Jazz: I somehow managed to finish the regular season on a strong note, going 6-1 last week for a final regular season tally of … err… 56-58. But it’s enough of a bright spot to boost my spirits and hopefully bring me back next year for another tilt at the windmill. The Jets have retired to their couches to watch the playoffs with the rest of us, but they will come in next year with a new General Manager, a new head coach and (very likely) yet another quarterback. Who knows? Maybe this time next year I’ll be putting on the green and white, ready to cheer for them in the post-season. But now it’s time for the reality of this playoff session, so Ed and I will match wits right up to the Superbowl.
Ed: Before we throw out those regular-season records, let’s take one last tally. Last week my picks went 5-2, which put me at 80-37. That may have been my best season ever at Hot Air, although it would be too depressing to go back and check for certain. Combined with my third-place finish in the fantasy league, I’ve had a pretty good NFL year, even if the NFL didn’t. Pittsburgh did too, getting back into the playoffs after two disappointing seasons, mainly because Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy. Can he keep the Steelers on the march?
Jazz: Here are the hopefuls looking to advance to the next round today:
- Cardinals at Panthers (4:20, ESPN) – The Panthers have little to brag about, taking the best of show award in the anemic NFC South without even racking up a .500 record. But the Cardinals don’t have that much more to crow about. After a fairly hot start they lost four of the last half dozen games this season and have not looked brilliant. The Panthers have Cam Newton back after a car crash broke up his back, but how solid is he? Both of these teams lean more on the defense than their offense, so this may be a bit of a low scoring snoozer in a fight to see who gets to lose to either the Seahawks or the Packers. In this case I’ll go with the ones with the winning streak and pick Carolina to drag themselves to the winner’s circle 21-13.
- Ravens at Steelers (8:15, NBC) – These two teams finished the season with nearly identical records, with the 3rd seed Steelers only having one more win than their established rival 6th seed Ravens. The winner will face either the Patriots or the Broncos, and honestly, either of them could upset those teams this year. Despite the Steelers’ prime post-season position, they are coming into this game with a defense that is ranked near the bottom of the league. But Joe Flacco has been stale in the last third of the season so I’m not sure how well can can capitalize on the opportunity. In order for the Ravens to win, their own D will have to keep Roethlisberger on the bench and I just don’t think they have it in them. Plus, I agreed to root for the Steelers if the Jets didn’t make it, so I’ll go with Pittsburgh 24-21 in a close one.
- Cardinals at Panthers (4:20, ESPN) – It’s a measure of how crazy the NFL playoffs can get that an 11-5 team has to go on the road to play a team that didn’t even get to .500 in the regular season. The Panthers won the league’s worst division, the NFC South, with a 7-8-1 record, but the division champs get home field regardless of record in the wild-card round. The Panthers are on a hot streak, winning four straight after a six-game losing streak nearly derailed them. They beat second-rate teams, but they did win. On the other hand, Arizona has lost two games in a row and will start Ryan Lindley at QB, who lost both games and didn’t look very good doing it. I’ll go with the hot hand and home field to pick the Panthers, 27-10, and the Cards to spend the offseason wondering what might have been.
- Ravens at Steelers (8:15, NBC) – The bad news for Pittsburgh: Le’Veon Bell is out for today. The good news: Troy Polamalu will start, and Polamalu knows how to beat Joe Flacco. The Ravens limped into the playoffs, and will have to play on a messy field in Pittsburgh, where they got blown out in Week 9. They play tough against the rush but are only 23rd against the pass — and Roethlisberger is hot (#2 passing offense in the NFL) and has two deadly threats deep in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. If Polamalu shores up a weak secondary, this could be a long day for Flacco and the Ravens. Pittsburgh 28-20 over Baltimore.