WhatIfSports 2014 NFL Wild Card Predictions

Throughout the NFL playoffs, WhatIfSports.com’s NFL simulation engine will provide predictions, box scores and statistics for every NFL game that week. The NFL simulation engine generates detailed information including each team’s chance of winning, average score and comprehensive box score.

The statistical inputs to the thousands of NFL games simulated are based on rigorous analysis of each team’s roster, depth chart and statistically based player ranking. Roster modifications have been made for injuries and suspensions and those players are not part of their team’s game simulation.

To account for injuries and roster moves announced late in the week, we will be re-simulating some games when necessary.

Check out our 2014 NFL Season-to-Date page to follow our accuracy week-to-week and find Locks and Upsets of the Week.

AFC Wild Card: Ravens at Steelers

The NFL is filled with heated rivalries, ranging from historical bouts (Dallas-Washington, (Chicago-Green Bay) to newfound feuds (San Francisco-Seattle), even player vs. player (Brady-Manning). While all assert their own values, few have been as competitive as Baltimore against Pittsburgh in the past decade. In a league renowned for its parity, the two franchises have just two losing campaigns in their last 22 combined seasons. Moreover, since 2001, they have combined for five Super Bowl appearances, winning four rings in the process. The Ravens and Steelers will renew their conflict this weekend in the Wild Card round of the 2014 NFL playoffs.

Despite its 10-6 mark, not all is well with Baltimore. The club’s record is mostly a byproduct of nibbling on the weak. In seven matchups this season against teams that finished with a winning record, the Ravens went 1-6, with the lone victory coming against Pittsburgh in Week 2. Worse, Baltimore’s not exactly entering on a hot streak, eking out wins against the lowly Jags and Browns, the latter which had to resort to a third-string quarterback.

Luckily for Baltimore, it boasts one of the more battled-tested arms in the postseason in Joe Flacco. The Ravens QB has his share of detractors for his regular-season play, but there’s no debating his merits in the playoffs. In 13 appearances, Flacco is 9-4 with 19 touchdowns against eight picks. Flacco enters this January with a talented cast, highlighted by running back Justin Forsett (1,266 yards) and a one-two receiving punch of Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Coupled with a defense that’s allowing just 18.9 points per contest (sixth in the league), the Ravens are a dangerous No. 6 seed.

Not that this is new territory for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is making his seventh trip to the playoffs in his storied career. Amazingly, Big Ben is coming off his best performance in 11 years in the NFL, leading the league with 4,952 passing yards, adding 32 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. With a 10-4 playoff record and a reputation as one who rises in big games, perhaps no arm is better suited for this time of year than Roethlisberger.

Of course, Roethlisberger is no lone wolf. This might be the most offensively-talent laden group Roethlisberger has dealt with in his time in the Steel City, with playmakers at every position. Antonio Brown had NFL-bests with 129 catches and 1,698 yards, and rookie Martavis Bryant came on late to contribute eight scores in 10 contests. Pittsburgh also has one of the more reliable tight ends in the AFC in Heath Miller.

But come Saturday, all eyes will be on Pro Bowl back Le’Veon Bell. The second-year rusher turned in a stellar year, finishing with 1,361 rushing yards, adding 83 grabs in the receiving arena for 854 yards. Unfortunately for Terrible Towel wavers, Bell suffered a hyperextended knee injury in Week 17, putting his playoff availability in doubt. If Bell is unable to go, Dri Archer and Josh Harris, two inexperienced backs, will be forced into the spotlight.

So who wins Round 3 of this year’s Steelers-Ravens showdown? According to the WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the Ravens advance to the next round 51.9 percent of the time by an average margin of 24-23.

AFC Wild Card: Ravens at Steelers
Matchup Win% Avg Score WIS Interactive
Baltimore Ravens 51.9 24 Boxscore
@ Pittsburgh Steelers 48.1 23 Simulate Game

AFC Wild Card: Bengals at Colts

This weekend will serve as deja vu or payback for the Cincinnati Bengals, on multiple fronts. In the most literal sense, the team has a chance to avenge Week 7’s embarrassing 27-0 loss to the Colts. Deeper, though, the Bengals can notch their first playoff victory since the 1990 campaign. Will the Who-Deys rid themselves of their primetime curse, or is history doomed to repeat itself?

The NFL is infamous for its capricious nature, but even in such an environment, the Bengals are an erratic bunch. Cincinnati has knocked off Baltimore twice this season, and has impressive wins over Denver and Houston. However, when things go bad for the Bengals, they go bad. In its five losses this year, Cincinnati has been outscored 163-58.

Which brings us to Andy Dalton. The much-maligned quarterback has regressed tremendously in 2014, falling short of expectations that come with signing a $100 million contract. After throwing for 33 touchdowns last fall, Dalton found the end zone just 19 times through the air this season. Worse, his struggles against strong competition continue. If the Bengals harbor Super Bowl aspirations, Dalton will have to elevate his game to a level that’s been unseen to this point.

The Colts are somewhat in the same boat as the Bengals, at least in terms of their problems with the spotlight. Indianapolis has mostly amassed its 11 wins on the backs of lower-tiered opponents. Against title contenders? It hasn’t been pretty, getting blown out by Dallas, New England and Pittsburgh, along with losses to Denver and Philadelphia. If not for playing in the weak AFC South, one could make the argument the Colts would have likely missed the playoffs.

Luckily for the Hoosier state, the Colts do employ Andrew Luck. In his third season in the NFL, Luck inserted himself in the upper echelon of quarterbacks, tossing for a league-high 40 touchdowns and over 4,700 yards. He also posted career-bests in completion percentage and yards per attempt, while decreasing his sack total.

However, Luck is not infallible. The Indy QB had 22 turnovers, second-worst in the league behind Jay Cutler, mistakes that are partly responsible for the team’s poor record against winning opponents. For the Colts to make noise this January, Luck, without the aid of a complementary running game, will need to deliver a flawless performance.

So who leaves Lucas Oil Stadium with a victory on Sunday? According to the WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the Colts grab the W by a 24-23 margin, winning 56.2 percent of the time.

AFC Wild Card: Bengals at Colts
Matchup Win% Avg Score WIS Interactive
Cincinnati Bengals 43.8 23 Boxscore
Indianapolis Colts 56.2 24 Simulate Game

NFC Wild Card: Cardinals at Panthers

It’s not often a losing team makes the NFL playoffs. Even rarer that said club would be favored in the upcoming contest. Yet that’s the state of affairs for the Carolina Panthers, they of a 7-8-1 record, in welcoming the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals in the first game of the 2014 postseason.

The Panthers have traveled a circuitous route to get to this position. After winning the first two games of the season, Carolina notched a lone victory in the ensuing 11 weeks. Not exactly production that’s conducive to a successful campaign. However, thanks to a historically inept division, the Panthers remained in the playoff hunt entering December despite three victories. Ron Rivera’s squad took advantage of this circumstance, winning four straight matchups – three against divisional opponents – to lock up the NFC South bid.

Though it’s easy to discredit the Panthers thanks to their losing record, this team remains a formidable foe. With a rejuvenated Jonathan Stewart (486 yards in the past five weeks) leading the charge, Carolina finished the season ranked seventh in total rushing. Moreover, the defense overcame multiple departures and injuries, along with its sluggish start, to finish fourth in total yards in the NFC.

And then there’s Cam Newton. Following a 12-4 season in 2013, it’s easy to say the former Heisman winner regressed this fall, a sentiment the numbers certainly support. Conversely, Newton entered the season off surgery. Furthermore, his receiving corps was a depleted group, with rookie Kelvin Benjamin having to assume responsibility as the unit’s primary weapon. (A role, we should add, that Benjamin performed admirably.) Factor in a late-season car accident, it’s a wonder that Newton has been able to return under center. While he’s far from the explosive passer from 2011, Newton is still a competent arm, and his ground prowess makes him a nightmare for opponents. As long as Newton is in the backfield, Carolina will have a fighting shot.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Arizona’s quarterback. Upon losing Carson Palmer for the season in Week 10, the Cardinals have managed a ho-hum 3-4 record. Worse, backup Drew Stanton, who was filling in adequately for Palmer, was knocked out of the team’s final two weeks with a knee injury, and starting running back Andre Ellington was also lost for the season. The Cards have a sound receiving trio in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, and the team is hopeful that Stanton could return in time for the Wild Card round. Alas, if Ryan Lindley, he of a 48.4 completion percentage and four interceptions this season, is forced to take the reins, it could be a quick out for the Cards.

Luckily, Arizona still employs a lights-out defense. Aside from Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals’ resistance lacks household names, especially with the losses of Daryl Washington (suspension) and Darnell Dockett (injury). In the face of this adversity, the Cards held adversaries to a meager 18.7 points per game, third-fewest in the NFC. Arizona was particularly stout against the run, ranking first for much of the season until Seattle and San Francisco lit them up in December. It’s here where the Cards have their best chance at stopping the Panthers.

So who comes out in top in Charlotte? According to the WhatIfSports.com NFL simulation engine, the Cardinals grab the W 55.9 percent of the time, winning by an average margin of 22-20.

NFC Wild Card: Cardinals at Panthers
Matchup Win% Avg Score WIS Interactive
Arizona Cardinals 55.9 22 Boxscore
@ Carolina Panthers 44.1 20 Simulate Game

NFC Wild Card: Lions at Cowboys

Only a game separates the Lions and Cowboys in the win column, but the two enter Sunday’s Wild Card affair in polar fashions.

For Dallas, 2014 has been, to this point, somewhat of a dream season. With an absolute no-show out of the gate against San Francisco, the consensus stated the Cowboys could be slated for a last-place finish in the NFC East. Since that Week 1 debacle, Dallas has been arguably the best team in the conference, winning 12 of their final 15 contests, including knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Seattle. Better yet, two of these losses derived from Brandon Weeden appearances, which, well, is enough said.

While the defense has held its own, most of the credit in Arlington goes to the offense. Or should we say, the change in offensive philosophy. Historically under Tony Romo’s direction, the Cowboys have been a pass-happy attack, frequently ranking among the league leaders in aerial yards and scores. Unfortunately for Big D, this strategy has not correlated to team success, with the club’s last winning season coming in 2009. As such, Jason Garrett, armed with one of the best offensive lines in football, used DeMarco Murray and the rushing game as the catalyst for the Cowboys, with Romo serving as a complement. The results were amazing, as Murray finished with an NFL-high 392 attempts and 1,845 yards, while Romo led all quarterbacks in completion percentage and QB rating. Combined, the duo speared an offense that averaged over 29 points per game, fifth-best in the league.

Contrarily, the Lions’ offense is far from a balanced assault. Detroit averaged 251 passing yards per outing, ranking 12th in the league. The rushing game? Not so much, managing a feeble 88.9 yards per game (28th). Perhaps even the passing stat is misleading, as Matthew Stafford was far from solid in 2014, ranking 20th in Total QBR behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton.

Also not helping matters is Detroit’s performance, or lack thereof, against the NFL’s best. The Lions beat just one winning team in 2014 – the Packers, in Week 3. On the year, Motown was 1-4 against such clubs. If you want to add salt to the wound, you can count Week 2’s loss to Carolina, a fellow playoff team. And it’s not as if this is a developing trend: in his six years in the league, Stafford has never won on the road versus a team that finished better than .500.

The Lions do have an ace up their sleeve: their defense. Detroit flaunts the top-ranked rush D in the league, suffocating adversaries to 69 yards per game. Thanks to its front seven, the Motor City finished the regular season third in points allowed (17.6 points per game) and second in total defense (300.9 yards per contest). This comes with a caveat, as the Lions will be without Ndamukong Suh.

Which team will move on to the Divisional Round of the NFC? According to the WhatIfSports.com NFL engine, the Cowboys emerge with the win 51.2 percent of the time by an average margin of 24-23.

NFC Wild Card: Lions at Cowboys
Matchup Win% Avg Score WIS Interactive
Detroit Lions 48.8 23 Boxscore
Dallas Cowboys 51.2 24 Simulate Game

For additional statistics, view our sortable weekly NFL predictions.