Cincinnati +4.5 over HOUSTON
It takes a lot to start the season 11-1 and then not lock up a first-round bye. In fact, it never happened before this year. Of the two teams who started that hot, we would’ve thought Atlanta would’ve been the one that faded and not Houston. But like Jets’ coach Rex Ryan knows, you should never think anything is permanent. We should’ve realized something was wrong with Houston when they let Jacksonville score 37 points on them, but teams are bound to have letdown games. They should’ve lost to Detroit on Thanksgiving, but Detroit’s coach Jim Schwartz gifted them a touchdown by prematurely throwing his challenge flag. Things fell apart soon after that with the bashing in New England and the two losses in three games that followed.
Despite the amazing performance by J.J. Watt this season, Houston’s defense hasn’t been the same in the second half of the year. Their offense isn’t good enough to pick up the slack. Matt Schaub has consistently shown he can’t rise to the big occasion. The running game hasn’t been as good as you’d expect either. Whether it’s the offensive line’s reconstruction or Arian Foster getting worse, the fact that Foster’s averaging only 4.1 yards per carry compared to 4.4 and 4.9 in the previous two seasons is somewhat alarming.
But let’s focus on Cincinnati a little bit as well. Their defense has allowed fewer points per game than Houston. They’ve also racked up seven more sacks this season than the vaunted Texans’ pass rush. If you take a look at Football Outsiders’ vaunted DVOA rankings, Cincinnati is one spot lower than Houston over the course of the season, but they’re 12 spots higher in the rankings weighted for more recent performances. This is going to be a defensive game in which the team which makes the fewest mistakes wins. Andy Dalton gets to return to the scene of the game in which he lost his playoff debut. That should help him steady his nerves, make fewer mistakes than Schaub, and come away with the win.
GREEN BAY -7.5 over Minnesota
We saw this game last week, but the circumstances are quite different. This week’s version takes place on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. (That’s not a joke either. The temperature for Saturday night is supposed to be 22 degrees with a smattering of ice pellets.) Christian Ponder had a nice game last week, but do you feel good about picking him to win his first playoff game on the road? If you do, it’s because of Adrian Peterson. Peterson’s performance this year has been remarkable and he’s carried his team to this point. But it’s not as easy to make explosive coats on frozen grass as it is inside the Metrodome. And as Bill Barnwell points out, running backs of Peterson’s caliber don’t have the rosiest playoff history.
Green Bay has their receiving weapons healthy for the first time in a long time. As shown last week, they shouldn’t have much trouble putting points up against Minnesota. It’ll come down to how their defense stops Peterson and causes Ponder to make mistakes. The only way Minnesota can win is by getting an early lead. If they have to play from behind, they can’t make up the gap with a run-heavy offense involving Peterson. Green Bay can win in a number of ways.
BALTIMORE -6.5 over Indianapolis
I feel the most confident about this game compared to all the others. The Colts are the flashier team with the rookie quarterback everyone loves and the head coach whose health everyone cheers for. Unfortunately they’re not the better team. Their Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking is 25th in the league because they’ve been winning close games against the easiest schedule in the league. Their defense gives up 137.5 yards a game and the Ravens ran for 224 yards the last time they went up against a rush defense that bad (the Giants in Week 16). They’re just an average road team (4-4) and their best road win is against Tennessee, which isn’t something to write home about.
The Ravens on the other hand are a good home team (6-2) with their only losses coming against Denver (the AFC’s #1 seed) and Pittsburgh (a bitter division rival even if it was Charlie Batch at QB). As much as I bash Joe Flacco, he does something really well. He wins his first playoff game. He’s made the playoffs all five years of his career and he’s won his first playoff game every year.
WASHINGTON +3 over Seattle
As opposed to the last game, this is the toughest game of the weekend for me to pick a side. Seattle comes into this game as the #1 ranked DVOA and winners of five in a row. Their rookie QB wasn’t as highly touted as Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, but he’s been just as good over the second half of the season. If you’re looking for that team that comes into the playoffs with momentum and wins the Super Bowl, like you’ve seen with Green Bay and the N.Y. Giants in the last two years, then you’re probably looking at Seattle.
Here’s the problem: Washington is actually the hotter team. They’ve won seven in a row and those wins include two against Dallas, one against the Giants, and one against Baltimore. They also won in Cleveland without RGIII. Their rush defense is the fifth best in the league, so it should keep Marshawn Lynch under wraps. While Deangelo Hall might be the worst starting cornerback in the league (statistically proven by Aaron Schatz and mentioned on his recent B.S. report appearance), Seattle doesn’t have the great receiver to exploit things.
Russell Wilson has exceeded all our expectations this season, but I’ll take RGIII in this gun fight. He’s the captain of the team. He leads by example. I also think he’s going to take this game personally with all the recent talk that Wilson actually deserves rookie of the year over him.