The Carolina Panthers went two months without a victory and are the only team in the playoffs with a losing record, but the NFC South champions are a solid favorite as they open the postseason against the visiting Arizona Cardinals on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers overcame a seven-game winless drought by winning their final four to snag the No. 4 seed and become the first playoff team with a losing record since 2010. “The beautiful thing – record doesn’t matter,” coach Ron Rivera said.
Arizona was in the mix for the top overall seed in the conference until dropping its final two games to NFC West rivals San Francisco and Seattle to plunge to the No. 5 seed. The Cardinals are down to their third-string quarterback in Ryan Lindley, who will be making his seventh career start and threw his first touchdown passes in last week’s loss to the 49ers. “I don’t think anything different is expected of us in that locker room,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “We don’t look at it as a team with a third-string quarterback. It’s our starting quarterback.”
TV: 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN.
LINE HISTORY: The Panthers opened as 4-point home favorites and the line has moved another two and a half points to sit at -6.5. The total has moved down slightly from 38.5 to 38.
INJURY REPORT: Cardinals – LB Larry Foote (probable Saturday, knee), DT Dan Williams (questionable Saturday, foot), G Jonathan Cooper (questionable Saturday, wrist), QB Drew Stanton (out Saturday, knee). Panthers – RB DeAngelo Williams (probable Saturday, finger), S Thomas DeCoud (questionable Saturday, hamstring), G Amini Silatolu (questionable Saturday, knee), LB A.J. Klein (questionable Saturday, knee).
WEATHER REPORT: There is a 67 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the mid 40’s.
WHAT CAPPERS SAY: “On Monday at about noon ET, we opened Carolina -4.5, and were still uncertain at that time who would be the starting QB for Arizona. About five hours after opening, got sharp bet on the Panthers, so moved to -5.5. Then on Thursday when Bruce Arians announced Ryan Lindley would start, we moved the Panthers to current number of -6. We also moved the total from 38.5 to 38 after the ‘Zona QB announcement of Lindley as starter.” Michael Pierce, TopBet.eu.
WHAT BOOKS SAY: “Arizona and Carolina are the two worst teams to make the playoffs this season, and neither figures to be around long in the postseason. Both offenses struggle to score points and the defenses of both teams will be the best units on the field.” Covers Expert Steve Merril.
ABOUT THE CARDINALS (11-5, 11-5 ATS, 5-10-1 O/U): While Arizona is still holding out a slight hope that backup Drew Stanton (knee) can return, the reality is that Lindley will make his third straight start and attempt to build on last week’s 316-yard, two-TD, three-interception performance – sans the picks. Michael Floyd hauled in both scoring passes while setting season highs with eight receptions for 153 yards last week but Larry Fitzgerald was limited to two catches while battling knee issues. Kerwynn Williams, signed off the practice squad after starter Andre Ellington was lost for the season in Week 13, has rushed for at least 67 yards in three of his four starts, but a bigger worry is the defense’s inability to control the opposition’s ground game. The Cardinals permitted one team to rush for 100 yards in their first 10 games, but have allowed five of the last six foes have surpassed that total.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS 7-8-1, 8-8 ATS, 8-8 O/U): While Carolina had the good fortune of closing the season against four teams that finished with losing records, its defense surrendered an average of 10.8 points during the winning streak and limiting Atlanta to a season-low three points in last week’s division clincher. Luke Kuechly – “The best middle linebacker in football,” according to Arians – led the league in tackles for the second time in three seasons and is the backbone of a unit that was shredded for at least 37 points in five of the first 10 games. Cam Newton suffered two fractures in his back in a rollover car accident earlier in December, but has rushed for a TD in three straight games and has a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in rookie Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen.
* Underdog is 5-2 ATS in the last seven meetings.
* Pathers are 0-4 ATS in their last four games following an ATS win.
* Over is 4-0 in Cardinals’ last four playoff games.
* Over is 4-0 in Panthers’ last four games versus a team with a winning record.
COVERS CONSENSUS: A slight majority of bettors are backing the Cardinals, with 57 percent of wagers on Arizona +6.5.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3, 45)
For as great a rivalry as exists between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the Ravens have never defeated the Steelers in the playoffs. Pittsburgh and Baltimore square off in the postseason for the fourth time Saturday night when the AFC North rivals meet on the Steelers’ home field, where the Ravens suffered their worst loss of 2014. Back on Nov. 2, Baltimore absorbed a 43-23 setback against its biggest rival as Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes, tying Pittsburgh’s franchise record.
Roethlisberger will be under center on Saturday, but the Steelers will be without Le’Veon Bell after the league’s second-leading rusher hyperextended his right knee in Sunday’s 27-17 win against Cincinnati that clinched the AFC North title and the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. Sixth-seeded Baltimore snuck into the postseason party by winning three of its final four games, coupled with a loss by San Diego in Week 17. The winner of this game will travel next weekend to face either top-seeded New England or No. 2 seed Denver.
TV: 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC.
LINE HISTORY: The line has held steady to this point at Steelers -3. The total opened at 46.5, was bet up to 47 and has come back down to 45.
INJURY REPORT: Ravens – DE Chris Canty (proabale Saturday, ankle), LB Arthur Brown (questionable Saturday, thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (doubtful Saturday, foot), T Eugene Monroe (doubtful Saturday, ankle). Steelers – S Troy Polamalu (probable Saturday, knee), DT S McLendon (questionable Saturday, shoulder), CB Ike Taylor (questionable Saturday, knee), TE Michael Palmer (questionable Saturday, groin), RB Le’Veon Bell (out Saturday, knee).
WEATHER REPORT: There is an 81 percent chance of rain with a 12 mile per hour wind blowing towards the northern end zone. Temperatures will be in
the low 40s for the game.
WHAT BOOKS SAY: “Opened Pittsburgh -3 (-125). We figured Le’Veon Bell wouldnt play and that was confirmed early Friday. On Thursday, we moved Steelers to -3.5 (-105) because almost 80 percent of cash on spread was backing Pittsburgh. We have been getting pretty much even action on both sides on 3.5, so we will probably stay at that number. On Thursday, got sharp bet on Under 47, so moved to 46.” Michael Pierce, TopBet.eu.
WHAT CAPPERS SAY: “Baltimore and Pittsburgh will play the rubber match after each team won on their home field earlier this season. The Steelers will be without running back Le’Veon Bell, so the Ravens’ defense catches a break. The home team was just a 2.5-point favorite in each meeting this season, so it’s interesting to note that some sportsbooks have Pittsburgh listed as high as a 3.5-point favorite in this game.” Covers Expert Steve Merril.
ABOUT THE RAVENS (10-6, 7-8-1 ATS, 7-9 O/U): Baltimore has not scored more than 20 points in a game since Dec. 7, but its defense has allowed an average of 15.7 points during its last three games, including a dominant effort in Week 17 when it held Cleveland to 259 total yards and 3-of-13 third-down conversions. The Ravens defense could be even more dominant Saturday with the return of All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who was suspended for the final four games of the regular season for taking a banned stimulant. “I feel like I owe these guys,” Ngata told reporters this week. “I’m going to do whatever I can do to help the team. I’m definitely just ready to get back out there again.” The Ravens quietly set team records for scoring (409 points) and average yards (365), thanks in large part to Joe Flacco (career-high 3,986 passing yards, 27 TDs, 12 INTs), Justin Forsett (career-high 1,266 rushing yards) and Steve Smith (1,065 receiving yards).
ABOUT THE STEELERS (11-5, 9-7 ATS, 9-7 O/U): The primary concern for the Steelers is the absence of Bell (1,361 rushing yards), whose injury paves the way for undrafted rookie Josh Harris, third-round pick Dri Archer and/or recently signed Ben Tate to see additional action against the Ravens. “I have confidence in anybody that’s on our (53-man roster). If I didn’t, they wouldn’t be on our 53,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whose team could rely even more on their second-ranked passing attack. Roethlisberger tied for the league lead with 4,952 passing yards, while Antonio Brown caught the second-most balls in a season in NFL history (129) and led the league with 1,698 receiving yards. Pittsburgh’s defense will be on the lookout for turnovers, which has been Baltimore’s downfall in its previous playoff matchups with Pittsburgh (11 turnovers in three games).
* Ravens are 1-4-1 ATS in their last six meetings.
* Steelers are 6-0 ATS in their last six home playoff games.
* Over is 11-4-1 in the last 16 meetings in Pittsburgh.
* Over is 11-1 in the Steelers’ last 12 home playoff games.
COVERS CONSENSUS: A 62 percent majority of the wagers are backing the Steelers at -3.