At long last, the real season begins. Your faithful sidelinereport.com AFC North writing staff has survived their disastrous regular season by picking obvious favorites and being woefully disappointed time and again (more to come in another column). One can only hope that the first playoff round will offer something a bit more accurate, unless you’re a fan of homer picks that may or may not be wrong.
Keep in mind that these picks are for entertainment purposes only, and in no way should be used to influence gambling or illegal activity, unless you’re smart enough to recognize that we know more than you because we publish things.
On to the action…
Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Saturday, January 3, 8:15pm, NBC
Current line: Pittsburgh -3.5
The greatest current rivalry renews itself in the playoffs, where the Steelers have held sway, but have not been able to demonstrate any advantage since 2010; the last time these teams met in the playoffs. The Ravens have since embarked on a historic Super Bowl run and have proven themselves to be battle-tested and ready, having survived a tumultuous regular season but sustaining a weary, injury-depleted roster. The Steelers return to the playoffs after a two year absence with a retooled, record-setting offense and an aging, in-transition defense.
What to Watch:
- Ravens slow start. The Ravens have been offensively challenged for the first half of their last several games, including their demolition at the hands of the Texans two weeks ago. If they expect to pull out an upset win in perhaps their most hostile environment, quarterback Joe Flacco and company must score early and often, and the most effective way to do so would be to challenge the Steelers’ depleted secondary, particularly in the seams with tight end Owen Daniels and slot receivers Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown. If the Ravens allow the Steelers to claim an early, substantial lead, this game could effectively be over before halftime.
- Steelers run defense. The Ravens offense relies heavily on play-action passing, and it has been aided greatly by the emergence of running back Justin Forsett, which in turn has opened up gaps in opposing secondaries, and allowed the Ravens to burn the clock. If the Steelers’ front seven, particularly pro bowler Lawrence Timmons, are able to limit Forsett and force Flacco to operate under pressure, they will handily win this game and move on, as Flacco has wilted repeatedly under the pass rush in the last four games. Rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt must hold the point of attack, as the Ravens are expected to challenge him with the run often.
Equalizer: The Ravens secondary. Maligned as it has been and despite injury, the Ravens secondary has allowed just 173 passing yards per contest over their last four games, which has coincided with starting cornerback Lardarius Webb’s full return to health. If the Ravens defensive backfield can limit the Steelers’ vaunted passing attack, this game becomes a toss-up.
Bottom Line: The Ravens have endured much this season, and have persevered to earn a playoff spot, and their future looks bright. But they simply don’t have enough healthy bodies left to contend with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his many passing weapons, not the least of which is starting tailback Le’Veon Bell, who is beginning to look like a gametime decision to play. Steelers 26, Ravens 21
Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, January 4, 1:00pm, CBS
Current line: Indianapolis -6
The Bengals will, for the fourth consecutive year, attempt to shake off the stigma of first-round playoff failures that has haunted the Marvin Lewis era by squaring off against the Colts and wunderkind quarterback Andrew Luck. Head coach Lewis, at the Bengals helm since 2003, has endured difficult questions every time his teams reach the playoffs, and until they break through and garner at least one first-round victory, this sort of scrutiny is likely to continue, no matter Lewis’ reaction. Kudos to the Bengals for earning a playoff spot for four straight years, which isn’t easy in today’s parity-driven league.
What to Watch:
- Andy Dalton. The embattled Dalton has not played consistent football this season, tying a career worst in yards and throwing only 19 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Dalton hasn’t reacted well to interior pressure or to zone coverage, often locking in on his receivers, particularly wideout A.J. Green, without fully seeing roaming safeties and nickel corners. If the Colts are able to pressure Dalton and force him to read their coverages outside the pocket, this game could go south for the Bengals in a hurry, as Dalton seems to throw interceptions in bunches and at very inopportune times.
- Bengals pass rush. As always, rattling the opposing quarterback is a good idea, but it’s paramount when facing the run-deficient Colts, who have relied on the pass three times more than the rush, to the tune of the #1 passing attack in the NFL at 305.9 yards per game, and the #22 rushing attack (100.8 YPG). Obviously, stopping the Colts’ rushing attack means little, as Luck will use his passing weapons to far more effect than so-so backs Trent Richardson and Daniel Herron. Getting to Luck will clearly help the Bengals’ secondary as well, forcing the Colts to use shorter hot reads and limiting their yardage through the air.
Equalizer: Bengals running game. If the Bengals can spring backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard consistently and keep Luck and company off the field, they stand an honest shot of winning their first playoff game since 1991.
Bottom Line: The Colts blew out the Bengals 27-0 in the Bengals’ worst loss of the season. Although this one will be closer due to the emergence of the Cincinnati running game, the overall result won’t be much different. Colts 31, Bengals 17
|Ravenous128||Ravens @ Steelers||Steelers 26-21|
|Bengals @ Colts||Colts 31-17|
|peatwo||Ravens @ Steelers||Steelers 23-20|
|Bengals @ Colts||Colts 27-23|
|DOOOMMEEEEDD||Ravens @ Steelers||Steelers 24-20|
|Bengals @ Colts||Bengals 27-23|