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NFL Predictions | AFC/NFC Wild Card Playoff Round: NFL Football, NFL
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo Russo Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have won big in the NFL postseason. On Saturday night, they’ll begin their quest for another Super Bowl to add to their resume when the Steelers and Ravens square off at Heinz Field. Plus, Cowboys/Lions, Bengals/Colts, and Panthers/Cardinals all present intriguing matchups in the first round of the AFC/NFC playoffs.

AFC/NFC Wild Card Playoff Round
Saturday, January 3
NFC Wild Card Playoff 4:35 PM ET – TV: ESPN
(5) Arizona Cardinals 11-5 @ (4) Carolina Panthers 7-8-1
Say what you want to say about Carolina managing to win only 7 games to repeat as NFC South camps. The fact of the matter is – they’re one of the league’s hottest teams strolling into the postseason. A healthy backfield, improvement offensive line play, and sound defense has guided head coach Ron Rivera’s team during the span of a 4-game winning streak. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s triple-threat, read-option concepts have flourished to make his system work to its best potential, creating the multidimensional ways of attacking opposing defenses since running back Jonathan Stewart has put his injuries behind him. Their sustainable ground game has been better than any team since Week 13, averaging 195 yards per game. And for Carolina’s offense to continue to function against the Cardinals’ aggressive defense, quarterback Cam Newton, Stewart and tight end Greg Olsen will be Shula’s three prime setup options that’ll determine Carolina’s ability to stretch the field.

Arizona’s defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has deployed various blitzing concepts, using extra defensive backs in Dime packages, but with Shula’s offense aligned on double tight end and two running back sets, expect to see Bowles use more base packages — primarily to contain the edges against Newton on the read-option. Carolina will run the rock with Stewart’s physicality, and it will be vital for Arizona’s down-lineman (Calais Campbell, Dan Williams and Frostee Rucker) to get the upper hand in trench play to mitigate Carolina from gaining positive yards on early downs. If Stewart is able to use his bruising style to soften up Arizona’s front — it’ll place Newton in higher percentage opportunities of working off the play-fakes effectively. Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, Bowles’ top level cornerbacks will press Newton’s best vertical receiver Kelvin Benjamin on the perimeter, but if Arizona’s linebackers (Kevin Minter and Larry Foote) allow Newton’s best target in tight end Greg Olsen to get behind them, the outside passing lanes and chances for Newton to potentially go over the top on Arizona’s secondary can kick in. Deone Bucannon has been the X-Factor of Bowles’ defense, playing the role of safety/linebacker, and having him spy on Newton near the tackle box – along with Alex Okafor and Matt Shaughnessy on the outside of Arizona’s front will be an objective to defend Carolina’s offensive strategy.

With Drew Stanton (knee) ruled out for the third straight game, Ryan Lindley will be the starter once again, and since Lindley has been coach Arians’ signal-caller, the turnovers have mounted, but that hasn’t negated Arizona’s passing game from taking shots downfield. Arians has been sticking with vertical attempts, regardless of who’s been under center for his offense, and to get Lindley a decent amount of chances to strike Carolina’s secondary that’s been playing much better of late – Arizona’s trips bunch packages, working the intermediate routes needs to be in full effect. Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman have been playing solid in coverage for Carolina’s secondary, and they’ll be mostly responsible for defending Arizona receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. Fitzgerald will be Lindley’s underneath route target while Floyd and slot receiver John Brown are the deep-ball threats of Arizona’s aerial attack.

Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams have led Arizona’s backfield as a double-combo attack since Andre Ellington’s season end injury, and for Lindley to find comfort in the pocket to stay out of long distance passing downs — Arizona’s ground game will need to keep Carolina’s defense honest. Carolina’s offense has been far better in the avenue of execution, and circulating Arizona’s play at quarterback – it’s up to Lindley to be decisive on passing downs. And though Carolina’s defense isn’t the same dominate group from a year ago – I’m favoring them to make Arizona’s ground game a non-factor — putting it on Lindley to throw often — giving Carolina the edge to win the turnover battle.
Pick: Panthers 20, Cardinals 13

AFC Wild Card Playoff 8:15 PM ET – TV: NBC
(6) Baltimore Ravens 10-6 @ (3) Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
Since we have division foes on deck for the night cap of day 1, let’s take a trip back to their first meeting in Week 9 – a game Pittsburgh’s offense bamboozled Baltimore’s defense, mainly from the arm of Ben Roethlisberger throwing 6 touchdown passes in 43-23 dismantling win over the Ravens. The slew of blitzes from Baltimore’s defense in that matchup left ample favorable one-on-one’s for Roethlisberger to connect big with Antonio Brown 11 times for 144 yards and a 54 yard score. Baltimore defensive coordinator Deen Peas’ unit is thin in the secondary, mostly due to injuries without cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Jimmy Smith – that’s left the Ravens rolling with three safeties (Will Hill, Darian Stewart and Matt Elam). Lardarius Webb and Rashaan Melvin haven’t picked up the slack for Jackson and Smith, and without trusting his coverage players, Peas has been pulling the trigger, sending pressured fronts. But in this matchup against Pittsburgh’s high-octane level of pass-catchers, the ideal approach from Peas needs to be more conservative.

It’s imperative for Peas to keep his safeties over the top to bracket Brown, and Martavis Bryant, two viable receivers that can burn a secondary for large plays at the expense of Roethlisberger’s ability to heave the football deep. Baltimore’s defense could catch a break with Pittsburgh’s all-purpose back Le’Veon Bell (knee) out. Without Bell, Josh Harris will likely be the lead-runner while Dri Archer, a scat-back and recently singed Ben Tate will be part of the mix. Bell is a significant loss, but for Baltimore to slow down Pittsburgh’s quick-screen and counter run concepts, their 3-4 hybrid defensive scheme that’s based off the play of linebackers (Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosely and Daryl Smith) needs to disrupt Pittsburgh’s execution up front and get after Roethlisberger for four quarters — not just portions of the game like they did in their previous meeting.  With Harris and Archer the likeable set of backs for Pittsburgh’s backfield plans, unless Tate is used more than expected  – Haley can’t abandon the run, and with that in mind — Look for Harris to shoulder most of the carries and for Archer to be used in the screen-game to try to neutralize Baltimore’s rush.

When the Ravens have the ball, a running game that’s taken a step back over its last three games needs to be the same attack it was in Week’s 10 through 14. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will look to minimize Pittsburgh’s pass rush by leaning on his stout offensive line’s stretch blocking techniques of his zone-running-scheme for running back Justin Forsett to run behind. Without defensive end Brett Keisel (triceps), Dick LeBeau’s defense may be limited on using stunts, but the strength of Pittsburgh’s defense has been against the run, and if Pittsburgh’s front seven allows Jeremy Zuttah, Kelechi Osemele, Marshal Yanda and Eugene Monroe of Baltimore’s O-line to dominate at the line of scrimmage – the moving pocket concepts, and play-action attempts for Joe Flacco will increase to take shots downfield to receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith, vertically against a suspect Pittsburgh secondary.

Flacco’s third receiver Kamar Aiken and tight Owen Daniels have been part Baltimore’s third down passing packages, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Kubiak lets WR/KR Jacoby Jones, a blazing speedster run a few deep-post routes in this contest. Jones came up huge for Baltimore on special teams, and on deep-ball attempts during Flacco’s immaculate Super Bowl run in 2012, and it wouldn’t surprise me if coach Harbaugh flushed out all of his weapons in a do or die setting. This should be your typical Steelers/Ravens rivalry brawl, and I’m going home team here – much to do with the ammunition Roethlisberger has before him at receiver to dissect a porous Baltimore secondary, and for LeBeau’s defense to limit Baltimore’s ground attack from gashing Pittsburgh’s solid run defense. Unless Baltimore’s ground attack controls the game and keeps Roethlisberger and company from exposing their defense, Pittsburgh’s offense will be too much for them.
Pick: Steelers 31, Ravens 24  

Sunday, January 4
AFC Wild Card Playoff 1:05 PM ET – TV: CBS
(5) Cincinnati Bengals 10-5-1 @ (4) Indianapolis Colts 11-5
We get another matchup to examine here between two teams that faced each other during the regular season. In their Week 7 battle, Indianapolis’ defense shut down Cincinnati’s offense, primarily stuffing one of the league’s top one-two punch backfield sets in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to just 32 yards rushing. And without star-receiver A.J. Green in that game – Andy Dalton wasn’t able to find any rhythm within the passing game in a 27-0 shutout loss. When Cincinnati’s ground game isn’t mustering quality production, it places their offense out of the prowess that makes offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s system work. An ineffective running game gave Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s blitzing concepts the luxury to tee off on Dalton, and for Jackson’s offense to keep Dalton upright and out of third and long situations – Hill and Bernard’s effectiveness will come a long way on deciphering the outcome of Cincinnati’s success.

Running the football with authority behind their physical offensive line on stretch, tosses and lead runs with man and zone blocking concepts would be ideal for Jackson’s game plan to mitigate Indianapolis’ pressured fronts.  If the Colts are to contain Hill and Bernard, the play of inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson, two viable assets used to shoot through gaps on blitzes along with outside rushers Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden and Cory Redding have to be disruptive on early downs to stall Cincinnati from being balanced. If those key players of Manusky’s front control their gaps and limit Cincinnati’s backs from getting into the second level of their defense (carrying the pigskin or in the screen game) – Indianapolis’ cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler’s head-to-head square-offs against Dalton’s athletic and physical receivers in A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu will favor them (if Dalton is forced to be the hero of Cincinnati’s offense). However, Manusky doesn’t do much moving around with his defensive backs – keeping Davis and Toler on their sides of the field most of the time. So, look for Jackson to move Green and Mohamed in the slot some to formulate mismatches.

Indianapolis’ offense is predicated on the pass with multiple targets at Andrew Luck’s disposal. Running the ball hasn’t been the anything near the level of Cincinnati’s, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has to consider getting backs Trent Richardson and Daniel Herron geared up at the point of attack. Cincinnati has struggled defending the run and getting after the quarterback this season, but that doesn’t diminish the fact of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s group having a wide-range of talent in just about every area on defense. Guenther will mix things up with zone-blitzes and coverage-based approaches to give Luck different looks, but if Cincinnati’s down-lineman (Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry) don’t take advantage of a banged up Indianapolis offensive line – time for Luck to scan the field could be the downfall of Cincinnati’s defense. It’s hard to think Luck’s passing attempts will drop without a formidable running game. Therefore, Cincinnati’s back seven will need to be sound in coverage.

Hamilton uses two-tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwyane Allen), both dangerous vertical options Cincinnati’s linebackers (Rey Maualuga, Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur) could find themselves singled up on, unless Guenther uses Dime and Nickel packages often with his herd of solid defensive backs. Keeping Luck’s most lethal target in speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton from stretching the field will be essential for Guenther’s defense to limit Luck from exploiting the Bengals’ defense. My guess is – he’ll keep his safeties (George Iloka and Reggie Nelson) in more two-deep coverage’s — keeping Luck eyeing the intermediate routes for the majority of the snaps. Cincinnati has been playing better football as of late, getting back to the basics of running the ball and making plays defensively that’s helped them overcome injuries and setbacks. That should carry over into the playoffs and get Dalton his first career postseason win.
Pick: Bengals 27, Colts 23

NFC Wild Card Playoff 4:40 PM ET – TV: FOX
(6) Detroit Lions 11-5 @ (3) Dallas Cowboys 12-4
Out of the four Wild-Card games this weekend, Dallas and Detroit’s showcase-showdown presents a power-on-power in the trenches battle. Both teams have done it up front, but on opposite sides of the ball. Had it not been for executive vice president Stephen Jones, team owner/general manager Jerry Jones’ son taking away the Johnny Manziel pick his father was ready to hand in with the 16th pick of the 2014 Draft, Zack Martin – an All-Pro rookie guard wouldn’t have helped Dallas formulate the league’s finest offensive line. Martin has led a group of stone-cold blockers on the interior of Dallas’ O-line along with center Travis Frederick and guard Ronald Leary, opening up running lanes for league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray — while arguably the games best left tackle Tyron Smith has continued to be a brick wall protecting Tony Romo’s blind side. The test for them against the No.1 ranked run defense — will be slowing down Detroit’s fearsome and talented front led by the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Jason Jones, and Ezekiel Ansah — three viable beefy and athletic defensive lineman that’ve created havoc at the line scrimmage against their opponents.

Looking back at the tape of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s approach against Green Bay’s three-receiver passing attack last week– Austin kept his safeties James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin deep, respecting Aaron Rodgers’ ability to strike his defense over the top with receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The strategy kept Rodgers working the underneath routes to force his receivers to make plays after the catch, but the sacrifice didn’t fare well for Detroit’s top run defense, as Eddie Lacy ran for 100 yards on 26 carries. In this matchup, Austin’s approach could be more aggressive to try to halt Murray from setting the pace for Dallas’ offense.  Detroit’s defense can’t allow Murray to dictate Dallas’ passing game to setup the play-action pass for Romo — which he’s been dissecting opposing defenses with — notably in December — connecting mightily with elite-receiver Dez Bryant for 6 of his league-leading 16 touchdown catches over the last three games. Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis have been fine in pass coverage, not getting beat on most of their snaps, but Austin needs to choose wisely on defending Bryant and Terrance Williams, two receivers capable of springing open deep within offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s slow developing, vertical passing attack. DeAndre Levy is a rangy linebacker that’s been a key-contributor for Detroit defending the run and as a blitzing option. To neutralize him and Detroit’s stunt rushes, look for Linehan to use three-receiver sets on passing downs with slot receiver Cole Beasley in the fold to spread Detroit’s back seven out – putting the brakes on Austin’s blitzing concepts.

Under first-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Detroit’s offensive identity is based off of short-passes, screens to the backs, bubble screens to receivers, slants and attacking the middle of the field. Though the running game hasn’t been the power-charger of Detroit’s offense, Joique Bell is a physical runner that’s averaged 4.0 yards per carry in seven of his last eight games. Bell along with Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick are part of Lombardi’s passing game, utilized on screens and check downs, and they could see windows of opportunities out on the flats with Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s approach looking to keep Stafford’s dynamite receivers in Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Golden Tate in check. The key for Marinelli will be mixing it up in coverage to try to confuse Stafford, but on the perimeter in coverage, I’m expecting him to deploy Orlando Scandrick in press-man against Tate, while Brandon Carr plays more off-man-zone on the freakish-physical-specimen in Johnson — funneling him towards the middle of Dallas’ zone.

Marinelli has used strong safety Barry Church near the tackle box, but on the fast track of AT&T Stadium, using single-high looks with free safety J.J. Wilcox alone in center field will be a risky alignment with Johnson and Tate able to burn Dallas’ secondary. There isn’t a case of major-injuries between these two that will make much of a difference to me (other than the Cowboys losing defensive tackle Henry Melton (knee) for the playoffs and linebacker Anthony Hitchens likely out with an ankle-injury). There’s been lots of talking going on off the field surrounding Suh, Tate and Church indicating an emotional and physical game expected to be. My verdict here is – Dallas’ formula has got them where they’re at leaning on Murray, and though Detroit’s defense has been getting it done, they’ve been an inconsistent offensive unit, and Dallas’ defense isn’t the same of yesteryear when Megatron caught 14 passes for 329 yards against a then Monte Kiffin ran defense. You win the game in the fourth quarter, and what used to be haunting for Dallas the previous three seasons, has become the best quarter for them — now that they have the physical elements to wear down a defense and control games.
Pick: Cowboys 30, Lions 21
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and @SilverBlueRpt


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