This time of year it has become a tradition for me and some others to make our NFL Playoffs picks against Bill Simmons and Peter King. So I am going to be making playoffs picks for the sixth consecutive year. The way it works is Bill posts his Friday column with his pick (and he posts his column as late as humanly possible on Friday of course) and the spread for each game, Peter King posts his picks on Thursday, and I keep score on how well Bill, Peter and the rest of the participants are doing. I will be making my picks against Bill Simmons, Peter King (though he doesn't use the spread, just outright picks the game, so I will pretend he is using the spread), and anyone else who wants to join. I am going to keep a tally on the right side of the blog on each participants' record. If anyone wants to participate, put your picks in the comments by 3pm on Saturday and I will add your name to the tally on the right side of the blog. I'm going to try to keep it to the first 5-7 people who put their picks in the comments along with Peter and Bill so we have about 8-10 participants...if even that many want to participate.
When it comes time for the Super Bowl, the tiebreaker will be
the number of points scored in the Super Bowl. These are the lines I will be using for these games.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-6.5)
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5)
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (-7.0)
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (-4.0)
Here are Peter's picks. I'll spare you the video and he chooses Carolina, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Dallas. Since Peter lives to vex me, he doesn't pick the score so I will assume he intends for Carolina, Pittsburgh and Dallas to cover the spread.
Here are Bill's picks.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
This really isn't that riveting of a game. It's no wonder it got the 4:30pm spot on Saturday. The Panthers aren't a very good team and the Cardinals are a very well-coached team that is running out of players on offense and has a banged-up defense. The Cardinals could be a good team if it weren't for injuries and the Panthers are a pretty healthy team that got by in a bad division. The Panthers have lost two straight home playoff games against NFC West teams for whatever that is worth. It's not a riveting matchup and whichever team scores 20 points first might be the winner.
The Panthers have a terrible offensive line. Don't get fooled otherwise. They start three undrafted free agents, have a guy they picked up off the street midseason starting at RT, a guy who can't do his job at LT, and the LG is an undrafted free agent who has played well, but still...he wasn't drafted. Oh, and the second-best offensive lineman is a rookie. The second-best wide receiver is Jerricho Cotchery and the best wide receiver tends to drop passes and is a rookie. Greg Olsen is the only receiver I would consider to be reliable and he may have to stay back and block if the offensive line can't do their job. The Panthers are going to try and run the ball, because when they do that, they win games. It's pretty simple for them. They can run the ball and keep the defense on their toes and it opens up the passing game. Cam Newton is more effective passing the football when he doesn't HAVE to run the football. So if Jonathan Stewart has a big game, then Carolina will win. The Cardinals are 13th in the NFL in rush defense and they have Calais Campbell who will probably have six sacks in this game.
On defense, the Panthers are very good when the pass rush shows up. Arizona will probably keep their quarterback well-protected and rely on their receivers to try and get open against a shaky Panthers secondary. Again, Carolina starts an old man and two rookies in the secondary. It's not an experienced group and I think Fitzgerald, Floyd, and the Browns have the edge in this matchup. Still, if Carolina can get to the quarterback with their pass rush (and it is a good pass rush with depth) they can drop Kuechly and Davis into coverage and it makes the defense look completely better. I think the Cardinals strength will lie in the passing game, but I don't know if I trust Ryan Lindley enough to see if they can take advantage of it.
On defense, the Cardinals are beaten up, but they have a pair of good corners in Peterson and Cromartie who won't have an issue neutralizing the Panthers receivers. Covering Greg Olsen will be the main issue for the Cardinals, because the Panthers will move him around and try to get a favorable matchup to exploit. If I were the Cardinals I would almost think of putting a corner on Olsen and trusting that the other two corners can match up with the Panthers receivers. Peterson can cover Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery will always be Jerricho Cotchery. It's not like special attention should be paid to him. So with Rucker and Campbell up front against the Panthers' offensive line getting pressure on Newton, there may not be many open windows for Newton to throw into. That means Newton will throw high and into tight windows. That's the best way to throw the Panthers offense off. Tighten the windows and Newton starts throwing high.
On offense, I don't trust the Cardinals running game at all really. None of the Cardinals running backs will strike fear into the Panthers defense, though teams that have dedicated themselves to running the ball on the Panthers have had a lot of success doing so (Steelers, etc). So the Panthers can be run on and they are a very aggressive defense who are susceptible to overrunning the football and opening up cutback lanes. Again, I see the Cardinals making quick passes with Lindley to negate the Panthers pass rush and test the Panthers secondary and their ability to tackle. This worked for a lot of teams against the Panthers this year. The Cardinals have the advantage in the secondary when on offense and Larry Fitzgerald lit up the Panthers a few years ago in a playoff game. Maybe he's up for a throwback day. In the end, I think Carolina squeaks by and is the first team to 20 points.
Carolina Panthers over Arizona Cardinals (+6.5) 20-17
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
According to Peter King this is the last game in this rivalry, so enjoy while you can I guess. I'm not sure where the Ravens and Steelers are planning on going or doing to where the rivalry will end, but this from the same guy who thought part of the Ravens rebuilding effort may end up being not re-signing the quarterback who just led them to a Super Bowl victory. These two teams don't like each other, which I'm sure will get mentioned only about 400 times during the telecast.
Now that Le'Veon Bell isn't playing, I feel like this should change my pick. Everybody loves Dri Archer, but he's not Le'Veon Bell. Few running backs are. Each of these teams won their matchup at home this year and the Ravens are 4th in the NFL against the run. Fortunately for the Steelers, they can run the ball, but they have become a very good passing team and the Ravens are 23rd in the NFL against the pass. This isn't really their fault because few teams have experienced the type of injuries in the secondary that the Ravens have experienced this year. The last three weeks the Ravens have faced Case Keenum, Connor Shaw and Blake Bortles. They struggled a bit in the three games prior to that when facing Ryan Tannehill, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers (of course, a lot of defenses struggle against Rivers and Brees). So the Ravens will need to keep the Steelers passing game in check if they want a chance to win the game. Few teams have been able to do that this year.
On offense, the Ravens rediscovered the running game this year with Justin Forsett and being able to run the ball effectively will allow the Smith brothers to have good matchups in the secondary they can exploit. The Steelers are much the same as the Ravens. They are 27th in passing yards allowed and 6th in rushing yards allowed, so they can be thrown on as well. It seems like Torrey and Steve Smith haven't played well at the same times this year. When one receiver is hot, the other isn't playing as well, so if both receivers play well at the same time then this game could be quite the shootout in the air. Of course, then the announcers will talk about how different it is that the Ravens and Steelers are slinging the ball around rather than running the ball. Either way, these two teams won't have similar game plans on offense, but both secondaries haven't performed well.
The Steelers are near the bottom of the NFL in sacks, while the Ravens have only allowed 19 sacks on the season. Getting to Joe Flacco and making him uncomfortable is going to be the #1 priority on defense for the Steelers. I'm sure Dick LeBeau will have something planned to get pressure on Flacco. Like every quarterback, Flacco is different when he's being pressured. The Ravens are third in the NFL in sacks while the Steelers are 17th in sacks allowed. The Steelers would probably be even lower if it weren't for the fact Ben Roethlisberger remains incredibly difficult to bring down. So the Ravens will have chances to get at Roethlisberger, but they need to bring him down. Easier said than done. He's like a weeble wobble.
In the end, this game is being played in Pittsburgh so I think that affects my pick. On a neutral field I would probably give the Ravens an edge because I believe what they lack on defense is made up for by the fact the Steelers seem to lack many of the same things. Homefield advantage will be important for the Steelers. The Ravens protect and get to the quarterback better than the Steelers. I think Josh Harris and Dri Archer are able to get some running room and at least give the Steelers some semblance of balance. Fortunately for the Steelers, this is the best they have been at passing the football in a long while. Both teams can throw on each other and which team can run the ball best to set up play action will be the team that wins the game. I think the Steelers pull out the win at home.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5) over the Baltimore Ravens 31-21
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
You may have heard something about this, but the Bengals haven't won a playoff game in quite a while. Andy Dalton also haven't played well in the playoffs, which you may have heard something about as well. I wasn't sure if this had been mentioned. He's been bad against the Texans twice and the Chargers once, at home. The good news is Dalton isn't at home, so he doesn't have to worry about being booed. The bad news is he is on the road against a very good Colts team. I guess the Colts are very good. The best teams they beat this year were Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Bengals game was at home. Other than that, the Colts have lost to every other playoff team they have played. The Bengals did manage to beat the Broncos and the Ravens twice, but are otherwise in the same boat. Plus, the Colts have already shut out the Bengals once this year. If Andy Dalton gets shut out again by the Colts, I can only imagine the reaction among media and fans. Hot takes will fly everywhere.
The Bengals have tried to neutralize the fact Andy Dalton isn't Andrew Luck by giving him a really good running game with Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. This is as opposed to the Colts who know Andrew Luck is Andrew Luck and have stuck him with a fairly non-existent running game now that Ahmad Bradshaw is out for the year. The Bengals are going to try and control the clock on offense and not allow Andrew Luck chances to run up points. I think Hue Jackson is a really good offensive coordinator, so I trust he will find ways to possess the football and try to avoid a shootout with Luck. The Bengals only held the ball for 20 minutes in the last meeting between these two teams, which obviously is unacceptable. As was learned last season in the playoffs against the Chiefs, and through this season, the Colts like to throw the football (a lot out of necessity) and the Bengals simply won't win a shootout. Run the ball. That's the way to beat the Colts.
In what may have been the most horrifying scene of the Bengals' season, they allowed Trent Richardson to not only run for 77 yards in the first meeting, but he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Usually Richardson needs 20-25 carries to get to 77 yards rushing. The Bengals can not allow this to happen again. Maybe they want this to happen. Plus, the Colts have Boom Herron now and he's been pretty good for them. He's been a lift for the Colts since Bradshaw went down. If he finds running room that would mean Luck isn't throwing the ball to one of his seven receivers who have 300 or more receiving yards on the season. So sure, maybe the Bengals will come out and invite the Colts to run the football. The Bengals' defense needs to get pressure on Luck and force him into making decisions, which he will do at times, but mostly they need to take Hilton out of the game. Of course, the Colts are counting on that and it will leave room for Coby Fleener, Reggie Wayne, and Donte Moncrief to make big plays in the passing game. Pick your poison, though the Bengals may have done that in the first game and it didn't work out.
The Colts know that the Bengals will blitz more this year than they did last year under Mike Zimmer. The Colts offensive line only gave up 29 sacks this year, though some of that is because of Luck's pocket awareness and ability to get rid of the football. Meanwhile the Bengals were last in the NFL in sacks with only 20, so the Bengals may have to blitz in order to get pressure on Luck. Of course this could play into the hands of the Bengals defense which was third in the NFL in interceptions. I can see the Colts continuing to try and run the football with Trent Richardson and Boom Herron, but they are going to want to score points early through the air and put pressure on the Bengals to keep up with them. The Colts know the Bengals probably don't want to get into a shootout, but would rather run the football and control the clock.
I think this game hinges on which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes and which team's defense doesn't allow the opposing team's offense to dictate the pace of the game. It's not that the Bengals want to play slow, but in a situation where Luck and Dalton are heaving the ball all over the field it favors the Colts. Dalton will throw interceptions too. He had 1 more interception than Luck did with 135 fewer passing attempts, plus he has the whole "He can't win in the playoffs" thing going against him. I don't know if Dalton has that in his head or not, but he's certainly aware he hasn't come up big in the playoffs. I think the Colts are going to win at home because they are simply the better team and their defense can play well enough to cause Dalton to commit a turnover or two. I don't love the Colts' defense, but Luck is the better quarterback and I can not bet on the Bengals to win on the road in the playoffs until I see it happen.
Indianapolis Colts (-4.0) over the Cincinnati Bengals 37-21
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys
Oh yes, I should get another knock against Jim Caldwell in while I still can. I doubted he was the right guy for the Lions head coaching job and still sort of do. I'll have patience before stating I was wrong, but he has done an excellent job of taking the Lions team to the playoffs. I didn't see this coming. I still don't think he's a great coach, but time will tell if he can continue to build on this season. Meanwhile, I totally thought Jason Garrett would be fired by now. It just seemed like this was the year that Garrett gets fired and then Jerry Jones throws some money at Jon Gruden or another proven head coach. There is still time for that I guess.
The Cowboys' success this year is inextricably tied to DeMarco Murray and how well he is running the football. I think Tony Romo has unfairly gotten shit in the past for his failings, but he's never had the running game that he has when DeMarco Murray is healthy. Romo can be great, but the Cowboys have built the team to run the football and everything else falls into place for Romo when the Cowboys can run the ball down the opposing team's throat. So on offense the Cowboys are going to try and run the ball, but they are going up against the best run defense in the NFL in the Lions. Strength meets strength. Of course the Lions have played two teams in the Top 10 in rushing yards (Jets and Panthers) and gave up 132 yards rushing to the Jets and 62 yards rushing to the Panthers. The Lions did give up 152 yards rushing to the Packers, who were 11th in the NFL in rushing yards. So the Lions are good against the rush, but a good rushing attack can gash them a bit.
Defensively, it's very obvious what the Cowboys are going to try and do. They need to make sure Calvin Johnson doesn't have 200 yards receiving on the day. He can't be stopped, but he can be slowed down. The Cowboys have the 26th ranked pass defense in the NFL and the Lions have two 1000 yard receivers. Like other Jim Caldwell-coached teams, the Lions don't really care to run the ball all that much. I guess they can run the ball, but they were 25th in the NFL in rushing attempts and 29th in yards per carry. Perhaps they have been waiting for Reggie Bush to get healthy to unleash him on unsuspecting teams in the playoffs. The Cowboys need to take away Stafford's passing lanes and force him to make tough throws. Of course, this means the Cowboys would have to get pressure on Stafford and they only have 28 sacks on the season. Stopping the Lions passing game and forcing Stafford into making tough throws while taking away Calvin Johnson is the key to winning on Sunday.
The Lions are going to want to take advantage of the suspect Cowboys secondary, but on the flip side of the fact the Cowboys only have 45 sacks on the season, the Lions have given up 45 sacks this year. The offensive line hasn't done the best job protecting Stafford. There is a clear 1-2 combination for the Lions in the passing game, while two running backs are their third and fourth best options. So making sure Tate and Johnson get their catches is important for their success. There's not a hell of a lot for Stafford to throw the ball to if those two guys are having a bad day. The final game of the year against the Packers showed the Lions can run the football with a healthy Bush and Bell, but I think it's going to be important to keep that momentum going. The Cowboys want to dedicate a safety to Calvin Johnson and know where Golden Tate is on each passing play, so if the Lions are running the ball effectively then it will make it more difficult for the Cowboys to track Johnson and Tate.
On defense, the Lions have to stop DeMarco Murray. I think if they stop Murray and force the Cowboys into becoming a passing team then they have a good chance of winning the game. If the Cowboys establish Murray early in the game then Dez Bryant is going to do his best Calvin Johnson impression (and possibly a better impression than Johnson can do) and have 200 yards receiving. The Lions have seemingly improved in the secondary, but in a matchup of Witten, Williams, and Bryant versus the Lions secondary I would still take the Cowboys three guys. Tony Romo is at his best when he can throw off play action and doesn't have to sling the ball around the field. So priority #1 for the Lions should be stopping the Lions' running game, though a very close priority #2 is making sure Dez Bryant doesn't go off for 200 yards.
I have difficulty trusting Matthew Stafford. I think he's a good quarterback, but I really have a hard time picking him on the road and not cringing. I'm going to be cringing it seems. I think the Lions can make an effort to stop Murray and will limit how many yards he is able to get, especially with Suh playing. On offense, I think the Lions can run the football better than they have shown this year with Bush and Bell both healthy. The matchup of the Lions' defensive line and the offensive line will be what to watch because the Lions have 42 sacks on the year and the Cowboys have given up 30 sacks on the season. I think the Lions get pressure on Romo and stop Murray just enough to keep Dez Bryant from having a monster game. I can't believe I am trusting Matthew Stafford, but I think the Lions are the better team and will get the road victory.
Don't feel bad Cowboys fans, I feel like every year there is a team I think who will lose in the first game and they end up appearing in the NFC/AFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl.
Detroit Lions (+7.0) over the Dallas Cowboys 31-28