Friday, January 2, 2015
The No-Cares Bears
I suppose the one bit of solace I can take is that given how badly the 49ers played at times this season, it's probably better that they didn't make the playoffs because they stood a good chance of getting themselves bounced in an early round if they did make it, and in some ways, it's better to just not be there at all and count your losses at 8-8 than making it, getting beaten on Saturday afternoon and being "The Forgotten Team" in the playoffs like the Bengals usually are every year.
So, what is there this weekend?
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
That the Panthers are here is by virtue of one of those little NFL quirks that gives the division champion an automatic home game, and another one of those little NFL quirks that the Panthers won a particularly awful NFC South with a sub-.500 record. But here they are, and believe it or not I think they actually have a good chance to win. The Panthers have been here before, they did win 12 games and scored themselves a 1st round bye last season (before the 49ers came to town and kicked them in the teeth), and they're facing a Cardinals team that started off 9-1 and were the darlings of the NFL before Carson Palmer got hurt, and then Drew Stanton got hurt, leaving them with journeyman Ryan Lindley at the QB helm which has kind of put their offense at a standstill. They do boast a good defense that should give Cam Newton and company fits, but I have the feeling that it won't be enough. The Panthers have the advantage of having muddled through a season where they didn't win a game for 2 months, but they won the games that counted, which ended up being their last 4 in a row, so believe it or not, the sub-.500 team is actually peaking which generally is a good thing to have happen when you're heading into the playoffs. I figure this is one of those games where the Panthers sort of lull their way to a lead, and this is one of those games where you look up and see it's the 4th Quarter and they lead by 17 points.
Pick: Panthers 23, Cardinals 9
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
This is one of the NFL's favorite masturbatory matchups, a rivalry game between two hated rivals, and they still want to give it that starch even if Ray Lewis isn't around to do his stupid Dougie Dance or whatever the hell it is. Somehow the Ravens are in the playoffs; they made it here as the AFC's #6 seed, the winner out of a consortium of teams that spent a majority of the season unable to get out of their own way. I believe this group included Buffalo, Houston, Kansas City, San Diego and even Miami was involved at one point, but it's the Ravens that are here, in spite of their best player being suspended in one of the NFL's stormiest scandals and Joe Flacco still looking like $120 million worth of wimpy (and if you think I'm still stewing over the Super Bowl from 2 years ago, YOU'RE RIGHT!). The Steelers have been the better team most of the season, Ben Roethlisberger has had a great year, as has WR Antonio Brown, but the issue for the Steelers right now is the availability of Le'Veon Bell, their Running Back who's proven himself to be of Frank Gore quality, but was injured late last week and is unavailable. This is a big blow to the Steelers, but even though they're forced to use one of their lesser backs, they still seem to me like they're going to advance here.
Pick: Steelers, 24, Ravens 17
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
This is a matchup between two teams that need to put up or shut up. The Bengals need a win here because they've made the playoffs every year for the last 4 seasons, and every year, they've played like schmucks and lost their first game. Generally, it's because their Quarterback, the wildly uneven Andy Dalton, has turned the ball over some ungodly number of times. The Colts need to win simply to prove that they're a more cohesive team than just some middling players with an extraordinarily talented Quarterback, Andrew Luck. Last season, the Colts were well on their way to getting embarrassed at home by Kansas City before Luck sprung to life and spearheaded a big-time comeback, and then the Colts summarily got their asses handed to them the following week in New England. Injuries play a role here too, since Cincinnati may be without Receiver A.J. Green, who was concussed last week in Pittsburgh. Indy's top receiver, T.Y. Hilton is also banged up but seems more likely to play. Tossup games like this seem to come down to running games moreso than the Quarterbacks, and here the edge goes to Cincinnati, simply because the Colts have no running game to speak of and have to rely on Luck, whereas the Bengals have a two-headed attack with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, and this could well tilt the edge in their favor. A tough call for certain, but I'll take a gamble and go with the Bengals to win their first Playoff game since the Boomer Esiason era.
Pick: Bengals 34, Colts 30
Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
This is also a real tossup game between a pair of teams that haven't had Playoff success in a long time. Dallas has won all of one Playoff game since 1997 and the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith regime. Detroit hasn't won one in about as long as Cincinnati has, which takes them back to when Barry Sanders was toting the rock for them and their QB was Erik Kramer (a halcyon era indeed). To compound matters, that's the Lions only postseason win in the Super Bowl Era. Dallas has had a surprisingly good season, primarily because they decided their best way to go about things was to run DeMarco Murray into the ground, eat up the clock in a majority of their games, and not try to let Tony Romo have to do too much. Romo has had a fine season for once in his life, and so the prevailing thought is that maybe he's over that general A-Rodism that overcomes him in big moments. The worry about the Cowboys is that they've been consistently mediocre in spite of a wealth of talent for so many years, that you had to think that one of these years, they might actually get out of their own way and win some games. This could be one such year, but I'm not really buying it. The same could be said of Detroit, who can match Romo with Matthew Stafford, equal parts talent and stupidity, and can match Dez Bryant with Calvin Johnson, and their RB tandem of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The Lions also have a much better defense than Dallas, and they'll have the added benefit of having Ndamukong Suh playing this week, his suspension for stepping on Beautiful Aaron Rodgers last week having been overturned. I suppose either team could come away with the win here, but I see Detroit's defense stepping up and making plays in such a way that I don't think Dallas' defense is capable of doing. Plus isn't Romo way overdue for a real stinker of a performance? Finally, this is the 4pm Sunday game, usually a marquee matchup where something weird usually happens and things never go quite the way you'd expect it to. I see a close game, but a late Romo turnover will tilt the scales in Detroit's favor while Jerry Jones turns a Coughlin-esque shade of red.
Pick: Lions 30, Cowboys 20
So, there you have it. Enjoy the weekend if you can, and don't sit there watching these games in a mostly dark room sullenly stewing like I probably will.