Arizona Cardinals (+6-1/2) at Carolina Panthers: The Cards are in complete disarray offensively with Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas as their top two quarterbacks. Since starter Carson Palmer suffered an season-ending knee injury, the Cardinals have gone 3-4 while averaging around 12 points per game.
The Panthers won the inept NFC South with a mediocre 7-8-1 record. However, they finished the season strong with four consecutive wins, including a 34-3 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons on the road in a winner-take-all matchup in Week 17. Carolina is also starting to resemble the top tier defense they had last year when they earned a first round bye in the playoffs. QB Cam Newton and the rest of the offense will have enough to win at home.
Carolina 24 Arizona 14
Baltimore Ravens (+3) at Pittsburgh Steelers: These bitter AFC North rivals have faced off in the playoffs three times with the Steelers winning on all three occasions. They split the two 2014 contests with the home team prevailing by a 20-point margin.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco has had another nice season, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. However, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was even better, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards 32 touchdowns (including six in the Week 9 game vs. the Ravens).
The Steelers won the AFC North with an 11-5 record, but did so primarily on the strength of the NFL's second ranked offense in terms of total yardage. Their defense, however, was downright pedestrian ranking on the bottom half of the league.The biggest question mark for Pittsburgh is how they will fare without RB Le'Veon Bell, who totaled more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season. Bell tweaked his knee in Week 17 and has been declared out for this game. Nevertheless, Big Ben will utilize other potent weapons like WRs Antonio Brown (1,698 yds and 13 TDs) and Martavis Bennett as well as TE Heath Miller.
On the flip side, the Steelers' D has to deal with a rejuvenated veteran WR in Steve Smith (1,065 yards and 6 TDs) as well as 1,000-yd rusher Justin Forsett. This has the potential to be an offensive shootout, something that isn't typical of two franchises who take such pride in playing stout defense.
Pittsburgh 31 Baltimore 24
Cincinnati Bengals (+3) at Indianapolis Colts: This is a rematch of Week 7 when the Colts shutout the Bengals 27-0 in Indy. Despite that, I still have a difficult time getting a handle on this game. While both teams achieved double digit number of victories (Cincinnati 10, Indianapolis 11) during the regular season, both suffered some hideous losses as well.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 0-5 all time in the postseason. The only other coach to lose his first five appearances was Jim Mora (he went 0-6).
The key to this game will be for Cincy to utilize rookie RB Jeremy Hill (1,124 yards rushing in 2014 and 9 TDs) against Indy's sub par run defense. This will succeed in keeping QB Andrew Luck and Co. off the field. Luck had yet another terrific season, as he threw for 4,761 yards and 40 TDs. However, he has a tendency to turn to the ball over, evidenced by his 16 INTs.
There has to be at least one upset this weekend, doesn't there?
Cincinnati 34 Indianapolis 31
Detroit Lions (+6-1/2) at Dallas Cowboys: This is perhaps the most intriguing game of the weekend, as it will pit the league's second best run offense (Dallas, led by RB DeMarco Murray's franchise record 1,845 yards rushing) against the #1 run defense. The Lions (1 playoff win in the past 57 years) also scored some rare good fortune as DT Ndamukong Suh successfully appealed a suspension for this game and DT Nick Fairley may well be active for the first time since October.
In the end, I believe the Cowboys' offensive line will win the battle up front. Even if Murray doesn't get his (though I believe he will), Detroit's secondary has been hidden all season thanks to their stellar front seven. That said, WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten won't be silenced this game.
Dallas 28 Detroit 20