NFL Wildcard round: Preview

A look ahead to the first round of this year's play-off action

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After 17 weeks of the NFL season, in which Odell Beckham Jr amazed and JJ Watt tormented, the play-offs are upon us.

The second half of the season begins on Saturday as eight of the 12 play-off teams compete for a spot in the Divisional round. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers clinched first-round byes and will sit out this weekend’s action.

The Carolina Panthers entertain the Arizona Cardinals in the first post-season game. When the Panthers trounced the Atlanta Falcons 34-3 in week 17, they became only the second team in NFL history to reach the play-offs despite having a losing record (Carolina finished 7-8-1). For a team like the Philadelphia Eagles, who had three more wins than the Panthers and beat them handsomely in week 10 yet still missed out on a play-off berth, it’s easy to feel aggrieved at the system.

Not that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera will care, however. His team are favourites in their clash against the Cardinals on Saturday due to their defensive reform and Arizona’s quarterback crisis. In their last four games the Panthers have conceded 10.75 points per game on average, compared to 27.6 points in their opening 12 games.

The Cardinals are hopeful that backup quarterback Drew Stanton will recover from a knee injury in time. His replacement, Ryan Lindley, has been on the losing team in both of his starts and has thrown double the number of interceptions than touchdowns.

Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdowns in the last meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens and the two-time Super Bowl winner will hope for a repeat performance this weekend. Roethlisberger may, however, be forced to command an offence that doesn’t feature running back Le’Veon Bell, who hyperextended his right knee in Sunday night’s 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Bell is an integral part of the Steelers offence, setting a franchise record this season with 2,215 yards from scrimmage. Whether or not he plays could be the difference in this one.

Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck has led his team to the play-offs in each of his first three seasons in the NFL and, although he has never gone further than the Divisional round, looks primed for a deep play-off run with the Colts this year. The third-year star led the league in passing touchdowns (40) and finished third in passing yards (4,761), ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.

The Colts host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. Indianapolis shutout the Bengals earlier in the season, holding Andy Dalton to just 126 passing yards in a 27-0 victory.

The Wild Card round concludes with the Detroit Lions’ trip to Dallas. The Cowboys’ quarterback, receiver and running back triumvirate of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray holds the key to Dallas’ bid for a record-tying sixth Super Bowl.

As for the Lions, Ndamukong Suh will play after his one-game suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ ankle was rescinded on Tuesday. The decision to allow Suh, who has been fined seven times in five years for violating player-safety regulations, to play won’t please everyone, but Suh’s presence will make this a finer contest.

Three things to look out for:

1) Andy Dalton’s play-off record makes for dismal reading

When the Cincinnati Bengals agreed to a six-year contract extension worth $96 million with Andy Dalton in August, they were rewarding a quarterback who has never won a play-off game.

Dalton has appeared in the post-season three times but has lost at the first hurdle on every occasion. In those games, he’s thrown one touchdown and six interceptions, with the Bengals accumulating just 33 points.

Considering the figures involved in that contract, it’s time for Dalton to start delivering.

2) The Cowboys won’t make the same mistake again

The last time the Dallas Cowboys faced the Detroit Lions, they made the mistake of covering Calvin Johnson with just one defensive back, Brandon Carr. Of course, Johnson had a field day.

‘Megatron’ tormented Carr, catching 14 passes for 329 yards and a score in the Lions’ 31-30 win. The Cowboys can’t afford to give Johnson such little attention this time around.

3) How will the Divisional round look?

The New England Patriots (the number one seed in the AFC) will play the lowest-seeded team coming out of the Divisional round. That means they will face the Baltimore Ravens (sixth seed) if the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (third seed). If the Steelers win, the Patriots will host the winner of the Indianapolis Colts (fourth seed) vs Cincinnati Bengals (fifth seed) game. The remaining tie will feature the Denver Broncos, who are the second seed.

In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks hold the number one spot. The Seahawks will entertain the Detroit Lions (sixth seed) if Jim Caldwell’s team overcome the Dallas Cowboys (third seed), but a win for the Cowboys will see either the Carolina Panthers (fourth seed) or the Arizona Cardinals (fifth seed) travel to Seattle. The Green Bay Packers will host the other Divisional round game.

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FIXTURES

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

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