, one of those running backs won't be playing Saturday night. Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 1,361 yards and had 2,215 total yards from scrimmage, has officially been ruled out by the Steelers, thanks to the hyperextended knee he suffered in the regular-season finale. This certainly seems to be an advantage for the Ravens, whose run defense is ranked fourth -- although it also forces the ball even more into the hands of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who torched the Ravens for six touchdowns and no interceptions in their Week 9 meeting.

Both teams had oddly uneven seasons (the Steelers managed to lose to the Bucs and Jets), but this stat might tell us more about their respective playoff preparedness than anything else: The Ravens went 2-4 against 2014 playoff teams (0-3 on road) and were 1-6 against teams that finished with winning records, while the Steelers went 5-1 against playoff teams (3-0 at home).

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

In Week 7, the Colts crushed the Bengals, 27-0, rolling up 506 yards of offense, including 171 yards rushing. The Bengals were held to 135 total yards and just 32 rushing yards.

Of course, that was then. This is now. And right now, the Colts don't look nearly as dominant. Indy -- which averaged 31.8 points in its first 12 games -- is averaging just 19 points in its last four.

Quarterback Andrew Luck, who might have more to shoulder than any other quarterback in the NFL, could be wearing down. His completion percentage dropped in December to 53.6, 10 full points below where it was in the first three months of the season. He also averaged nearly 150 fewer passing yards per game and threw just six touchdown passes against five interceptions last month. It is no coincidence that the Colts haven't been able to run in that span, either. Trent Richardson does not have a pickup of 10 or more yards in the last five games.

Still, if Luck is revived by the playoffs, the Bengals might have trouble keeping up, particularly if receiver A.J. Green is unable to go following a concussion. Green returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday, but the star wideout did not practice on Friday, when Cincy officially listed him as doubtful for Sunday. (For what it's worth, Green didn't participate in that Week 7 loss.) The rise of rookie running back Jeremy Hill, who led the entire league in rushing from Week 9 to Week 17, takes some of the pressure off quarterback Andy Dalton, who has yet to win an NFL playoff game (0-3).

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Having Ndamukong Suh available changes the Lions' prospects dramatically. Without him, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray might have run wild through Detroit's defense. With him, well, consider these numbers: This will be the 24th time a team with a top-two rushing offense faces an opponent with a top-two rushing defense in the playoffs. The team with the better rushing defense has won 13 times, including the last three.

The Lions will need their defense to play superbly, because the offense has lagged this season. (Although the unit did improve in the closing weeks, averaging 24.8 points in the last five games, compared to 17.9 points in the first 11.) Matthew Stafford has started just one playoff game and, somewhat incredibly, is 0-16 in his career on the road in regular-season matchups with teams that finished with winning records.

But this one, as always, will be a referendum on Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, whose mixed performance in big games (he is 1-3 in the playoffs) trails him -- even though he has enjoyed a career season. The Cowboys averaged 41.3 points per game in their four December victories, with Romo completing nearly 75 percent of his passes.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.



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