Randall the Handle
Bet On It: NFL wild card games
Ben Roethlisberger threw six TDs against the Ravens in a game earlier this year. (USA TODAY Sports)
Ravens 10-6 at Steelers 11-5
LINE: PITTSBURGH by 3
Have you seen the Ravens lately? If not, here’s a quick summary: Struggled to beat the visiting 3-13 Jaguars, lost badly at Houston against a 3rd string quarterback and just last week, Baltimore exerted far too much energy to scrape out a win over a useless Cleveland team.
Not exactly playoff form and it can’t simply be attributed as a temporary hiccup. The Ravens just don’t look very good. While its secondary hasn’t been tested, that unit has undergone a slew of changes after being torched by none other than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in early November. Big Ben had a huge game that day going 25-of-37 for 340 yards and six touchdowns, leading to a 43-23 shellacking of its rival. That bombardment forced Baltimore to cut some cornerbacks and to sign a Detroit castoff plus an undrafted free agent. Those two players have since been replaced due to injury. Having to go this deep into the well has to be disconcerting knowing these subs will try to slow down the Steelers’ top-ranked offence.
Of course, there is worry that Pittsburgh’s ace RB Le’Veon Bell may be scratched for this one after hurting his knee last week but we’re not overly concerned as the Steelers will rely heavily on its potent passing game against Baltimore’s 27th-ranked secondary. WR Antonio Brown just gets better each week and stronger defences than this one have been unable to slow down the outstanding receiver.
Some people have faith in Baltimore as a playoff team, much of it stemming from an improbable Super Bowl win a couple of seasons ago. That might explain the light pointspread.
However, the Ravens have not fared well here, losing three previous post-season games at Pittsburgh. And now they’re running into a hot Steelers club that has won four straight, including a pair against 10-5-1 Cincinnati, the same Bengals that just knocked off the No. 2-seeded Broncos. Pittsburgh has also defeated the fourth, fifth and sixth seeded playoff teams during the course of this season.
Historically, these two have done battle in close and physical games. That was when little separated the pair and when both clubs were known for having strong defences. Neither can make that claim at the moment and given the strengths of the offensives that each will face, Pittsburgh appears to have a decisive edge for this one.
TAKING: STEELERS -3
Cardinals 11-5 at Panthers 7-8-1
LINE: CAROLINA by 6½
Many are high on the Panthers right now as they miraculously claimed the NFC South by winning all four December games and being rewarded with a first-round home playoff contest.
While it’s a nice Cinderella story, we’re highly skeptical that a team which defeated three dregs within its division, all of whom ranked poorly on defence, namely the Saints (31st), Falcons (32nd), Bucs (25th) and the deteriorated Browns (23rd) should merit this type of consideration.
Carolina was 3-8-1 a month ago. November saw it lose all five of its games, three against some stiffer competition and a pair to the aforementioned Saints and Falcons.
This absurd pointspread is predicated on Arizona’s QB situation and nothing else. The Cardinals are an 11-5 team, residing in one of football’s best divisions. Their body of work includes games against Denver, K.C, San Diego, Philadelphia, San Fran twice, Seattle twice, Dallas and Detroit, none of them being losing teams.
The Arizona defence held the Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, 49ers, Lions and Eagles to 20 or fewer points. The Panthers went through a five-game stretch in which they allowed 174 points, an average of 34.8 per game. Granted, the Cards have an issue at QB as third-stringer Ryan Lindley is no Carson Palmer. He’s not even Drew Stanton but Lindley has been seasoned recently after taking on Seattle and San Francisco. Most QBs can be excused for not scoring against that pair.
The Panthers had Cam Newton on the field for all but one game this year yet were outscored 339-374. The Cards allowed just 299 points on the season, a full 75 points less than this day’s opponent.
Let’s also not forget what a great preparation coach Bruce Arians is. His Cardinals have been solid for two seasons now and especially effective in the underdog role, hitting at a 6-3 clip both this season and last.
It should also be noted that this year’s only failed covers occurred in Denver and against Seattle, both times.
Carolina has covered twice this season as a favourite but, in both instances, it was less than a two-point pick. In recent ‘must win’ games, it was favoured by 3½ over Tampa and by six over Cleveland, yet failed to cover in either. There’s very little in Carolina’s 2014 DNA that says it covers here.
TAKING: CARDINALS +6½
Bengals 10-5-1 at Colts 11-5
LINE: INDIANAPOLIS by 3
This may come down to which team you trust less, despite each club’s respectable regular-season record.
The Colts have been known to beat up on losing teams but faltering when facing winners. Indy did defeat some .500-plus teams this season, but that was back in October when it went on a three-game run, knocking off the Ravens, Texans and Bengals. We can’t quite classify those as signature wins. When facing the Patriots, Broncos and Steelers this season, the Colts dropped all three by a combined 124-78.
However, Cincinnati is not categorized among those top teams. That was evident when the Bengals played here earlier this season and were shredded to the tune of 27-0 in a game that saw Andrew Luck and his offence gain 506 yards compared to Cinci’s paltry 135 yards on the day. We don’t expect the Bengals to be as inept this time around, but they will need a monstrous effort to reduce such a disparity.
Frankly, we’d be surprised to see it happen. Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton have performed well in this type of setting and the Bengals’ suspect secondary could have its hands full with that dangerous duo.
While the AFC North featured three teams that made the playoffs, we’re not sure how good the division really is. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore might have misleading records after soft schedules saw the trio go 18-5-1 combined against the dreadful NFC South and the poor AFC South. To illustrate the ease of facing those two divisions, Dallas, Philadelphia and Indianapolis were a combined 16-0 against them.
Nor can we ignore Cincinnati’s ineptitude in the playoffs. Firstly, there is coach Marvin Lewis, who is 0-5 in the post-season since taking over this squad in 2003.
Secondly is QB Andy Dalton, the ashamed owner of an 0-3 mark in the playoffs which includes just one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions. It also won’t help if Cincinnati’s most dynamic offensive player, WR A.J. Green, has to sit this one out after suffering a concussion last week. Green is also dealing with some arm and shoulder issues, even if he passes league protocol for the concussion and is allowed to play. Tough to see Cinci ending its playoff skid here against this capable host.
TAKING: COLTS -3
Lions 11-5 at Cowboys 12-4
LINE: DALLAS by 6½
Bucking the Cowboys is not the popular way to go as this Dallas offence has been in a zone, winning six of its final seven games and scoring a ton of points along the way. But as we’ve said many times before, this is not a popularity contest. This is about finding value and we believe it is being offered in this one.
It’s rare to be taking a near touchdown when you have the stronger defence as presented here. Detroit’s ‘D’ is legit. So much attention is given to the Lions’ underachieving offence that their strong stop unit gets overlooked. It is second overall defensively, barely behind Seattle and have allowed the second fewest yards, the second fewest points and was No. 1 in stopping the run.
It would be foolish to think that the Lions can completely shut down Dallas’ high-flying offence but it’s not an unreasonable expectation to slow it down enough to stay within this pointspread.
While the Cowboys pulled off an unlikely win up in Seattle, they scored 23 points in doing so. Keep Dallas in the 20s here makes a cover very attainable.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas has been able to mask a mediocre defence by scoring all those points and controlling the flow of games with the stellar play of RB DeMarco Murray. What happens if Detroit’s strong ground-stoppers are successful in slowing down Murray and the Cowboys have to change course? Can the Dallas coaching staff adapt on the fly?
Also, it’s not like the Detroit offence is void of talent. Matthew Stafford could find a rhythm with stud WR Calvin Johnson, complemented by receiver Golden Tate and RB Reggie Bush. Let’s not forget that Stafford threw for 488 yards against the Cowboys just one year ago in a 31-30 shootout.
Dallas has made things look easy lately and, while we don’t want to detract too much from its recent success, its past seven games had just one playoff team on the docket. We also can’t ignore Dallas’ mediocre play on this field where Jason Garrett’s group went 4-4 this season, losing to non-playoff teams like Washington, San Francsico and Philadelphia.
It is playoff time and bettors often forget that defence usually trumps offence. We’re comfortable going that route for this one.
TAKING: LIONS +6½