Wild Card picks

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Wild Card picks

Cardinals at Panthers – under 38

These teams enter the playoffs heading in polar opposite directions. The Panthers have won four straight since going two months between victories, while the Cardinals tumbled down the stretch to a 2-4 finish. One thing the two teams share in common, however, is that their defenses played at a consistently high level in December. Critics of the Arizona defense will point to its sudden inability to stop the run as a major wart (indeed, it allowed over 200 yards on the ground in each of the last two weeks, and 6.4 yards per carry in December), but in the only category that matters – points allowed – the unit was solid, surrendering just 18.8 points per game over the last four, and that included a 35-point eruption by the Seahawks. Conversely, the Panthers have seen their rushing offense spring back to life during their win streak, during which they’ve averaged 199.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. The caveat is those performances came against a smattering of the league’s worst defenses in the Saints, Bucs, Browns and Falcons.

As poor as Arizona’s run stopping has been of late, this was a unit that ranked among the best in the NFL in opponents yards per carry through Week 11 (3.5, fifth) and surrendered just 4.0 yards per tote in eight road games this season (12th). If the Cardinals can rediscover some semblance of a run defense, they will be able to pose problems for the Panthers, who don’t like to air it out and haven’t exactly been dominant at home. Over their final five regular-season games at Bank of America Stadium, Carolina averaged just 14.4 points per contest and didn’t crack 20 points a single time while going 5-0 to the under. Poor situational execution has contributed to their offensive woes, as the Panthers ranked 24th in the NFL with a 45-percent touchdown rate in the red zone and 25th with a 36.27 percent third-down conversion rate at home this season. Coupled with Arizona’s stout red zone defense on the road (40-percent TD rate, fourth overall) and third-down defense (38.32 percent, 10th) the Panthers could be looking at a healthy share of three-and-outs, as well as drives ending with field goals as opposed to touchdowns. Finally, bettors shouldn’t have to worry about Ryan Lindley and the Arizona offense threatening a potential under, as the Cardinals haven’t scored 20 points since Week 10 and are averaging just 12.4 points per game in that span.

Bengals (+3 first half) at Colts

These teams have split a pair of meetings over the past two regular seasons, with each winning decisively at home. Schizophrenic all year, the Bengals barely showed up during a Week 7 thrashing in Indianapolis, gaining just 135 yards and 2.5 yards per play in a 27-0 loss. Since that time, however, they’ve reinvented themselves as a run-heavy offense thanks to the emergence of rookie Jeremy Hill, who burst onto the scene in early November and hasn’t looked back, rushing for 1,124 yards, nine touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry. That helped the Bengals finish the season ranked 12th in the league with an average of 4.4 yards per carry, and should serve as an indicator of how they will look to attack the Colts, who allowed a 4.3 mark on defense, tied for 19th overall.

The biggest question with Cincinnati remains whether the combination of Andy Dalton (0-3 in the postseason) and Marvin Lewis (0-5) can finally get that playoff monkey off their back – in a hostile environment, no less. On the latter point, it may actually benefit the Bengals to be away from home in an underdog role, which should alleviate some of the pressure. And they have experience playing on the road in January, having battled in consecutive wild-card losses to Houston in 2012-13. Taking all that into consideration, bettors can expect to see a focused and determined team looking to assert control of the game from the opening bell.

On the other side are the Colts and Andrew Luck, whose memorable comeback against the Chiefs last year is still fresh in everyone’s minds. What can be easily overlooked from that game – as well as Indy’s two playoff defeats with Luck at the helm – is that they have been notoriously slow out of the gate. In each of those games, the Colts have trailed at halftime. Not surprisingly, poor ball security was the culprit, as they turned the ball over a combined five times in 17 possessions, with just two touchdown drives and a total of 28 points to show for over the three halves. Giveaways continued to plague the Colts this season, as their turnover rate of 1.9 per game ranked 28th overall and was even worse in their building (2.2, 31st). The Dalton vs. Luck factor makes it hard to back the Bengals for the game, but given these teams’ respective track records, playing Cincy on the first half line is solid.

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