Hit & Run (Wild Card Picks)

There are two effective rules of thumbs about playoff games:

  • The first time a team makes the playoffs, it usually loses. The exceptions are teams run by great coaches. In fact, that’s one of the indicators of a great coach.
  • If a trend exists, bet it to continue. Often a “jinx” is a sign of a tangible issue. Also, the media can, by talking incessantly about a jinx, get a team so jacked up that they play tight.

Every game this weekend has at least one rule apply.

Arizona at Carolina: Arizona is in the playoffs for the first time in recent memory– and they’ll be playing with Ryan Lindley, their third-string quarterback.

Lindley has played wretchedly in his two starts; there are only four reasons to think the Cards can win:

  1. His two starts were against Seattle and San Francisco. They both have pretty impressive defenses; Carolina’s is not that good.
  2. Arizona is 24th in points scored (19.4) and fifth in points allowed (18.7). So it isn’t like Lindley is being dropped into a well-oiled machine, which will sputter.
  3. Cam Newton isn’t the kind of QB who wins playoff games. Guys who scaramble and shake & bake do most of their damage against bad teams. They struggle against good teams.Arizona has made 17 turnovers (fourth-best) and forced 25. They have five TDs on returns (3 pick-sixes, a fumble runback and a punt return).
  4. Sometimes professional teams pull together after an injury. Look at what the Ohio State Horse Chestnuts did earlier in the week.

After lackluster games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland (winning by a total of six points), Carolina got to play a Falcons team that laid down and died. I don’t think they’re as good as their 34-3 win indicates.

The Cards could make a couple of big plays on defense, run a kick back (the Browns nearly did, and they’re not nearly as good) and Newton could flail.

But Carolina is playing at home, they’ve won four straight games, and they’re playing a first-time team with a third-string QB. That ought to be enough. Carolina 24-10.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: This would be an easy call for the Steelers, but RB LeVeon Bell will miss the game. Pittsburgh gained 6.577 yards this year– and Bell was responsible for 1/3 of it. He led the team in rushing (1,361 yards rushing, 4.7 per play) and was second in receiving (83 catches for 854 yards).

Bell’s replacement is rookie Dri Archer (their third-round pick), who got 10 carries for 40 yards on the ground, and 7 catches for 23 yards. (They cut LeGarrette Blount in mid-year, for doing his Ben Tate impression.)

The Steelers do the “Next man up– you wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think you could carry the load” bit better than anyone but New England. And often the players dropped into the limelight do excel.

But this isn’t a team that can win by any other method than outscoring the opponent. They’re seventh in points (27.2 per game) and 18th in points allowed (23.0). Pittsburgh’s record when they score 27 or more is 9-1, which means they’re 2-4 when they score 26 or less.

It’s difficult to see how they put up four touchdowns with one of their two big guns (the other is WR Antonio Brown; 129 catches, 1,693 yards and 13 scores) is missing. Archer is a 5’8″ scatback, so he can’t bowl anyone ever.

The most interesting option is to come out in a spread– use Archer, Brown. TE Heath Miller and WR Martavis Bryant (only 26 receptions, but 8 TDs) to spread the field and let QB Ben Roethlisberger pick at the Raven defense. If that works, and if Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is having one of his erratic days, they could win .

But the dropoff is pretty dramatic and it’s hard to see this happening. Also, the Ravens get DT Haloti Ngata back from a 4-game suspension for performance enhancers. Baltimore 21-6.

Cincinnati at Indianapolis: Marvin Lewis still hasn’t won a playoff game. In three tries, QB Andy Dalton has a rating of 56.7, with 1 TD and 6 interceptions. His best game was last year (67.0 rating, 1 TD and  2 INTs).

Now they have to play the Colts without WR A.J. Green?  And they lost to Indianapolis 27-0 in the regular season. No reason to think it will be any better in the post-season: Indianapolis 27-7.

Detroit at Dallas: If Dallas were anywhere close to healthy, they’d win comfortably, despite QB Tony Romo‘s history of underachieveing in the playoffs.

But they have seven guys on injured reserve… and five are defensive starters. So they’re going to have to outscore the Lions with a patchwork defense– and Dallas (22.0 points allowed; 15th) wasn’t that hot to begin with.

It’s still possible, because the Lions are ranked 22nd in offense (20.1 points a game). They can’t run the ball (nobody averaged 4.0 yards a carry), and it’s still QB Matthew Stafford ,trying to avoid the pass rush and throwing the ball to anyone open. WR Calvin Johnson (71-1,077-8) has been struggling with injuries all year;  Golden Tate (99-1,331-4) edged by him as the #1 guy.

Detroit got into the playoffs for the first time in four years for two reasons:

  • New head coach Jim Caldwell improved their defense to third in the NFL (17.6 points allowed).
  • Their luck in close games changed.

A year ago, Detroit went 7-9, despite outscoring opponents by 19 point. But they played nine games decided by a touchdown and went 3-6 in them. This year, they outscored opponents by 39– only 20 points more– but went 6-1 in close games.

The 2013 should have been 8-8 or 9-7; this team should be 9.7 or 10-6. But, as Mike Pettine says, it’s a pass-fail league. You can claim that Detroit lost last year because they didn’t know how to win– or that Jim Schwartz was a pinhead. You can argue that Jim Caldwell has taught the Lions how to win.

You would be wrong in both cases (thought I’d be willing to listen to arguments about Schwartz being a boob, but writers love to make luck into a character thing.

Detroit is missing DT Ndamukong Shoe, so that won’t help.

I’m guessing Dallas 31-28, simply because teams that get into the playoffs on luck usually have trouble conjuring up more of it. Also, neither team (Lions in 2011; Cowboys in 2009) has been in the post-season for a while.

But it’s possible that Stafford will have a big game and Romo won’t be able to answer him. This is the one you could flip a coin on.

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2 thoughts on “Hit & Run (Wild Card Picks)

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