The main question for the NFL’s weekend of wild-card games is who will advance, of course. The next big query: Who do you trust?
Dallas? Not exactly a sure thing in the playoffs — at least not since Jimmy Johnson was around.
Detroit? Even less dependable; the Lions’ last postseason win came when Barry Sanders was in the early portion of his Hall of Fame career.
So when the Cowboys host the Lions on Sunday in the final wild-card affair, it’s virtually impossible to predict what will happen.
“Little different this time of year,” says first-year Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who guided the Colts to the February 2010 Super Bowl, a loss to New Orleans. “Obviously, I think every game is tough and difficult I think when you get in the playoffs when it’s one and done if you lose. I think it’s a heightened sense of intensity.”
Can Detroit handle it? Can Dallas?
“I think as much as anything else is to take advantage of an opportunity to get better as a football team,” coach Jason Garrett says. “Guys embraced the opportunity to play. I think we saw that in the spirit and demeanor we played with.”
They’ll need the same approach in the second season.
Also this weekend, it’s Arizona at Carolina and Baltimore at Pittsburgh on Saturday, Cincinnati at Indianapolis on Sunday. Division champions New England, Denver, Seattle and Green Bay have byes.
Detroit (11-5) at Dallas (12-4)
Dallas has the league’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray. Detroit has the best rush defense in the league.
Think the ground game will be important?
Fortunately for the Lions, DT Ndamukong Suh’s one-game league suspension was rescinded and he will play. But the Cowboys might have the NFL’s top offensive line.
“They come off the ball, they have size, they understand exactly what they’re trying to get done,” Caldwell says. “They can adapt their scheme to multiple different fronts. There hasn’t been really any scheme that’s slowed them down much.”
Arizona (11-5) at Carolina (7-8-1)
Only Seattle in 2010 had won a division with a losing record before the Panthers managed it in the NFC South this season. Carolina can take encouragement from the fact Seattle then won a wild-card game.
The Panthers have won four in a row to become the first repeat division champion in the South. They averaged 199.3 yards rushing per game in December and found balanced offense with QB Cam Newton and two 1,000-yard receivers: TE Greg Olsen and rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin.
Arizona was the talk of the NFL until injuries struck pretty much everywhere. The Cardinals went from 9-1 to a wild card, and have third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Their defense, also undermanned, will need a huge game.
Baltimore (10-6) at Pittsburgh (9-7)
The nastiest rivalry in the NFL, and fans get to see a third meeting this season in a playoff match.
Pittsburgh will take it, not only because it will be at home after winning the AFC North, but the Steelers are 9-0 in third games against the same team in a season.
The Steelers could be without RB Le’Veon Bell, who hyperextended right knee last week. That isn’t necessarily a big edge for the Ravens, as good as Bell has been: Baltimore struggles in pass coverage and with no Bell, Ben Roethlisberger might do more throwing to league-leading receiver Antonio Brown and rookie Martavis Bryant.
But Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is 9-4 in the playoffs, with that Super Bowl win after the 2012 season. His six road playoff wins are the most since 1970.
Cincinnati (10-5-1) at Indianapolis (11-5)
Indianapolis staged a wild comeback to beat Kansas City in this round a year ago. The Colts can score with anyone, setting franchise records for net yards (6,506), net yards passing (4,894), and scored the second-most points (458) in the league. Veteran Adam Vinatieri missed one field goal all season.
The Bengals want to forget their October trip to Indy, a 27-0 loss in which Andrew Luck threw for 344 yards and two scores. He led the NFL with 40 TD passes.
They’d also like to forget most of their playoff history: 0-6 on the road, 0-5 under coach Marvin Lewis, and 0-3 with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
Talk about untrustworthy.