By Doug Halberstadt
Seventeen weeks ago, 32 NFL teams started the 2014 season with hopes of making the postseason. Twelve of those 32 teams’ hopes have been fulfilled. Six teams from the AFC and six from the NFC now have higher hopes. Their goal has been modified. They are no longer satisfied with making the playoffs, their objective is now to win the Super Bowl.
Four teams get a first-round bye and will not have to play in the Wild Card weekend. The New England Patriots (12-4) and the Denver Broncos (12-4) are the top two seeds in the AFC and will have an extra week of preparation before their Super Bowl quest begins. The same holds true for the defending champion Seattle Seahawks (12-4) and the Green Bay Packers (12-4) in the NFC.
The Detroit Lions (11-5) lost to Green Bay 30-20 in the final week of the regular season, but still earned a playoff spot. They will go on the road to meet the Dallas Cowboys (12-4) in AT & T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys were a perfect 8-0 away from home this season and only 4-4 at home. The Lions were almost the exact opposite — they were 4-4 in away games and 7-1 at home.
Dallas has quieted their critics with four straight wins in the month of December and seem to be clicking on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. The Lions have been hot as well. They’ve won four of their last five games dating back to a Thanksgiving Day win over Chicago. The loss to Green Bay is the only blemish on their December schedule.
I like the three-headed offensive monster in Dallas. The combination of Tony Romo at quarterback, DeMarco Murray running the ball and Dez Bryant on the receiving end of Romo’s passes will prove to be too much for the Lions’ defense. I’m saying the Lions’ season will come to a close and the Cowboys will win 31-17.
The other NFC game has the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1). The Panthers won the NFC South and made the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. The Panthers put together a perfect 4-0 record in December to earn a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
The Cardinals dropped their final two games of the regular season. They’ve been snake bitten with quarterback injuries. First-string QB Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending knee injury in week 10. His replacement, Drew Stanton, went down with an MCL injury in week 15. They are down to third-string QB Ryan Lindley and fourth-stringer Logan Thomas.
The Panthers’ recent success is partly because of the return of their No. 1 quarterback, Cam Newton, to the starting lineup. He was out with a back injury he suffered in a car accident. The QB position is so critical in the NFL, especially when it comes to the playoffs. I’m giving the edge to Newton and the Panthers over the Lindley-led Cardinals, 24-14.
In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) earned a home game by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in the final regular-season game 27-17 and winning the AFC North. They will host the Baltimore Ravens (10-6). This will be the third meeting between the two teams this year. In the second week of the season, the Steelers lost 26-6. Seven weeks later, they got the win 43-23. The division rivals will take the field Saturday night (Jan. 3). I think this will be the best Wild Card weekend game. I look for a game similar to the higher-scoring week nine contest with the Steelers coming out on top 41-31.
The Indianapolis Colts (11-5) host the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1). These two teams met once during the regular season on Oct. 19. The Colts shut out the Bengals 27-0 in that game. They also faced one another in the preseason. The Bengals won the Aug. 28 game 35-7. The Colts are 6-2 at home this year. If Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has some success early in the game, this one could get out of hand. I think that’s how it’ll play out. I look for a lopsided Colts victory, 35-14.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Dec. 31, 2014-Jan. 6, 2015, issue