NFL playoffs quick guide - Wild Card Round
MANILA, Philippines - 17 weeks of the NFL (National Football League) regular season have passed, and only 12 of the league's 32 teams remain in the hunt for the much-coveted Lombardi Trophy - to be fought for in Arizona at Super Bowl XLIX.
But before the best of the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC) meet in the desert to determine the league's 95th champion, they will first have to battle through their respective conferences in a series of do-or-die games. The first four take place over the next few days in Wild Card Weekend.
For those unfamiliar with how the NFL determines playoff seedings, here's something to help you out:
Each conference has 4 divisions with 4 teams each. The division champions per conference are ranked either no. one, no. two, no. three, or no. four in the playoff card, depending on which teams finished with better records or won tiebreakers.
The remaining two teams per conference who get playoff nods are considered as "wildcards" - determined by which non-division champs per conference that finished with the best records. The division champs are guaranteed homefield advantage for at least their first game of the postseason, while Wild Cards start on the road.
Note: Even if a Wild Card team had a better regular season record than a division champion, the latter will still have homefield advantage.
Here are this season's playoff teams:
#6 Baltimore Ravens (10-6, Wild Card, AFC North)
The Ravens were Super Bowl champions in 2013, but missed the playoffs the following season due to key losses on both sides of the field. After re-tooling their roster during this past NFL summer - and dealing with off-the-field issues surrounding former starting RB Ray Rice - Baltimore is back at a position their fans will experience for the sixth time in the past seven years: in the playoffs.
#5 Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1, Wild Card, AFC North)
The Bengals were last year's AFC North division champions and could have repeated the same feat this season but lost their NFL regular season finale matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (more on them later). Cincy has the talent to win a Super Bowl, but they have repeatedly come up short on the big stage, as indicated by their performances in the last three playoffs. The Bengals have yet to win a postseason game in the last 24 years.
#4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5, AFC South Champion)
Indianapolis won a second straight AFC South crown by taking advantage of a weak division where they went 6-0. But against some of the other top teams in their conference - like Pittsburgh, New England, and Denver - the Colts came up short. Though they have a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback in Andrew Luck and wideout in TY Hilton, the rest of the team is flawed (particularly their lack of a running attack) and isn't giving many critics a lot of confidence entering the playoffs.
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, AFC North Champion)
After falling to Tim Tebow's Broncos in 2012, the Steelers are back in the playoffs, entering with a four-game winning streak. Led by two-time Super Bowl champion QB Ben Roethhlisberger (4,952 yards, 32 TDs, 9 INTs) and coach Mike Tomlin, and star WR Antonio Brown (1,698 yards, 13 TDs), Pittsburgh is as deadly as any team in the AFC.
#2 Denver Broncos (12-4, AFC West Champion)
The last time Peyton Manning and his Broncos were in the NFL postseason was last year's Super Bowl, where they were annihilated by the Seattle Seahawks. Manning, the reigning league MVP, has recorded 39 touchdowns to 15 interceptions this season, which is considerably lower than his 55 TD-10 INT campaign last year.
His passing arm looks weaker and wobbly, but the team's running game with C.J. Anderson (849 yards, 8 TDs) and defense (305.2 allowed total yards per game, third best in the NFL) has improved considerably over the past few weeks.
#1 New England Patriots (12-4, AFC East Champion)
In week four of the regular season, Tom Brady and his New England Patriots were destroyed by the Kansas City Chiefs, 41-14, in a game where the three-time Super Bowl champ QB struggled immensely (14-23, 159 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT), prompting critics to ask if he was done as a top-tier quarterback and if the New England dynasty was finally coming to an end.
The Pats responded by winning their next seven games - including blowout wins over the Bengals, Broncos, and Colts - and finished the season 10-2. Brady bounced back by finishing the season with MVP-caliber stats (4,109 yards, 33 TD, 9 INT, 97.4 passer rating), while New England won their division for the 12th time in the last 15 years.
#6 Detroit Lions (11-5, Wild Card, NFC North)
The Lions failed to win their division by losing to the Green Bay Packers in week 17. For much of the season, Detroit's defense has been ranked no. one overall in the league, but their offense - particularly the running game (88.9 rushing yards per contest) - still needs work.
#5 Arizona Cardinals (11-5, Wild Card, NFC West)
The Cardinals went 9-1 in their first 10 games, but after losing starting QB Carlson Palmer and back-up Drew Stanton, the team has regressed on offense with Ryan Lindley, who's lost his last two games with below-average performances. The Cardinals' defense remains really good, but lack of production on the other side of the field could be their undoing in the playoffs.
#4 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1, NFC South Champion)
This year's NFC South was so pedestrian that the division champ ended their regular season with a below .500 record. But due to NFL rules, Cam Newton and company will have homefield advantage in Wild Card Weekend. On the plus side, the Panthers were undefeated in the month of December (4-0), and even if most of their opponents in that stretch had mediocre records, it gives them momentum entering the postseason.
#3 Dallas Cowboys (12-4, NFC East Champion)
After a five-year absence, the Cowboys - who like to call themselves America's Team - are back in the playoffs.
Dallas had been a punch line for years due to their late-season lapses and disappointing performances from starting QB Tony Romo. But this regular season was different. Romo came up clutch time and time again and averaged MVP-like numbers with 34 TDs and only 9 INTs this season, along with having a 113.2 passer rating to help his team clinch their division after a 4-0 record in December.
Dallas has also benefited from the running prowess of DeMarco Murray, who had a league-leading 1,845 yards and 13 TDs.
#2 Green Bay Packers (12-4, NFC North Champion)
Led by Aaron Rodgers, who's likely winning the MVP award after throwing for 4, 381 yards, 35 TDs, and only 5 INTs, Green Bay won the NFC North for a fourth straight year. The Packers still have games where they struggle on the road or their defense can't get stops, but Rodgers' superb passing game - mixed with Eddie Lacy's running attack - gives them as much a chance as anyone to win it all.
#1 Seattle Seahawks (12-4, NFC West Champion)
At one point during the regular season, the defending champions were 3-3 and in danger of missing the playoffs. They responded by winning 9 of their next 10 games, during which Seattle has looked like the most devastating team in the NFL.
After losing to Kansas City on November 17, the Seahawks allowed their next six opponents a total of only 39 points, which should make the rest of their conference very afraid. With Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards 13 TDs) proving he's still an elite RB and Russell Wilson continuing to make big play after another with his feet and arms, the Seahawks also have enough offensive firepower to become the first NFL team to repeat as champions Since the Patriots did it in 2004.
By the statistics: Seattle's offense is averaging 24.6 PPG, 10th best in the NFL; 172.6 rushing yards per game, first best in the NFL. Their defense is allowing just 267.1 total yards per game, first best in the NFL; 81.5 rushing yards per game, third best in the NFL, 185.6 passing yards per game, first best in the NFL, and only 15.9 PPG, first best in the NFL. The numbers are on the Seahawks' side.
The top two seeds per conference get a bye week during the Wild Card round and automatically advance to the Divisional Round, which takes place in the second week of January.
New England is ranked on top of Denver by virtue of the Pats' 43-21 win over the Broncos in week nine. Pittsburgh is no. three while Indianapolis is no. four because the Steelers beat the Colts 51-34 in week eight.
Seattle won their three-way tie over Green Bay and Dallas for the no. one seed because they had the best conference record. The Packers are no. two over the Cowboys for the same reason.
Wild Card round predictions:
Arizona ranks 29th in pass defense (259.5 yards allowed per game) and 24th in total yards (368.2 per game), but they allow just 18.7 PPG to opponents, which is fifth best in the league.
Where the Cardinals are really good is creating turnovers. They have a +8 turnover ratio this season, including 18 total picks that spread out from nine different defenders. Newton has registered 12 interceptions this season to only 18 TDs, so he is susceptible to throwing the ball back to the defense.
Thanks in large part to Cam Newton's total of 539 rushing yards, Carolina's 127.2 running yards per game is seventh best in the NFL.
Considering the Cardinals allow just 108.7 rushing yards per contest - 13th best in the NFL - Carolina will have to hope their running prowess out-powers Arizona's run defense or Newton can win the game by delivering touchdowns instead of interceptions (his offensive line has also allowed him to be sacked 38 times this season).
Lindley has thrown just 2 TDs to 4 INTs in two starts this season for Arizona, so if he makes multiple mistakes, it could lead to a Panthers win as well.
Prediction: Arizona 17 at Carolina 14
The Ravens' offense is ranked eighth overall with 25.6 PPG and 12th overall with 364.9 total yards per game. Their running attack with Justin Forsett (5.4 yards per carry) is the team's biggest weapon, but Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP in 2013, and his ability to convert long passes shouldn't be taken for granted as well.
The team's weakness is their secondary, which has allowed 248.7 passing yards per game, 23rd in the NFL. Against a Steelers team that averaged a second-league best 301.6 passing yards per game, Baltimore's corners and safeties are clearly going to have a long game.
Pitt's defense is allowing only a sixth-best 100.3 rushing yards per game, but their passing defense is even worse than Baltimore's at 253.1 yards per game. For the Ravens to pull off the upset over their division rivals, Flacco must beat Mike Tomlin's crew with his arm. He has the ability to win games with his passing, but he can also have multiple-interception performances. Giving the Steelers' explosive offense - seventh overall with 27.2 PPG - extra possessions will lead to the demise of Baltimore.
Prediction: Baltimore 24 at Pittsburgh 31
Indianapolis' offense is one-dimensional. Their 305.9 passing yards per game is top in the league, but they average just 100.8 running yards per contest, ranked no. 22. Third-year star Andrew Luck has thrown for 40 TDs this season, but he's committed 16 interceptions as well. The Bengals have taken away 20 picks this season.
In Cincy's 27-0 road loss to Indianapolis this regular season, Luck had a field day with 344 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs. TY Hilton totaled 107 yards. Expect the Bengals to throw most of their defensive attention to containing the Colts' wideouts and forcing them to win through the run game more this time around.
If there's one thing offenses can do against Indy's defense, it's running the football. The Colts are giving up 113.4 rushing yards per contest. In their 42-20 embarrassing home loss to New England, they allowed journeyman Jonas Gray a career-high 201 yards and 4 TDs, which was a similar stat-line put up by LeGarrette Blount (166 yards, 4 TDs) in New England's playoff win over Indianapolis last season.
Cincy's rookie RB Jeremy Hill has compiled 1,124 rushing yards this season to a tune of 5.1 yards per carry, while third-year back Giovani Bernard is at 680 yards on 4.0. Both guys will need to step up, control the clock, and keep Luck off the field for Cincinnati to win. If Indianapolis somehow stops their opponents' running game and forces Bengals QB Andy Dalton (19 TDs, 17 INTs) to throw to win, the Colts will have a better chance of advancing.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27 at Indianapolis 23
The Cowboys' biggest strength is their running game, which is second in the NFL at 147.1 yards per game. Detroit's run defense is best in the league, allowing just 69.3 rushing yards per game. Something's got to give.
Despite a glaring lack of talent, Dallas' secondary has played better than anticipated this season. But it still remains vulnerable and ranks 26th in the NFL at 251.9 total yards.
The Lions' offense - with multiple threats in the passing game such as "Megatron" Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush, and others - should be better than its 19th-ranked 340.8 total yards per game. But even in a season where they've struggled, the team still puts up 251.9 passing yards per game, which will definitely haunt the Cowboys' defense.
If Murray, who's also an MVP candidate, can somehow out-muscle Detroit's rushing defense and control the clock for Dallas' offense, then the Cowboys will have a much easier path to the Divisional Round.
But if he's neutralized and all the Cowboys will have is Romo's arm, the Lions will likely hold on for the win considering they do a great job of getting pressure to the quarterback (42 sacks this season).
Here's another weird but relevant stat: Dallas is 8-0 on the road this season but just 4-4 at home. It's possible that playing on their own homefield actually puts them at a disadvantage in this Wild Card game.
Prediction: Detroit 24 at Dallas 14