LOS ANGELES, January 2, 2015 — The regular season is over and Black Monday took care of several coaches who did not make the postseason. The playoffs is just a start. For these dozen teams remaining, it is all about hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in early February. The best two teams in each conference have a bye week. The remaining eight teams will have to try and win it all the hard way. The 1980 Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl as a wildcard. Both the 2000 and 2012 Baltimore Ravens teams that won it all had to play on Wildcard Weekend. The same is true for the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants teams that ended gloriously.
Four games await on four different television networks. Welcome to the NFL Playoffs. Welcome to NFL 2014-2015 Wildcard Weekend, with point spreads provided by FootballLocks.com and all times Eastern.
Saturday, January 3, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-6.5) — This is the reverse of 2008, when the Cardinals started 7-3 and collapsed down the stretch to finish 9-7. They traveled to face the 12-4 Carolina Panthers, who looked every bit as good as the 2003 team that went to the Super Bowl. In a shocker, Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith were derailed 33-13 by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. Delhomme was never the same after that game and the Cardinals came within one Santonio Holmes miracle catch of winning it all.
This year the Cardinals lost Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton and finished with a pair of losses to end up 11-5. The Panthers went 12-4 last year but this year stumbled out of the gate to a 3-8-1 start. They finished with four straight wins, shellacking the Falcons in Atlanta by 31 points to make the playoffs with a losing record. Football is a game of momentum. The Cardinals are the better team but the Panthers have all the momentum. Panthers win, but fail to cover.
5:15 p.m. on NBC
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) — The Ravens are 10-6 and the Steelers are 11-5. Now throw out the records. Over the years this became one of the best feuds in football and John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin built nasty teams that were mirror images of each other. While the Steelers hold the 3-0 playoff edge, both of these teams during the regular season have gone on the road and gotten wins over the last few years. After taking last year off, both teams returned to the standard their organizations have expected in recent years.
This year, both home teams won their game. The Steelers returned to hard-nosed running with LeVeon Bell. Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than Joe Flacco, but Bell is hurt. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are retired, but the Steelers defense is not the Steel Curtain. The Ravens won it all two years ago on the road. That experience will give them the edge in a battle of even teams. Upset special, Ravens win outright.
Sunday, January 4 at 10:00 a.m. on CBS
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (-3.5) — This should be renamed the Tomato Can Bowl. Both of these teams have a pattern of winning in the regular season and quickly flaming out in the playoffs against more elite teams. The Colts benefit from playing in the pathetic AFC South and beating up on Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Bengals were swept by Pittsburgh and played terribly against Baltimore but beat weaker teams.
Both of these teams will be eliminated without reaching the AFC Title Game. Despite losing on the road by 35 points a couple of weeks ago, the Colts were on the road. At home in the Dome, they will be fine against the Bengals before being exposed one week later. Andy Dalton could end up throwing touchdown passes to both teams while Andrew Luck is good for his typical early turnover before settling down. Last year the Colts came back from down 28 points in the third quarter. This game will be easier. Colts cover.
1:30 p.m. on FOX
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (-6.5) — In 1991 the Cowboys traveled to Detroit and got shellacked 38-6 by Barry Sanders and the Lions in the playoffs. It was Detroit’s first and only playoff victory since 1957 when Bobby Layne ordered his teammates to play hard during the game and drink hard afterward. Layne was traded and the Lions never recovered. The Cowboys one year later began a dynasty with Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith and Michael Irvin.
This year the Cowboys have the offense and the Lions have the defense. Tony Romo is revitalized, DeMarco Murray has been running brutally hard, and Dez Bryant has earned the right to be Michael Irvin’s son. Jason Witten is still Jason Witten. The Lions dodged a bullet when repeat offender Ndomakung Suh had his one-game suspension for stepping on the foot of Aaron Rodgers overturned. The Lions defense is ferocious but it has not proven it can win on the road against elite quarterbacks. Detroit’s ferocious defense will wear down if Dallas keeps ramming Murray at them. At home, Romo will finally get the monkey off of his back. Cowboys cover.