For all the parity Darth Goodell and NFL likes to claim, we are exactly where we thought we would be at the end of the regular season. Everyone had the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots as the top two teams in the AFC. The AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts were the trendy dark horse play to overtake one of the top two spots. The only surprise in the AFC was the Pittsburgh Steelers claiming the AFC North title, but that can’t be considered shocking. The NFC saw one anticipated contender, the San Francisco 49ers, fall from grace, but the conference race played out as expected. The defending champion Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West again and earned home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers, led by another MVP caliber season from Aaron Rodgers, are the No. 2 seed. The NFC South was awful at football, but ultimately the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers emerged on top to win the division for the second consecutive year. The only mild surprise in the NFC was the Dallas Cowboys finishing the year at 12-4 to overtake the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. For the second straight year a 10-win team in the NFC (2013 Arizona Cardinals, 2014 Philadelphia Eagles) will miss the playoffs, both with bird mascots, a scary trend for Seahawks fans.
Of course, there were all sorts of twists and turns along the way, but here we are entering Wild Card Weekend and the favorites to win the Super Bowl are the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. That’s a slap to parity’s face. As for the column, the Sultan of Sides was unable to replicate the spectacular 57% winning edge from 2013. Another average attempt (8-7-1) over the final week moves our season total to 135-116-5. That’s good enough to post a very solid 54% success rate, but a bit disappointing considering the blazing stretch we had at the beginning of the year.
With four big games on the calendar this weekend there’s no time to rest on our laurels. The Clarion didn’t hire the Sultan of Sides to be another pretty face in the paper! Pigskin prognostication is a “win” business.
ARIZONA CARDINALS @ Carolina Panthers -6.5
A week 11 victory over the Detroit Lions moved Arizona to an NFL-best 9-1 and gave the Desert Bats a three-game edge in the NFC West. What a difference a month makes. Injuries to starting quarterback Carson Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton left the Cardinals with the corpse of Ryan Lindley under center. That’s not conducive to winning professional football games. The Cardinals stumbled down the stretch and finished the year at 11-5, good enough to earn a road trip to Carolina to face the Panthers this Saturday. Carolina enters the postseason from the opposite direction. The Panthers were 3-8-1 after eleven games, but righted the ship in time to win their last four contests and finish the year at the top of the NFC South. Both sides feature strong defenses and limited offenses, which should lead to a low scoring affair. With Cam Newton at quarterback and a capable rushing attack the Panthers have an edge. Arizona’s once mighty run defense has faltered in the season’s closing weeks. You have to wonder if Cardinal defenders are trying too hard to make game altering plays, in light of their struggling offense, instead of staying disciplined within their assignments. Despite being a healthy 6.5 point favorite, talk of Carolina not deserving to host a playoff game or even qualify to be in the playoffs altogether, will give these favorites an underdog’s fervor. Yet somehow, someway, you just know that Arizona, led by their eccentric coach Bruce Arians, will find a way to remain competitive. Panthers win 20-16
BALTIMORE RAVENS @ Pittsburgh Steelers -3.5
“LeVeon Bell is out with a knee injury”. That’s the headline every Terrible Towel lover is dreading as Saturday’s showdown with their rival Baltimore Ravens approaches. It’s not a great sign that the team signed the discarded Ben Tate this week to potentially carry the football this weekend. Remember, Tate was cut from the Cleveland Browns mid-season after the veteran was unable to beat out a pair of rookies. Bell’s injury makes cutting his backup, LeGarrette Blount, earlier in the year all the more unfortunate. There’s no real way to quantify the impact LeVeon Bell has on the Steelers offense. Not only does he lead the team in rushing with 1,361 yards, Bell posted another 854 yards on 83 catches. Ben Tate cannot replace that type of production, nor does he pass block anywhere near Bell’s level. Losing Bell would be a devastating blow to Pittsburgh’s chances. Baltimore qualified for the postseason with a win over the Cleveland Browns and a San Diego Chargers loss last Sunday. Now the Ravens will look to avenge the 43-23 beat down the Steelers gave them in Pittsburgh in week nine. Interestingly, the Ravens topped Pittsburgh 26-6 at home in their first meeting. It doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate that the rivals combined score is 49-49 in their two matchups this season. There’s every reason to expect another close contest this Saturday with Bell’s absence (or diminished production) being the deciding factor. Ravens win 24-21
Cincinnati Bengals @ INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -3.5
Which team wants to lose more? The Indianapolis Colts feel like they’re limping into the postseason despite winning five of their last six games. Colts passer and every quarterback lover’s Adonis, Andrew Luck, has surprisingly struggled against less than stellar competition of late. When Indianapolis did play a top flight team, like they did in week 16 when they travelled to Jerry’s World to face the Dallas Cowboys, they were crushed 42-7. Cincinnati is allergic to winning football games on national television. Unfortunately, for striped cat fans, this playoff game is going to be televised. I understand the commitment to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s not entirely terrible, but Dalton doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and for good reason. Dalton always seems to save his worst performances for the biggest games. The Red Rocket’s highest QBR rating in his three playoff appearances is an abysmal 25.1. He has thrown a single touchdown compared to six interceptions. That’s bad. Cincinnati’s hope lies with a strong rushing attack spurred by the bruising Jeremy Hill and the speedy Gio Bernard. If Indianapolis can limit Cincinnati’s success on the ground, forcing Dalton’s noodle of a right arm to carry the offense, the Colts should gallop away with an easy victory. Colts win 27-17
Detroit Lions @ DALLAS COWBOYS -6.5
The Sultan of Sides received special consultation from a Kasilof local this week and is certain the Fighting Jerry’s will roll to an easy victory. Despite a talented offensive roster, the Detroit Lions have struggled to put points on the board all season. That weakness reared its head again last week when the Lions couldn’t recover from an early deficit in Green Bay with the division title on the line, even though Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined for a portion of the contest with a lower leg injury. The loss in Green Bay not only cost the Lions a division title and a first round bye, it meant Detroit would have to travel Wild Card Weekend. Waiting for them is the best Dallas Cowboys team since the early 90’s when Jimmy Johnson’s hair was battling Jerry Jones for the biggest ego in Big D. This Cowboys team is eerily similar to the great Dallas teams from that era. That group was buoyed by the NFL’s first version of the triplets, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. The current Cowboys are led by Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant. The key difference and what will ultimately lead to Dallas’ demise, is the 2014 Cowboys defense couldn’t hold Charles Haley’s candle. At home, against a Lions team that has never won anything of consequence, it won’t matter, but on the road in Green Bay or Seattle is another story for another week. Cowboys win 31-20