Wild-Card Weekend went pretty much as expected: Indianapolis beat-up Cincinnati, Baltimore stepped up in a fairly straightforward win over an imbalanced Pittsburgh team, Detroit – Dallas was controversial, and a recently improved Carolina proved too much for poor old Arizona, whose inauspicious injuries at quarterback had left them with no choice but to field the accident-waiting-to-happen that is Ryan Lindley.
As a rule, the deeper playoff games are harder to predict due to the coalescence of the better teams. That said, it’s still worth, not to mention exciting for the nerdier fans, speculating on the match-ups and trying to ascertain where the advantages reside going into the weekend’s contests.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
After the debacle of the first three weeks, the Patriots have been one of the most consistently impressive team in the NFL, easing their way to a 12–4 record. Tom Brady, now a ripe 37 years of age, has looked better than he has in some time, and having a healthy Rob Gronkowski at his disposal has been crucial to his and New England’s success. The surprise, however, has been the excellence of their defence. The Patriot’s front-seven doesn’t possess any really big names, but the play of young line-backer Jamie Collins and a depleted defensive line has allowed the secondary, spearheaded by All-Pro cornerback Darelle Revis, to focus on containing opposition receivers. The Patriots have been able this season to do everything well without doing much brilliantly.
Ironically, this plays into Baltimore’s hands. The way to beat New England’s proficiency is to pressure Brady into throwing to a limited receiving corps when he doesn’t want to, and it just so happens that Baltimore’s pass rush is an elite unit. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil repeatedly eviscerated the Steeler’s offensive tackles last weekend. It’s likely that they’ll deploy the same tactics against the Patriots, and New England’s offensive line will need to play very well to keep them quiet. The Patriots will look to attack the Raven’s notoriously poor secondary, but buying time for Brady and establishing the run will be hard. New England should look to spread out the defence with multiple receivers, forcing Baltimore Head Coach John Harbaugh to sacrifice a line-backer into coverage.
This should be an intriguing game, which may come down to better game-planning. Bill Belichick is a masterful tactician, but Harbaugh is no slouch either. Though Baltimore has some outstanding aspects to their game, as well as a startlingly good playoff record (including a Super Bowl victory) under Joe Flacco, New England’s overall efficiency and effectiveness should allow them to sufficiently counteract these weapons and get the win.
Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers
The Cowboys have only six days to catch their breath after an exhilarating game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday night. After going behind early, Dallas, via Tony Romo and a couple of awful calls, managed to snatch victory. In fairness, the Cowboys have had a superb season, and, presuming such a phenomenon exists, it was probably Karmic Justice that they got through. Speaking of superb seasons, they will be facing the Green Bay Packers and probable league MVP Aaron ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ Rodgers. The Packers also possess the NFL’s best offence, which on paper proves far too much for Dallas’ mötley-crüe defence. But the Cowboys’ running game is similarly superlative – Romo will look to hand the ball to Demarco Murray as much as possible in an attempt to just keep Rodgers’ points-machine off the field. That’s certainly achievable; Green Bay’s defensive strength lies in it secondary. Neither of these teams can boast an elite defence, and the chances are that the game will come down to a shoot-out – one in which Green Bay should ultimately have too much fire-power.
Carolina Panthers @ Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks won last year’s Super bowl thanks to the fact they fielded one of the best defences, at least statistically, of all time. They had some injuries to deal with earlier this season, but over the last two months their defence has returned to looking downright unbeatable. Though there passing game remains fairly impotent, running back Marshawn Lynch has been fabulous for a second straight year, and quarterback Russell Wilson continues to find ways to make things happen despite essentially having nobody to throw it to. Seattle’s ability to stop opposing teams from scoring and grind out points on offence means that they are, in the minds of many commentators, the favourite from the NFC to advance to the Super Bowl.
The Carolina Panthers have had a similarly rocky season. Injuries also meant that their elite defence from last year regressed for the majority of games, but has looked obstinate for the last few weeks. In many ways this is the ideal offence to face for the Panthers’ D – Seattle doesn’t have the receivers to exploit Carolina’s mediocre secondary, which should free up the defensive line and pro-bowl line-backers Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis to focus on thwarting Lynch.
Although he returned to the field only two weeks after breaking two bones in a car-rash, Panthers QB Cam Newton has got to play better. Against Arizona, whose defence functions similarly to Seattle’s, Newton misplaced several passes and admitted after that he might need to tweak his throwing mechanics. He won’t get away with these kinds of errors on Sunday. But ultimately, this game will see to defence-first teams with limited, run-heavy offences going at it hammer and tong – Seattle simply has the better personnel, and that should be enough for a fairly straightforward victory.
Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos
If this is indeed to be Peyton Manning’s final season, then a victory over his old team, where he is rightly apotheosised, and his young replacement would certainly be a fitting way to end his record-breaking, Hall-of-Fame career. Manning did so much for the Colts and the city of Indianapolis – the decision to let him go after missing a season due to a serious neck injury was symptomatic of the cold, business decisions in sport that are sometimes obscured behind all the fanfare and pom-poms. After the embarrassing defeat at last year’s Super Bowl the Broncos amped up their defence and added Emmanuel Sanders, who has been phenomenal, to complete the league’s best receiving corps. That’s a recipe for success, but Manning’s play has been portentous over the last month or so – he hasn’t been throwing the ball as often as usual, and when he has he’s looked awkward and inaccurate. Manning might be hurt, or the years might have caught up suddenly. Either way, if Manning is misfiring then the Bronco’s playoff prospects will be in serious jeopardy.
In a similar yet contrasting manner, Indianapolis will also be reliant on their quarterback. But while Manning merely needs to be functional so the rest of the Bronco’s team can flourish, the Colts probably require Andrew Luck to have superman game to be competitive. That’s been the case for most of the Colts’ season – their running game is a running joke and their defence isn’t good enough to compensate for an inconsistent offence. Indianapolis and Luck led the league in passing touchdowns (3rd in yards) and a continuation of this success will be needed in order to overcome Denver’s miserly defence. That does, however, seem like wishful thinking.
The second round of the 2014/15 NFL playoffs will showcase established behemoths, youthful inconsistency and in-form opportunism, not to mention three of the best quarterbacks ever looking to augment their legacies. But the real excitement over the playoffs is actually derived from its unpredictability. The dynamic between the quantitative and the qualitative is what makes these games so enthralling, and therein lies its beauty.