Cincinnati Bengals (+4) at Houston Texans: The last time there was a playoff game in the city of Houston, veterans (and future Hall of Famers) Joe Montana and Warren Moon were the starting quarterbacks. Today's game will feature rookies Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates as the starting QBs for their respective clubs.
The last time the Bengals won a playoff game was 1990, which was the week before they effectively ended the NFL career of Bo Jackson. But Cincy was one of the bigger surprises this season after going 4-12 last year. Rookie QB Dalton and WR A.J. Green became a formidable hookup during the year with Green logging over 1,000 yards receiving, and RB Cedric Benson also having a solid 2011 campaign by racking up 1,067 yards rushing. But in finishing the season 9-7, Cincinnati did not have a signature win. In fact, they went 0-7 vs. teams in this year's playoffs.
While the Texans have had a high octane offense over the past few seasons, this year they've done it with defense. The hiring of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been the catalyst for the now top tier defensive unit, which ranks second in fewest yards allowed. In fact, from last season to this, the Texans D has allowed an average of 91 fewer yards and nearly 10 point less per game. And since Houston is down to their third string QB, running back Arian Foster (7th in the NFL in All-Purpose yards) will be relied upon heavily to grind out yardage and keep the Houston defense fresh.
Houston 17 Cincinnati 10
Detroit Lions (+10 1/2) at New Orleans Saints: Despite losing to the Saints in a Week 13 matchup in New Orleans 31-17, the Lions actually were in the game in the fourth quarter. It's even more remarkable that Detroit wasn't getting blown out when you consider they were hampered by the limitations of defensive lineman Nick Fairley (injury - foot) and the absence of DT Ndamukong Suh (suspension - stupidity).
It's expected there won't be a lot of defense played in this game when you consider this is the first matchup in NFL history where both QBs have thrown for 5,000+ yards in the regular season. In fact, both clubs combined for nearly 900 yards of offense in their head-to-head regular season battle.
I say the Lions will hang tough but fall just short because their inevitable buffoonery will cause them to commit a 15-yard penalty at the most inopportune time. Even without Suh playing in the Week 13 game, the Lions racked up 11 penalties for 107 yards, including multiple unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.
New Orleans 38 Detroit 31
Atlanta Falcons (+3) at New York Giants: The Giants have to be one of the more maddeningly inconsistent team in the NFL this season. They can boast of tough, hard fought wins in New England and Dallas while at the same time being saddled with bad home defeats to Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington. But their playoffs essentially started last week when they absolutely had to beat the Cowboys at home just to get in. And QB Eli Manning was right there statistically with the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford as he threw for 4,933 yards and 29 TDs in 2011. However, he still has a penchant for throwing costly interceptions, as he threw 16 picks.
Meanwhile, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan put together another solid season by utilizing receivers Roddy White (1,296 yards) and rookie Julio Jones (959 yards) to supplant another solid year by RB Michael Turner (1,340 yards and 11 TDs). But because they're in the same division as New Orleans, the Falcons don't seem to get a lot of national respect. But with a very good offense and average defense, Atlanta's 10-6 record suits them perfectly as the team that is solid but not spectacular.
Call it a gut feeling.
Atlanta 28 New York 24
Pittsburgh Steelers (-8) at Denver Broncos: There was a survey on espn.com yesterday asking which quarterback QB you'd rather have start for you this weekend. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger with the bad ankle or the Broncos' Tim Tebow at 100%? I believe it came out about 60-40 in favor of Roethlisberger.
Yes, it appears Tebow-mania has subsided quite a bit with his having two awful games to end the regular season. In fact, Denver was fortunate just to get in to the playoffs, needing division rival Oakland to lose at home to a San Diego team which had nothing to play for. But the Chargers did indeed prevail, allowing the Broncos to limp in to postseason with a 8-8 record.
The Steelers, however, continue to battle injuries as they'll be without RB Rashard Mendenhall (ACL tear) and All Pro Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) in addition to Roethlisberger playing with still a very sore ankle. The Broncos have a solid defense as it is, so this game was going to be tough sledding for the Steelers even if they were 100% on the offensive side of the ball.
Ah, but the Steelers still have a pretty good defense, too. And that will be the difference.
Pittsburgh 20 Denver 10