Wildcard weekend: Big Ben gets ready to strike familiar opponent


(Photo courtesy of Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)

THIS WEEKEND’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

The line: Steelers by 3

The weather: Rain, high of 41

The story: There is no better rivalry today than Baltimore-Pittsburgh, with nine of the past 13 games decided by three or fewer points. One problem: None of them were this season, with the two splitting and Pittsburgh burying the Ravens under a Ben Roethlisberger aerial assault the last time they were at Heinz Field. Final score: Pittsburgh 43, Baltimore 23, with Roethlisberger throwing six touchdown passes. I mention that because for all the talk about Le’Veon Bell’s injury – and the Steelers have ruled him out – one thing that hasn’t changed is the Ravens’ secondary. It’s about as thin as the ice on the Allegheny River, with the Ravens running 12 cornerbacks on to this year’s 53-man roster. I look at these guys and wonder how they’re going to cover Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller. Answer: They probably won’t. Which means … yep, which means it’s up to Justin Forsett and the Ravens’ offensive line to grind out the yards, move the chains and keep the ball away from Big Ben & Co. Having Haloti Ngata back is a big plus for Baltimore, but it would be even bigger if he could play defensive back.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Baltimore surrendered just 19 sacks, the second-fewest in franchise history (17 in 2006) and the second fewest this season. Denver allowed 17.

THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING

Arizona @ Carolina, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.

The line: Panthers by 6-1/2

The weather: Rain, high of 50

The story: There’s no mystery here. This is all about momentum, with Carolina having it and Arizona not. Someone asked me if Arizona needed this victory to make it a special season, and my answer was, “You gotta be kidding.” Bruce Arians already has done more with less than anyone out there, and putting the Cards in the playoffs is nothing short of a modern-day miracle. Whatever happens from now on in is gravy. Carolina is on a four-game roll, outscoring opponents 111-43, and seems to have regained its identity, while Arizona … well, it’s difficult for the Cards to do much of anything with a third-string quarterback and a defense that has to be near perfect. Look at the last two games, both losses: Arizona had the ball less than 50 percent of the time, which means its defense was stretched again and again. Not good. Plus, there’s this: Carolina was so hot in December it ranked second in rushing (199.3 yards per game) and points allowed (10.8 per game). With Cam Newton improved, Jonathan Stewart healthy and the Panthers confident, it’s going to be tough … no, damned near impossible … for Arizona to survive. Now, more than ever, the Cardinals must find points from a defense that led them all season. If not, hasta la vista, baby.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: This is the sixth playoff game where the teams involved have at least a four-game differential in wins. Result: The club with fewer wins have a 4-1 advantage.

Cincinnati @ Indianapolis, Sunday, 1:05 p.m.

The line: Colts by 3-1/2

The weather:  Snow showers and wind, high of 38 (retractable roof)

The story: The obvious story line here is Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game with Andy Dalton (they’re 0-3), haven’t won a playoff game with Marvin Lewis (they’re 0-5), haven’t won a playoff game – period – since 1991 and were napalmed in their first visit to Lucas Oil Field Stadium this season, a 27-0 loss that was as every bit as lopsided as the score says. Of course, they didn’t have star receiver A.J. Green that afternoon, and I get that. But this just in: They won’t have him Sunday, either. Our Ron Borges and Rick Gosselin like the Bengals here because they like Jeremy Hill and think the Bengals can win with him and without Dalton. Not me. I think they revert to playoff form, go into the fetal position and leave with their legacy intact. Getting past Denver on Monday Night TV two weeks ago was an achievement, clearing one hurlde out of their way. But two giant leaps in two weeks? Uh-uh. I don’t see it. Yes, the Colts are vulnerable. Their defense has holes, they can’t run the ball and Andrew Luck is prone to silly mistakes. But if the Bengals attack the pocket as they did a week ago in Pittsburgh – which means not attack it – Luck will do to them what Big Ben did.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Beware Cincinnati rookie Jeremy Hill. Over his last nine games, he averages 103.2 yards rushing and scored six times.

Detroit @ Dallas, Sunday, 4:40 p.m.

The line: Cowboys by 6-1/2

The weather: Sunny, high of 35 (retractable roof)

The story: OK, let’s get this one out of the way right up top: I don’t give Detroit much of a chance because the Lions stink on the road. Under Matt Stafford, they’re 0-16 on the road vs. winning teams, and last time I checked Dallas qualified as a winning team. But there’s another factor here, and it’s this: Dallas is 4-4 at home, and Detroit is the top-ranked run defense. That could level the playing field, with the Lions putting the pressure on Tony Romo if DeMarco Murray can’t find holes in a defense that allowed an average of 69.3 yards rushing per game – or 46 fewer than Murray’s average. Romo is 1-3 in the playoffs, but he demonstrated this season he’s a different guy – going 4-0 in December when he entered this season with a 12-17 career record for the month. But Romo had support from Murray. If he’s forced to fly solo vs. the league’s second-ranked defense I’m curious how he responds. The Cowboys are favored for a reason: They’re hot, they’re balanced and their defense has been better than expected. But let’s see what happens if/when Murray is stopped. I remember something similar Thanksgiving Day when Philadelphia blew the Cowboys’ doors off … and that was in Dallas.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Detroit held 14 of 16 opponents to 100 or fewer yards rushing and five opponents to 50 or fewer.

FIVE GUYS ON THIS WEEKEND’S WALL OF FAME

1. Detroit WR Calvin Johnson. In his last game vs. Dallas he had 14 catches for a franchise-best 329 yards receiving, the second-best total in NFL history. He also had 211 yards receiving in his only playoff game and scored four times in his last three starts vs. Dallas.

2. Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. With a touchdown, he will have 10 TD catches in seven career playoff games – the most of anyone over that time. He also would become only the seventh player in league history to have seven receiving scores in the playoffs.

3. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco. In his last four vs. Pittsburgh, he completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 945 yards, with six touchdowns, one interception and a 98.1 rating.

4. Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger. He’s 2-0 vs. the Ravens in the playoffs, with 3 TDs and no interceptions.

5. Dallas QB Tony Romo. Not only did he produce a franchise-record 113.2 passer rating; he was 4-0 in December, with 12 TDs, one interception and a 133.7 rating. In four games vs. Detroit he has a 103.2 rating.

HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY

1. Wild-card winners have gone on to win the Super Bowl nine times, including three times in the past four years. At least seven of the past nine wild-card weekend winners went on to play in Super Bowls.

2. Pittsburgh and Dallas are the two winningest franchises in NFL playoff history. Each has 33 postseason wins.

3. Green Bay, New England, Indianapolis and Baltimore each made the playoffs six times since 2008.

4. The combination of Terrell Suggs (12) and Elvis Dumervil (17) combined for the most sacks of any NFL pass-rushing duo.

5. With a victory this weekend, Arizona would improve to 4-0 in wild-card matchups.

6. Arizona was 8-2 against non-division opponents in 2014.

7. Joe Flacco makes his 14th playoff start Saturday, tying him with Tom Brady for the most by an NFL quarterback in his first seven seasons.

8. Baltimore’s plus-17 differential in the playoffs since 2008 is the NFL’s best during that period. Seattle is second at plus-nine.

9. Cincinnati tackle Andrew Whitworth hasn’t allowed a sack all season and only nine quarterback pressures.

10. The Ravens are 9-5 on the road in the playoffs, the NFL’s second-best percentage (.643) since the 1970 merger. At 4-2 (.667), Carolina is the best.

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