With the New England Patriots getting a first-round bye, Reading the Wild Card Numbers will examine the four wild card games on this weekend’s slate. Offense/defense previews and special teams previews for each game will also get you prepared for kickoff.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
The Arizona Cardinals rose to the top of the NFC West early in the season, reaching a 9-1 record after Week 11. At that point, only one opponent had managed to rush for over 100 yards against the stout Cardinals defense: the Philadelphia Eagles. But, in Week 12 they traveled to Seattle to face the Seahawks, who rushed for 124 yards. The Cardinals then closed out the season losing four of their last six games, with adversaries rushing for more than 100 yards in five of the contests. Both their final opponents (Seattle and San Francisco) eclipsed the 200-yard mark on the ground.
Next up for the Cardinals are the Carolina Panthers, whose 2,036 rushing yards rank seventh in the NFL. Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton lead the ground attack with 809 and 539 yards, respectively. DeAngelo Williams (probable), with 219 yards, is currently recovering from a hand injury. Fozzy Whittaker, fullback Mike Tolbert and wide receiver Philly Brown round out the Carolina running game. Since their bye week on Week 12, the Panthers boast an average of 195 rushing yards per game.
These two trends ‒ a faltering run defense and an opponent with a strengthening ground game ‒ spell trouble for the Cardinals.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Pittsburgh Steelers head into the playoffs against their AFC North rivals without standout running back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a knee injury in the final regular-season game against Cincinnati. Ruled out for Saturday’s wild-card game, Bell served as the main cog for Steelers’ ground attack: his 1,361 rushing yards ranked second in the NFL and comprised of 77.7% the team’s rushing totals. Moreover, the second-most rushing yards for Pittsburgh (266) belong to LeGarrette Blount, whom they released after Week 11. The remaining rushers have 125 yards combined among them, averaging 1.8 yards per carry (YPC). Rookie Josh Harris filled in after Bell’s injury, having tallied just 16 yards on 9 carries this season. Harris is, at best, untested, but with no other running back with significant yardage on their roster the Steelers have no choice but to hope he produces.
The Steelers’ chances rest on the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger, whose 4,952 passing yards tied him with Drew Brees for the most in the NFL this season. Fortunately for Roethlisberger, the Ravens lack an imposing pass defense: The Ravens surrendered 3,979 yards through the air (24th in the NFL), despite their 49 sacks (tied for 2nd) for 362 yards (1st in the NFL). Roethlisberger has had success against the Ravens this season, throwing for 340 yards and 6 touchdowns during a Week 9 game at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
First, a comparison of two quarterbacks:
Luck boasts superior numbers with more passing yards, touchdowns and a higher passer rating; however, he has thrown 16 interceptions. He goes up against the Cincinnati Bengals’ ball-hawking defense, which tied for third in the NFL with 20 interceptions, including two off Luck in Week 7.
Andy Dalton yielded 17 interceptions on fewer attempts and his pick-off rate ranks third-highest among starting quarterbacks. He didn’t throw any in the prior game against the Colts, the only bright spot in one of his worst passing games this season: 18-38 for 126 and no touchdowns.
Cincinnati has the league’s sixth-best rushing attack with 134.2 yards per game, led by Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard with 1804 yards between them. Indianapolis held the Bengals to just 32 yards in their last meeting. Those numbers need improvement, as Cincinnati logged a 1-4 record when rushing for less than 100 yards.
Finally, four teams have totaled at least 170 rushing yards against the Bengals, with all four earning victories. This includes Indianapolis, which racked 171 yards on the ground en route to a 27-0 win.
Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
The last wild card game of the weekend features the league’s top running back, DeMarco Murray (1,845 rushing yards) against the league’s best run defense, the Detroit Lions (1,109 yards allowed). Murray averages 4.7 YPC this season, which should test the Lions front seven’s 3.2 YPC allowed. Dallas runs the ball 50 percent of the time (third-highest in the NFL), so they need Murray to be in top form on Sunday.
Then there is the other half of the Cowboys offense: Tony Romo and his talented receivers Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Terrence Williams. While Romo’s 3,705 total passing yards is a mere 14th in the league, the yardage is suppressed by the balanced offensive play-calling: his 435 pass attempts is 23rd among quarterbacks. He makes up for it with accuracy: he is first in pass completion percentage (69.9%), touchdown percentage (7.8%), yards per attempt (8.5), and passer rating (113.2). He faces a Detroit pass defense which Football Outsiders ranks 8th in DVOA. While a strong unit, the Lions may face a problem similar to what they encountered last week against the Packers: An efficient Aaron Rodgers (18-23, 232 yards, 2 TD’s, 0 INT) and a persistent rushing attack. Green Bay ran the ball 38 times for 152 yards, the most the Lions have allowed on the ground this season.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise cited.
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.