Well the regular season is in the books and so begins the wild ride that is the NFL playoffs. I just want to take a quick minute to toot my own horn for a pretty decent week 17; a 13-3 record to close out the regular season might have helped your pool or at least let you finish up on a high note.
Alright let’s move onto the wild-wildcard weekend that lies ahead. Four games on the weekend and we should be treated to some fantastic football. We start our analysis with the AFC where the Cincinnati Bengals look to keep the momentum going as they travel into Houston to play the third-seeded Texans. Not to be outdone by the early game, Indianapolis takes its show on the road into Baltimore where one figures that the Ravens will do everything they can to ensure that Ray Lewis goes out on a high note. Let’s delve into the matchups and pick some winners.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans
The Bengals come into this game riding a hot streak; seven wins in their last eight, which included impressive wins against some solid competition. For as much hype as the Texans defense and J.J. Watt receive, the Bengals defense is as good if not as well known. The Bengals have shown that they are capable of winning on the road as they went 6-2 away from Paul Brown Stadium; however, those road games only saw two teams with winning records in Baltimore and Washington and the Bengals only won the game against the Redskins. The biggest win on the Bengals schedule came in week 16 as they beat Pittsburgh with a banged up Ben Roethlisberger. The keys to a Bengals win are simple: keep Andy Dalton upright (they surrendered 46 sacks on the year), establish the run with BenJarvus Green-Ellis early and often and use A.J. Green in vertical passing situations.
For the Texans they have to be licking their wounds after consecutive losses cost them a top seed in the AFC and that first-round bye. Nonetheless, they will regroup here and take the home game against a tough Bengals' squad. Arian Foster has rushed for a total of 157 yards in the Texans last three losses; it is safe to say that the Texans need a running game, even if it simply short yardage gains it will keep the Bengals defense honest and should open up the passing routes for Matt Schaub. All-Pro Watt needs to have a significant impact here as well. In the same three losses in which Foster was a no-show, Watt pulled the same act as he registered only nine tackles and one sack. The Texans simply can’t win on the strength of Schaub and Andre Johnson alone, they need their skilled players to contribute.
I have really liked the Bengals all season long, they are a young team with an aggressive defense and an exciting offense; I just don’t think they are quite ready for postseason success. I’m not keen on the Texans advancing much past this round of the playoffs; however, I do think they win this game and make it to the next round.
PICK: HOUSTON TEXANS
Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens
So many story lines and so little space; Andrew Luck's spirited guidance of a 2-14 team last year to a 11-5 record and a playoff berth this year as well as coach Chuck Pagano’s leukemia battle and subsequent emotional return to the sideline and now his homecoming of sorts to Baltimore sort of top the list. Critics of Luck point to his high interception totals and lower quarterback rating, which is nice if the games were decided by statistics and sabermetrics. What the numbers do tell us is that the Colts have no running game; their defense has surrendered more points than their offense has scored and four of their five losses have come on the road this year. While Luck and the Colts might not be great fantasy options, they do win football games and Luck seems to have an Elway-esque magic about himself when it comes to fourth quarter comebacks.
Perhaps the ace in the hole for the Colts is their field goal kicker, maybe you’ve heard of him? Adam Vinatieri. If this game is coming down to the final seconds and the ball is anywhere on the South side of the 45 yard line you can bet Vinatieri is going to be out there and let’s be honest this wouldn’t exactly be his first rodeo folks! Anything could happen given the chance.
The Baltimore Ravens are limping right along; they finished out the season losing four of their last five games. The offensive coordinator was fired late in the season, Ray Rice can’t seem to get enough touches, Joe Flacco appears to have little remaining confidence in himself and the defense is banged up to say the least. The team should see a boost as Terrell Suggs will play regardless of his limitations and the emotional leader of the club in Ray Lewis is not only returning to the lineup but also announced that this playoff run will be his last go round in the league. The Ravens have some issues that they need to sort out right quick if they want to advance in the postseason. Having said that, Flacco can move the ball efficiently in the offense, they have a balanced receiving corps, a solid running game and their defense is getting a big boost come this week.
Whether you are a Colts fan or not, you have to be impressed by their season as it makes for a fantastic story; unfortunately the story is going to come to a close this week in Baltimore. The Ravens are more talented and bring the experience of a battle tested team into this matchup. I’m picking the Ravens here to pull out a close one, but I’m telling you now no lead will be safe come the closing minutes of the game as this one will likely come down to the last possession.
PICK: BALTIMORE RAVENS