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NFL Playoff Scenarios 2014-15: AFC, NFC Wild-Card Pictures and Predictions

Published by Bleacher Report on Mon, 29 Dec 2014

Week 17 proved to be a fitting end to an unpredictable NFL season.The surging Atlanta Falcons suddenly looked hapless and were knocked out of playoff contention by the Carolina Panthers. The San Diego Chargers couldn't defeat the Kansas City Chiefs with backup quarterback Chase Daniel at the helm, paving the way for the Baltimore Ravens to clinch a berth in the postseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers took down the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time, winning the AFC North crown.Those conclusions were only part of the late-season drama the shaped the playoff pictures for both the AFC and the NFC. With the pecking order of the playoffs now decided, it's time to take a look at the impending matchups for what should be a compelling weekend on the gridiron.Which teams have what it takes to advance beyond Wild Card Weekend' Some predictions are in order.Wild-Card PictureAFC PredictionsPittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore RavensThis is an intriguing matchup in a number of ways. We've seen both of these teams get hot in the playoffs and make Super Bowl runs in the past, and winning a big divisional showdown is one big way to gain a head of steam going forward. However, these teams must first survive each other, as clashes between the Steelers and Ravens can be quite brutal.Pittsburgh is winning games in a far different fashion this seasonwith offense. Ben Roethlisberger had a career year during the regular season, throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards and tying a career-high 32 touchdown passes. Much of his success is due to the prowess of the league's receptions leader,Antonio Brown.Brown's been pretty darn good this season. Here's a look at his league rankings, via NFL on ESPN:Balancing out the Steelers offensive attack is running back Le'Veon Bell. He may have been the team's MVP this season due to his ability to contribute effectively in both the running and passing games; although, he suffered a hyperextended knee in Week 17 and his status is up in the air going forward, according to Scott Brown of ESPN.com. His availability could play a huge factor in this contest.Baltimore has a great running back of its own in Justin Forsett. He averaged an impressive 5.4 yards per carry during the regular season, and he's been a great complement to the Ravens passing game, led by Joe Flacco, who threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this year.Both teams have weaknesses in the secondary coming into this wild-card matchup, so the advantage here has to go to the more consistent passing offense, and that would be Pittsburgh.Prediction: Steelers 27, Ravens 23Indianapolis Colts vs. Cincinnati BengalsThe last time these teams met, the Bengals offense was completely stagnant, as the Colts trounced Cincinnati to the tune of a 27-0 victory. Well, that was back in Week 7, and plenty has changed for both teams since then.Cincinnati has become a run-oriented offense, utilizing talented rookie ball-carrier Jeremy Hill to move the chains. Despite a limited workload for much of the season, Hill still managed to finish the year with 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The Colts have struggled against the run this season, ranking 18th in the league in that category, and they may have trouble here.Hill found himself in some elite company following aMonday Night Footballwin over the Denver Broncos, via NFL on ESPN:Indianapolis boasts the league's best passing attack. Andrew Luck finished the season with 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns; however, his production began to drop off toward the end of the yearhe threw for fewer than 200 yards in each of his last three games. That's slightly concerning considering he's about to face a very good Bengals secondary.Both of these teams have struggled with turnovers of late, but despite losing in Week 17, the Bengals have been the hotter team down the final stretch of the season. Expect a big game from Hill as Cincinnati claims its first postseason win in 24 years.Prediction: Bengals 30, Colts 26NFC PredictionsCarolina Panthers vs. Arizona CardinalsThis is a battle between two opponents entering the postseason in completely different fashions. Carolina won its last four games to clinch the NFC South, while Arizona lost four of its last six en route to falling out of the NFC West lead. All of a sudden, the team that finished the season with a losing record is hosting a playoff game.NFL on ESPN summed up the situation perfectly:The Panthers may have finished the season 7-8-1, but they are playing better than their record would indicate. The team's defense has come alive, allowing 17 points or fewer in each of its last four games. Meanwhile, the dual-threat attack of Cam Newton and resurgent ground game of Jonathan Stewart are keeping the offense on the field and controlling the pace of the game.Arizona is doing no such thing. A once-stout defense has been decimated by injuries and has allowed a total of 55 points over the last two games of the season. On offense, third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley continues to struggle with accuracy, while the Cardinals don't have much of a ground game to rely on, ranking 31st in the league.Earlier in the season, the Cardinals may have mopped the floor with the Panthers, but after the role reversals between these teams, this game will end in a completely different manner.Prediction: Panthers 27, Cardinals 17Dallas Cowboys vs. Detroit LionsDallas owns one of the league's most prolific offenses, and Detroit boasts one of the NFL's sturdiest defenses. Something has to give when these two NFC juggernauts meet in the playoffs.The Cowboys ran the ball far more frequently this season, and that ended in DeMarco Murray claiming the rushing title, carrying 392 times for 1,845 yards and scoring 13 times. That ground game opened things up for quarterback Tony Romo, who produced a very efficient season, throwing for 3,705 yards and 34 touchdowns. A total of 16 of those scores went to the prolific Dez Bryant, who rounds out this talented trio.Murray's rushing total for the season surpassed one of Dallas' all-time greats, according toSportsCenter:The Lions finished the season as the league's stingiest run defense, allowing an average of 69.3 yards per game on the ground. If any team has the ability to limit Murray, it's Detroit. This team generates a nice pass rush and accumulated 42 sacks during the season. It will need to pressure Romo early and often to knock him off of his game and force mistakes.Looking at the overall picture, the nod has to go to the more consistent team on both sides of the ball. In this case, that would be Dallas. While Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are an excellent duo, they haven't been clicking on a regular basis and may not be able to keep up with Dallas' attack.Prediction: Cowboys 24, Lions 20
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