Bringing back the picks this weekend! I love betting the playoffs because I do much, much better taking into account the entire season, how both teams have been playing, as well as home field. In January of 2013, I rode the Baltimore Ravens all the way to the Super Bowl starting on Wild Card Weekend.
These weeks also allow us to focus on only a couple games and really put together a strong case for ourselves on which way we should go, a lesson that every better should take with them into the regular season. We want to take educated guesses, not gambles. You wouldn’t throw a couple hundred dollars on a random stock that you know nothing about, so why would you do that on a game?
So without further ado, let’s get into this weekend’s picks!
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-6.5)/(o/u 38)
Carson Palmer was great this year, in games he started, the Cardinals were 6-0. In those games, Palmer had a completion percentage of 63% with 1626 yards (271 per game), 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Even missing three games early in the year, the Cardinals only lost to the Broncos with wins against the Giants and 49ers with Drew Stanton at the helm.
The Cardinals were 8-1 after the Rams game during which Palmer tore his ACL and since then, they’ve gone 3-4. The three wins were against Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis while the losses were to Seattle twice, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Since Palmer went down, the Cardinals haven’t scored more than 18 points in a game and are averaging a mere 12.4 per game. Since Drew Stanton went down in the second Rams game, those damn Rams, Ryan Lindley and the offense has been (understandably) horrendous, it doesn’t help that Andrew Ellington hasn’t played since Week 13 against the Falcons either.
On top of losing their second string quarterback this season, the Cardinals lost their backup running back Jonathan Dwyer because someone who (allegedly) assaults a woman and an 18-month old child has real serious mental issues.
Think about this, the Cardinals backfield for this playoff matchup is Ryan Lindley, Kerwynn Williams, Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes. Who?
In all reality, this might be the worst playoff matchup in NFL history. Think about this, that Cardinals third string backfield against the first under .500 playoff team since the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks at the beginning of Pete Carroll’s run in 2010. This isn’t exactly a marquee matchup, but hey, at least we’ve got some playoff football to watch on this first Saturday of 2015, why complain?!
Unlike the falling apart Cardinals, the Panthers have been hot in December. After coming into the month with a 3-8-1 record, the Panthers reeled off four straight against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta by an average score of 27.75 to 10.75. They even did it with Cam Newton missing that game against Tampa Bay due to his car accident.
This December, Jonathan Stewart has finally played like the running back the Carolina Panthers signed to a five year, $36.5 million dollar deal in 2012. During this four game winning streak, Stewart has run for 401 yards on 79 carries (5.08 ypc) with one touchdown.
During the winning streak, they’ve really committed to their running game averaging 188 rushing yards per game, while they only averaged 107 in their first 12 games. The Cardinals have the 13th best run defense in the NFL, only surrendering 108.7 rushing yards per game, while their passing defense is 29th giving up 259.5 per game through the air. But, they have given up the most yards per rush since Week 14 at 6.4 yards per carry.
While the Cardinals rush defense is pretty stout, I don’t see them stopping the Panthers in Carolina with the way they’ve played this December. During the last two games of the season, the Cardinals gave up 151 rushing yards to Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, I think Newton has a big day on the ground and throwing to Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, so good luck to Lindley and the Who. As I said before, the Panthers D has been great the last month giving up only 43 total points with only the Seahawks giving up less with 33. That Seahawks total was helped by the fact they played the Cardinals twice and yielded a total of nine points in those eight quarters.
Ryan Lindley is 1-5 as a starter and started his career with an NFL-record 229 pass attempts without a touchdown. He’s going up against a Panthers secondary that has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating during December, which is again, second only to the Seahawks who got to play the Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley.
On a side note, Bruce Arians is the Coach of the Year. What a job by a guy who has faced incredible obstacles this season to take his team to the playoffs at 11-5, he even went .500 with Stanton and Lindley starting at QB.
I think Carolina wins this game pretty easily and, as much as I’d like to, I refuse to bet the under when it’s at 38 points, just makes me to uneasy. If you want to tease it to Carolina in a pick ‘em and under 44, I wouldn’t blame you.
MY PICK: Carolina -6.5
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) (o/u 45)
Like Bruce Arians, another great coaching job by John Harbaugh in Baltimore dealing with the Ray Rice saga and keeping this team focused. With Le’Veon Bell hurt, it throws a real wrench in this matchup.
Ben Roethlisberger is coming off the best season of his career, who tied for the league lead in passing yards with Drew Brees. Ben’s number one receiver and the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown who had 129 catches and 1698 yards this year. I expect these two to have huge days with the help of Martavis Bryant against the Ravens 23rd-ranked pass defense with Bell out and undrafted rookie Josh Harris taking on the role as the starter at running back. To round out the passing game, Heath Miller has caught the third most passes of his career with 66 this year and Markus Wheaton will be a great fourth option tonight after his 53 catch season.
That’s the beauty of this Steelers offense heading into next season as well, look at all the talent around Big Ben with Bell in the backfield. They’ve really set themselves up to be good for the next half decade and that’s how the great organizations do it.
Maurkice Pouncey had this to say this week regarding their new starter in the backfield, “you don’t see what Josh Harris does in practice,” but you can see some of his amazing highlights from Wake Forest here and I think he’ll do a serviceable job this week against a Ravens run defense that is 4th in the NFL giving up only 88.3 yards per game.
By serviceable job, I mean that the game plan wouldn’t call for the running game to win the game considering that even with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers averaged 77 rushing yards in their two regular season meetings. Bell only averaged 39.5 rushing yards per game in the two Ravens games, which is remarkable he averaged 91.6 rushing yards in the other 14 games. Considering that Josh Harris wasn’t much of a pass catcher in college, I think Dri Archer will help as well. The Steelers also picked up Ben Tate this week and while I never thought he was a fifth round fantasy option like some did this year, I don’t think he’s as bad as he’s played this year. Hopefully he can regain some of his mojo this week in the limited reps he’ll get.
Because they’ll have to go to the air to succeed this week, I see Antonio Brown having a potentially historic game this weekend. With the way he’s played this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do something outlandish like 13 catches for 240.
With the Ravens, I see them sticking to the passing game as the Steelers run defense is just as good as theirs as they’ve given up the 6th most yards per game in the NFL, Joe Flacco and the Smith Brothers are going to have to a good game. Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett did combine for 152 yards in their first matchup, so I do think Forsett is going to have a good game running and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Considering the bad weather, the Ravens could have an edge with their running game this weekend with a 100% chance of precipitation. The worst part about the kind of weather they’ll have tonight is that it’s that just above freezing temperatures rain. When I was in Rhode Island, we’d always have this just above freezing rain late in the season that made life an absolute nightmare where you were just dreading when you had to go out for practice in that rain. The kind of nasty weather where there’s no right answer for what you should wear to stay warm because there’s nothing that can keep your warm in almost freezing rain. Tonight will be a night like that in Pittsburgh, so the playing conditions will be very tough…and miserable.
I don’t like that they played so bad down the stretch and almost lost to a Browns team that had Connor Shaw at quarterback as they were losing 10-3 in the fourth quarter. The Ravens were without both tackles and Haloti Ngata down the stretch as he was busted taking Adderall during finals week. Ngata and Eugene Monroe will be back this weekend, but undrafted James Hurst will be a huge downgrade from their usual starting right tackle Rick Wagner.
I still like the Steelers at home as they’re undefeated against the spread in their last six playoff games and the Ravens are 6-10 away from home over the last two seasons and they haven’t had a winning record on the road since 2010.
The way I see the Steelers covering this game is with that passing game. I expect Big Ben to have over 400 yards passing and the Steelers to keep up the pace on offense all day. Like I said before, I would not be surprised if Antonio Brown has something like 13 catches for 240. I see him and Martavis Bryant combining for three TDs and Heath Miller picking up plenty of first downs on short to intermediate routes. I could see them using Miller and others in a way they’d typically use Le’Veon Bell. Dri Archer could be a nice little X-factor today as their staff has been talking about his growth this season, but they’ve just been trying to find him a role in the offense and today could be the day they figure it out for him.
MY PICK: Steelers -3