“Playoffs???” Indeed, it is time for our favorite early January tradition, as we arch our eyebrows, slip on our blue and white sweaters and conjure up the precious words of Jim Mora, who delivered the greatest sports rant of all time. Playoffs??? Yes, Jim, we’re talking about the playoffs.

 

While Wildcard Weekend rarely delivers the truly titanic matchups, it does provide compelling storylines and, more importantly, introduces us to the one or two teams who can wreak havoc on the playoff bracket. We are deep in to the golden age of the Wildcard, and we are repeatedly reminded that being a “hot” team is more valuable than being the best team.

 

It is for that reason that we will watch two mediocre teams this week, like the Panthers and Cardinals. These are the playoffs, and every moment matters, even if that moment involves Andy Dalton preparing to throw an interception.

 

Of course, the big boys get a break for their bye weeks, and we cannot ignore the prevailing feeling that the Patriots and Seahawks — the top seeds in their respective conferences — are on an inevitable Super Bowl XLIX collision course. When all signs point to a sure thing in the NFL, however, it never comes to fruition. It is difficult to pick against either team this year, though. They are simply too good and too complete and too disciplined.

 

The site of this year’s Big Game is Glendale, Arizona — the scene of the crime for Patriots fan who witnessed the helmet catch that will live in infamy seven years ago. Many fear that good old-fashioned puritanical New England misery will re-emerge, and Seattle will be the first team to repeat as champions since the Patriots themselves did so a decade ago.

 

Before we prematurely ruin everything with this projection of failure, let’s take a look at this weekend’s match ups and remind ourselves of the inherent excitement of the first steps on the march to the Super Bowl.

 

Arizona at Carolina: Do we really have to watch this?
The answer is yes, but we won’t hate you if you decide to skip it. Perhaps, you have something in your life that is more meaningful. And if that’s your excuse, we will actually hate you — but will do so with a begrudgingly level of respect. The point is that things could get really ugly in this one. You simply cannot buy into the narrative, however, that the Panthers have suddenly turned the corner and have emerged as a legitimate contender. While they have performed better in recent weeks, the competition was dreadful. Arizona, playing with their third string quarterback, is absurdly dreadful offensively, but they have proven they will be competitive.
Prediction: Panthers 19, Cardinals 16

 

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: Embrace the Hate
With apologies to the matchup discussed above, the Steelers and Ravens used to have cornered the market for ugly football. It is always physical and usually aesthetically displeasing when these teams collide. The Steelers emerged as a trendy pick to upset the Patriots and Broncos apple card and find themselves in the AFC Championship game or perhaps the Super Bowl itself. Then, they lost their most dynamic and reliable player, LeVeon Bell, to injury. Now, this game is officially thrust into chaos. The impact of the Bell injury is impossible to underestimate. The Steelers are severely diminished. Then again, so is the Ravens’ secondary, not due to injury but due to incompetence. Big Ben will throw early and often, and Antonio Brown remains a monster. Unlike years past, this one could be a shootout.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Ravens 24

 

Cincinnati at Indianapolis: Paper Tigers vs. Paper Horses
So what happens when two teams that are repeatedly humiliated playing worthy opponents wind up playing each other? This might be the apocalypse. We can safely say that the Colts are not a legitimate title contender. We also can safely say that the Bengals are a perennial post-season trainwreck. But there is a glimmer of hope for Cincinnati. It may very well be a mirage, but it feels like hope, nonetheless, given the emergence of running back Jeremy Hill and a defense that is highly effective when they decide to show up. This feels like a blueprint Andrew Luck come-from-behind scenario, especially with the Bengals missing their best player, A.J. Green.
Prediction: Colts 34, Bengals 31

 

Detroit at Dallas: So you’re saying there’s a chance?
No preamble needed here. Predictions for this game can be summed up thusly: the Cowboys may be the best team in the NFL. There is an undeniable championship feel here, and it is a high probability that they can beat anyone. That said, Dallas is always fighting the demons of its past, and this includes Tony Romo’s litany of playoff failures. The Lions, on the other hand, were perfectly built to lose in the first round of the playoffs. The Cowboys defense is shaky, but Detroit has not demonstrated that it has the physical or mental tools to exploit that. Dallas is the team to watch this post-season.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Lions 17

 

Who do you think will make the final cut? Let’s talk here, or find me on Twitter @endbadly.