Wild Card Weekend is always one of the most fascinating in the NFL season. We spent the beginning of the week talking about the coaches who have been fired, and who might get hired to take their places, and then, after a brief detour for the college bowls (hey, Oregon State against Ohio State for the national championship—in what would have been the Rose Bowl in earlier times and neither team would get even a sniff of the national title) we focus on the four NFL games.
The focus this year is on injury (and suspension). The Steelers' LeVeon Bell injured his knee in our Sunday Night game on Channel Four against the Bengals, and is doubtful for Saturday's match-up with the Ravens. It's only bruising of his knee ligaments, but 'only' is a relative term for an NFL running back. Since Bell has been the focus of the Steelers' offense, doing for them what smaller backs like Jamaal Charles or Matt Forte usually do both running and receiving, his loss (coupled with their release of LaGarrette Blount earlier in the season) would be crucial. Meanwhile the Ravens get one of their best defensive players, Haloti Ngata, back from a four-game PED suspension.
The Bengals' AJ Green suffered a concussion against the Steelers; he's been practicsing but must pass a concussion protocol in order to go against the Colts in Indianapolis. Green is crucial to the Bengals' attack too; he's really their only big play threat, and his matchup with cornerback Vontae Davis would be one to watch. But the Bengals might be better served pounding it down the Colts' throat, metaphorically speaking, as they have a big powerful runner in rookie Jeremy Hill and the Colts are bad at stopping the run.
The Lions got center Dominic Raiola back after a one-game suspension for stomping, but they got even better news when defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had his own one-game ban for a similar offense (on Aaron Rodgers' injured calf) overturned and reduced to a mere $70,000 fine. The NFL are masters of sending mixed messages. Suh's running mate at tackle, Nick Fairley, who's missed a large chunk of the season may be fit enough to take on Dallas, in a great matchup of the league's best defensive front against what might be the best offensive line.
Oddly, although the game is in Dallas, the Cowboys are only 3-5 this year at home (a perfect 8-0 on the road) while the Lions are 4-4 on the road. A more telling stat may be that the Lions are only 1-4 against teams in the playoffs. Matt Stafford struggles against good defenses, and the challenge will be for the Cowboys' D to play at their best, and for Cowboys' QB Tony Romo to convince doubters that Stafford is the bigger choker.
Finally, Arizona, who've lost every game started by third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, travel to Carolina to take on the NFC South Champion Panthers, whose record is 7-8-1. But where the Cardinals have lost two quarterbacks to injury, the Panthers' Cam Newton is healthy for the first time all year, along with running back Jonathan Stewart, and they may be too much for the Cardinals.
BEST BET: OVER 47.5 at 1.92 Dallas vs Detroit: The Cowboys ought to be able to win this game, but it has all the makings of a shootout, and the Lions have the ability to get a couple of big scores against a pass defense that's played better than advertised.
VALUE BET: BALTIMORE (+3 AT 2.00) at Pittsburgh: I'm not convinced Bell will be ready to go, but even if he is, Steeler-Ravens games are usually close and hard-fought affairs. In fact, if Bell isn't going, the BALTIMORE WIN at 2.45 might be worth a flutter.
OUTSIDE BET: DALLAS (-7 at 2.02) vs Detroit: As I said, it could be a shootout, but the Cowboys have the weapons to win one, including Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. For all their problems at home, they showed against Washington how explosive they can be.
ONE TO AVOID: There are only four games, so it's hard to avoid. But you may want to check Le Veon Bell's status and shy off Baltimore if he's going and going at 100%. If AJ Green can't go for the Bengals they're risky, otherwise I like them getting 3.5 points, though only at 1.80.