I will start in Charlotte where the Panthers snuck into the playoffs with a losing record, only the second team ever to do so. That being said, Carolina is hot at the right time as the Panthers won four straight to make the postseason, which included a 34-3 thumping of division rival Atlanta to clinch the division. Arizona on the other hand, has limped into the postseason losing its last two games. The running game has stalled since Andre Ellington landed on injury reserve. The Cards are playing Ryan Lindley at quarterback as well having lost both Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer for the season. Bruce Arians still has the Cardinals alive though between creative play calling and an attacking defense that is capable of keeping Arizona in games, even when the offense sputters. This will be a defensive battle. Carolina caused three turnovers last week and should generate more at home against a shaky Lindley. I think the Panthers have too much momentum and Cam Newton can create just enough offense for Carolina to pull out the victory. Panthers win 24-14.
To the other NFC game, the Dallas Cowboys are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and this Cowboys team is definitely better suited to make a Super Bowl run. The Cowboys have one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL between Tony Romo, Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant. Dallas can beat you through the air or on the ground. Romo is having the best season of his career, as is Murray. These two will carry the Cowboys offense when it goes into battle with Detroit. The Lions' defense has been one of the many surprises of this 2014 season. This unit finished second in total defense, third in scoring defense and tops in rush defense. Those are some elite numbers. The Lions front four grinds on offenses and generates hits on the quarterback. Eventually those start to take a toll. This game will rest more than anything else on Romo's ability to improvise in the pocket and exploit Detroit's secondary, which has only been average so far this year. Offensively, Matt Stafford and the Lions have looked out of sync. I do not expect too much from them, especially going on the road Stafford completion percentage on the road is thirteen percent worse than at home and his yards per attempt drops from 8.0 to 6.3. Detroit also has only one win against a .500 or better team this year. Look for Dallas to roll through a Detroit team still a year or two away from seriously contending. Cowboys win 31-17.
Switching over to the AFC, two young quarterbacks will duel in Indianapolis on Sunday when the Colts take on the Bengals. Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton lead their respective teams into a rematch of a Week 7 game. Indy won the regular season matchup between these two teams, blowing away Cincinnati 27-0. However, the Bengals ground attack has vastly improved since then with Jeremy Hill forming an excellent one-two punch with Giovani Bernard. The Bengals can wear down opposing defenses with its running game but this team's playoff hopes still hinge on Dalton. Luck knows how to generate points and can get the Colts out to a lead in a hurry. If this game rely too heavily on Dalton's arm, Cincy will lose. Dalton has never performed well in the playoffs and I do not see it starting now as a solid Colts' pass rush and Vontae Davis roaming the secondary will cause him problems. For the Colts, Chuck Pagano has to be sure he gets Luck to avoid committing early mistakes. The former Stanford signal caller accounted for 28 turnovers this season. If Luck can hold on to the ball, this is Indy's game to lose. Neither team is perfect but I trust Luck in the playoffs a lot more than I trust Dalton. I think the Colts win 34-21.
Every year, division rivals meet twice during the regular season, unless they matchup in the playoffs. Saturday night brings us one of the best division rivalries in league history as the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh for round 3. Pittsburgh will be without star running back LeVeon Bell meaning Ben Roethlisberger will have more pressure than ever to carry his team to victory. The toughest thing for the Steelers is how much Bell's injury limits the play calling. Not only was Bell a top rusher, he was also an asset out of the backfield. Pittsburgh could have desperately used a bye week to get ready but Big Ben has shouldered the load before and he knows what is coming his way with a familiar foe. The Ravens are getting back to playing smash mouth football though which could make life difficult for Roethlisberger and company. Justin Forsett has been a revelation at tail back for Baltimore and taken a lot of pressure off Joe Flacco. The Ravens also have a potentially dynamic passing attack if the offense is firing on all cylinders. The Ravens defense finished tied for second this season in sacks with 49. Look for Baltimore to bring the house, as it knows Pittsburgh's ground attack is weakened. This should be a great game but in the end, the Steelers' other one-man show, Antonio Brown, should prove to be way too much for a reeling Ravens' secondary. Steelers win round 3 by a score of 20-13.