Cincinnati (9-7) +4 @ Houston (10-6)
The Bengals have received a lot of acclaim for their young offensive stars this year, but they are here because of their defense. Cincy ranked 7th in yards allowed and 9th in points allowed. They aren’t just good in one phase either, ranking in the top ten in both run and pass defense. The one area they weren’t particularly good was rushing the passer. The Bengals were 28th in sacks with 25 total in 16 games.
The offense was balanced, but below average in running and throwing and scoring. WR AJ Green is the x-factor. The games where he got loose, the Bengals had great success. Contain him, and you stop the offense.
Houston would have been my Super Bowl pick from the AFC if they had everyone healthy. As good as DE/OLB Mario Williams has been, they’ve replaced him quite well with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. The offense is where the injuries have caused the most suffering. The Texans went from scoring over 27ppg with QB Matt Schaub to 18ppg without him.
Arian Foster, Ben Tate, and the return of Andre Johnson give them enough play-makers to generate points, even with rookie QB TJ Yates under center. Johnson should be a big help in creating easier passing opportunities for Yates and easier reads.
With the crowd amped up behind them, if Yates avoids mistakes, I like Houston to pull out a second victory over Cincinnati this season.
Texans 23, Bengals 10
Pittsburgh (12-4) -8.5 @ Denver (8-8)
This game is sure to stir up the debate over division winners with bad records deserving home games in the playoffs. I think division winners have to make the playoffs, but I would be okay with a change to seeding being based solely on record.
The Steelers are shorthanded, but have been dealing with injuries all year on both sides of the ball. I think the defense will be fine, and they should be able to control the line of scrimmage and slow down the Broncos strong rushing attack.
On the other side, the Broncos pass rush has caused a lot of havoc in their second half surge and will be very important on Sunday. The Steelers are down to Ike Redman at RB and rookie John Clay behind him. I’d expect them to run, but to look to make big plays in the passing game to get a lead early putting the pressure on the Denver offense to pass more. The Steelers don’t want to slug it out all day, but I think they may have to. Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled down the stretch, and I’d expect it to on Sunday.
Denver is only the second home team to be more than a touchdown underdog in a playoff game. The other: Seattle last season as a 10-point dog upset New Orleans. Also, 10 of the 11 home dogs by more than a TD this year covered. I’ll ride that trend.
Steelers 20, Broncos 13
Detroit (10-6) +11 @ New Orleans (13-3)
The Saints come into this game on a roll, having won 8 straight games. The offense has been dominant, and the defense more comfortable playing with the lead. Crazy to think New Orleans lost the opener to 15-1 Green Bay, but then their other two games to the Rams (2-14) and the Bucs (4-12)!?!? Detroit started 5-0 and finished 5-6. They certainly are thrilled to just be in the playoffs.
Their stay won’t be long. As I wrote, blowouts are not just common, but expected in the Wild Card round. I remember two seasons ago when Kurt Warner and Arizona’s offense rolled into the SuperDome and got trucked. I see this one turning out the same.
Saints 45, Lions 24
Atlanta (10-6) +2.5 @ New York (9-7)
I could see this game going either way, I really could, but I trust and believe in the Falcons much more.
I think NY comes in on a high note, winning back-2-back games against rivals in the Jets and Cowboys. But I can’t ignore the rest of the year and how up-and-down they were. While they did beat New England and nearly upset Green Bay, they also failed to show up in losses to Washington and Seattle. I just don’t know.
Atlanta has been far better on defense, where the Giants rank near the bottom of the league in points allowed, and get scorched through the air. Both teams are careful with the ball, and have positive turnover ratios that rank them near the top in the league, so I’d be surprised if the loser lost because of a lot of mistakes.
I just think it will come down to Matt Ryan throwing it Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, while sprinkling in some Michael Turner on the ground. They are the better, more balanced, more complete, and more consistent team.
Plus, as I wrote earlier this week, Home-field advantage just doesn’t matter much anymore.
Falcons 31, Giants 24