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Saturday, 3 January 2015

NFL Play Offs Wild Card Round Picks 2015 (January 3-4)

The New Year is here and that means this is the final month of the NFL season with the Play Offs beginning this weekend. The time constraints during this period means I will only have a post with my picks from all four games to be played this weekend rather than a full post.

The final twelve teams that have a chance of winning the Super Bowl all are worth of their place in the Play Offs and I think this is the first season for some time where a 'worthy' team hasn't missed out. Even the Carolina Panthers with their losing record have won four in a row heading into the Play Offs and the only team that could perhaps argue they should have made the post-season are the Philadelphia Eagles.

However, even Chip Kelly himself admitted that the Eagles wouldn't deserve their place if they didn't make it before the Week 16 loss at the Washington Redskins and you have to say the momentum is much more behind the Carolina Panthers than the Eagles over the last few weeks.

A lot of people have made their predictions of which two teams will compete for the Super Bowl at this point and I think most would find it hard to look beyond the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks with the two Number 1 Seeds looking tough to beat. There are a couple of teams that could potentially cause them problems, but it all depends on how the bracket plays out and I still believe my pre-season pick of the Green Bay Packers beating Denver in the Super Bowl has a real chance of coming in.

It will be an exciting time over the next month leading up to the Super Bowl and one I am looking forward to watching.

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers Pick: The Arizona Cardinals have to be cursing their luck in losing not one, but two starting Quarter Backs this season as a promising season looks to be ending in disappointment. At one point, the Cardinals were clear favourites to finish the season with the Number 1 Seed in the NFC, but the injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton plus two losses to the Seattle Seahawks means the team had to settle for a Wild Card spot.

That also means the Arizona Cardinals have to go on the road during this Round of the Play Offs and they are a pretty big underdog against the Carolina Panthers despite the losing record the latter bring into the game. However, Carolina have been one of the hotter teams in the month of December with 4 straight wins helping them beat out the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC South title and another post-season visit.

Cam Newton avoided a major injury in the car crash he suffered a few weeks ago and looks about as healthy as he has all season and is expected to contribute to establishing the run along with Jonathan Stewart and potentially returning DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers have been pounding the ball very effectively over the last four games, averaging 199 yards per game on the ground, and they should be able to establish their first point of attack in this game.

The Arizona Cardinals have struggled to contain the run effectively in their last six games compared with the rest of the season and the Defense is spending a lot of time on the field which has worn them down. That also takes away some of the 'Blitz' packages that Todd Bowles loves dialling up and will also mean the potential for big games for both Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen in the passing games.

The Cardinals Defense hasn't been helped by the limitations of their own Offense with Ryan Lindley behind Center, especially as the Quarter Back is 1-5 as a starter and only threw his first Touchdown passes of his NFL career in Week 17. Lindley could be helped by Kerwynn Williams and his ability to at least get something going on the ground, while both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are Receivers that can make the big catch to keep the chains moving.

It does all seem to point to the Carolina Panthers winning this game and I do think they will do that, but I think the Arizona Cardinals are still getting too many points in this game. Aside from the two heavy losses to the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona have been very competitive through their injuries and I think they can be competitive in this one too.

Even the second loss to Seattle was thanks to a huge Fourth Quarter from the Seahawks and this should be a close game unless Lindley decides to throw two or three Interceptions which is a concern.

The Arizona Defense has to step up and produce a huge performance in this one- if they can slow down the run, even a little, it will give their top Corner Back tandem a chance to at least force the Panthers to punt the ball and give Arizona a chance to win the game outright.

Carolina won as the underdog in Week 17, but those teams are just 13-21-1 against the spread in the Wild Card Round, although there are a couple of big trends going against Arizona. The Cardinals do have the better strength of schedule and those teams are also 32-12 against the spread in this Play Off Round, but I will keep the interest to a minimum considering Ryan Lindley's (lack of) ability at Quarter Back.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers Pick: Where else can you begin in this Play Off game than talking about Le'Veon Bell and his potential absence from the game? It was finally made official that Bell will not be taking part in this game on Friday and that is a huge loss for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they look to improve their 3-0 record against the Baltimore Ravens, their Divisional rivals from the AFC North.

Bell's loss is not going to play a key part in the Pittsburgh plans to run the ball as that is going to be a difficulty even if the Running Back was available- instead, it is an issue that Ben Roethlisberger will be without a player he has used heavily in the passing game when looking for a safety blanket and one who has been very good in protection when the Quarter Back goes back to throw.

Joe Harris, Dri Archer and newly signed Ben Tate will all try and have some success against the Ravens on the ground, but Haloti Ngata only improves Baltimore's Defensive Line and Roethlisberger needs to throw the ball to win this game.

It is going to rain on Saturday, but that shouldn't prevent Ben Roethlisberger attacking an injured Baltimore Secondary that has missed Jimmy Smith and now have to deal with Antonio Brown and a strong passing Offense.

If this game does go the way of the last one that ended at Heinz Field, Baltimore will need Joe Flacco to perform much better than he has been doing over the last three weeks. Justin Forsett should be able to help by running the ball effectively, but the Pittsburgh Defense has shown more life of late and have been an improving unit which could pose some real problems for Flacco.

Baltimore's Offensive Line will give Flacco time to make some throws downfield, but his accuracy has been something of a concern and the pocket won't be completely clean now the Steelers have figured out a way to find a productive pass rush.

I have been hoping that Pittsburgh's spread would come down a little after Bell was officially ruled out, but that hasn't been the case just yet. However, I do think they will prove to be too good at home where teams have been very good against the spread in the Wild Card Round over the last three years.

The Steelers have also won all 3 previous Play Off games against Baltimore and that includes a 7 point win when the teams met in January 2011. I believe Ben Roethlisberger wins the Quarter Back battle in what could be a surprisingly high-scoring game and helps the Steelers move on to Denver next week for the Divisional Round games.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts Pick: The dynamic for teams returning to play a team in the Play Offs at the same venue where they were beaten earlier in the season, as long as they are not Divisional rivals, has seen the beaten team cover plenty of times. However, that isn't enough for me to back the Cincinnati Bengals and I do like the Indianapolis Colts to move on to either New England or Denver next week for their Divisional Round Play Off game.

The injury to AJ Green could be a huge problem for Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals to overcome, even if I think the Quarter Back has a strong game using the read-option alongside Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. However, if Indianapolis have a decent lead in the game, the running game becomes less of an issue and the Bengals will have to throw to move the chains and try and stay in the game.

Green's injury is a huge concern with Marvin Jones already out and Jermaine Gresham limited to say the least. That will make it tough for Dalton to have consistent success throwing the ball and so it is a key for the Cincinnati Bengals to try and keep up with what Indianapolis bring to the table.

And Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts should have their success throwing the ball with a huge number of weapons for the Quarter Back to target. The Cincinnati Secondary has struggled in pass coverage at times, and Andrew Luck also can scramble away from pressure to extend plays and earn big gains through the air.

Luck has to be better with the ball and more careful as Interceptions and Fumbles have blighted him through the season, thanks in part to having limited help from his Running Backs. It is unlikely that the Colts will have too much success running the ball in this one with either Trent Richardson or Dan Herron, although it has been an area that Cincinnati have struggled in. However, Indianapolis can't be trusted to run the ball and the Colts will look for Luck to lead them through to the Divisional Round.

In a big game, I would rather back Luck to make the plays than Dalton who is always good for a turnover or two and struggled in Indianapolis earlier this season. Add in the fact that Cincinnati have the mental block of failing to win a Play Off game since 1991 as a franchise while both Marvin Lewis (0-5) and Andy Dalton (0-3) have had previous chances to snap that record.

A road team being dogged by more than 3 points is 9-28 against the spread in the Wild Card Round when they have played a Divisional rival in Week 17 and that also counts against Cincinnati as well as the home teams successes in recent seasons. I like Indianapolis to cover the spread in this one and move on to the Divisional Round again.

Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys Pick: Some will point to the Baltimore Ravens trip to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I think the Detroit Lions visit to the Dallas Cowboys is the best game of the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs. It could easily be the most high-scoring game of the weekend, and it is a game where I like the points being offered in favour of the Detroit Lions despite a couple of big trends going against them.

The fact that Ndamukong Suh has been given the chance to play in this game is a huge deal for the Detroit Lions who are going to be tested in their ability to stop the run against this Dallas Cowboys Offense. That could be the battle in the trenches which decides which of these teams make it through to the Divisional Round of the Play Offs as the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

The Lions have thrived on being able to shut down the run this season and Dallas have been very effective at establishing DeMarco Murray so the team that can maintain their season form will be the one that sets themselves up for the win. That is a simplistic approach, but one that I truly believe will determine the winner.

If Dallas can't get the run going, Tony Romo could be under some immense pressure from the pass rush which could lead to mistakes, but being kept in third and short has seen Romo have a huge season. He has the Receivers to match up well with any Secondary and Romo will exploit short yardage situations by getting the ball to the likes of Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant.

That match up in the trenches may decide a winner, but I still think Detroit have enough Offensive power to at least keep this close and cover the spread anyway. The Lions might not have run the ball that effectively all season and the Offensive Line can be a mess with injuries not helping, but Matt Stafford has put together some big performances against Dallas in their last two meetings.

It is not just Stafford, but Calvin Johnson has been a huge issue for the Cowboys and the Defense, while creating some turnovers, has still be hurt through the air this season. I don't know how many answers the Dallas Secondary will have for Megatron and Golden Tate and Detroit can keep this game close.

Underdog road teams of more than three points coming off a Divisional game in Week 17 have a poor history of covering in the Wild Card Round and the home teams have been covering plenty over the last few seasons in this Round of the Play Offs.

Those go against Dallas, but the team with the better strength of schedule has covered at around 67% of the time in the Wild Card Round and I can see Detroit driving with the ball in hand to cover/win outright with this game running down. The spread has come down from the converted Touchdown mark, but I expect this to still be close and will take the points.

MY PICKS: Arizona Cardinals + 6.5 Points @ 2.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Pittsburgh Steelers - 3 Points @ 1.87 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Indianapolis Colts - 3.5 Points @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Detroit Lions + 6.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Victor (2 Units)

Week 17: 5-3, + 2.55 Units
Week 165-6, - 3.55 Units
Week 155-4, + 1.56 Units
Week 142-10, - 14 Units
Week 134-7, - 6.36 Units
Week 123-6, - 4.36 Units
Week 115-4, + 1.20 Units
Week 104-2, + 3.90 Units
Week 94-3, + 1.42 Units
Week 81-8, - 13 Units
Week 78-1, + 11.20 Units
Week 62-3-1, - 2.46 Units
Week 53-4-1, + 0.84 Units
Week 44-4, + 0.02 Units
Week 38-2, + 9.82 Units
Week 25-3, + 1.50 Units
Week 13-6, - 3.18 Units

Season 201470-76-2, - 12.90 Units
Season 201386-70-2, + 22.27 Units
Season 2012- 4.78 Units

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