Bengals @ Texans

A month or so ago it would have been difficult to imagine the Texans playing this weekend, let alone playing against the Bengals again, giving away the same 4.5 points that they did a year ago with T.J. Yates playing under center. Wins in seven of eight for the Bengals and losses in three of four for the Texans led to the teams meeting again to open the AFC playoff schedule. Houston had a stranglehold on the No. 1 seed in the AFC until they pissed it away down the stretch. Now they have to play a streaking Cincinnati team that should be able to exploit some of their weaknesses.

Defensive woes plagued the Texans in the final two months of the season, but the bigger concern may be their offense, which has taken a big step backward. Arian Foster runs the show, and he could be wearing down after an unhealthy number of touches over the last two seasons. Outside of a couple games against Indianapolis’ lousy rush defense, Foster failed to rush for more than 3.5 yards per carry in five of six games in the second half of the season. Whether the blame for this belongs to Foster or the Texans’ offensive line which isn’t blocking the way it used to, the fact remains that the team has had to rely on Matt Schaub more than they would like.

Going against a Cincinnati defense that ranks 10th against the run and allowed a ridiculously low 2.3 yards per carry to running backs over their last four games, the Texans will likely be forced to put the ball in Schaub’s hands often this weekend. That gives Cincinnati’s pass rush a chance to shine. The unit has compiled 51 sacks and is led by Geno Atkins, who might just be the best interior pass rusher in football.

When the Bengals have the ball, they should find some success against a regressing Texans defense. Cincinnati relies on a workhorse back of their own, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis has shown that he can carry the load for them, filling in nicely for Cedric Benson. The Texans have relied heavily on the blitz under Wade Phillips, but that’s a strategy they may want to get away from this weekend. Andy Dalton has thrown 13 touchdowns when facing five or more pass rushers, putting him behind only Tom Brady in that category. If those Texans pass rushers don’t get to Dalton, A.J. Green could feast on that Houston secondary.

Houston has covered the spread only twice since November 11th. Last year’s decisive win in the playoffs against Cincinnati may have you leaning their way, but that game could have gone a lot differently. J.J. Watt intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown, a feat he hasn’t replicated at the NFL level. Also, Cincinnati’s secondary wasted multiple opportunities to make plays. This year, safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson, who tied for the team lead in interceptions, will have to capitalize on those opportunities.

Prediction: Bengals 17, Texans 16

The play: 3* Bengals +4.5 (only if Chris Crocker is active) and 3* under 43.5

***

Vikings @ Packers

Adrian Peterson’s mere presence at Lambeau makes this the most watchable game of the weekend. He carried the Vikings in the second half of the season, and it’s solely because of him that they will be playing the Packers for a third time this season. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are still stinging from last year’s abrupt playoff exit at the hands of the Giants, so they’ll certainly be looking for some atonement.

In his first two games against the Packers, Christian Ponder completed only 47 percent of his passes, throwing three interceptions and only one touchdown. The Vikings lost those games by a combined score of 68-21. A week ago, he threw for three touchdowns without an interception, and compiled his best passer rating of the season. The Packers were able to sack Ponder only once in two meetings this year. If Ponder can protect the football, then Minnesota is in a great position to let Adrian Peterson attack the Packers on the ground, and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline.

Peterson ran for 409 yards in two games against Green Bay during the regular season, and it’s worth noting that Percy Harvin did not play in either of those games. Peterson averaged 6.8 yards per carry over the final nine games, and that number is equal to or more than 14 teams averaged per pass attempt over the course of the season. Unbelievable, I know. Green Bay presents a favorable matchup, as they allowed the sixth most yards per carry of all teams this season.

While the Packers struggle against the run, the Vikings have allowed the seventh fewest rushing yards per carry. Green Bay likely won’t spend too much time testing that out. Rodgers is the key to the Packers offense, and the key for the Pack this week will be to keep him upright. Rodgers has been sacked about one out of every 10 times he drops back. Minnesota has sacked opposing quarterbacks on about seven percent of drop backs, getting to Rodgers for seven sacks this season. Antoine Winfield’s absence from practice this week is a concern, as the Vikings will need all hands on deck to stop Green Bay’s aerial attack, but the veteran is expected to play.

Green Bay has the advantage of playing at home, but rarely does that advantage get wiped away to the extent it does here. Firstly, the Vikings rely heavily on the run, while the Packers will probably try to throw the ball over 40 times in this game, so it’s Minnesota that actually plays a style more suited to the conditions the teams will face in this game. Secondly, the Vikings are a dome team, but they aren’t your typical dome team. They make yearly trips to Soldier Field in Chicago, and of course Lambeau Field, so they know to handle the cold.

Green Bay is giving away more than a touchdown in this game, and that feels like too much. The Packers have been favored by a touchdown or more six times this season, and only covered twice. The Vikings covered the spread in each of their final four games, and while I won’t pick them to win outright, I do think they make it five covers in a row here.

Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 23

The play: 3* Vikings +8 (only if Antoine Winfield is active)

***

Colts @ Ravens

The emotions that will be running through the players in this game will be unbelievable. The Ravens return a soon to be retiring Ray Lewis, while Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer has made for an emotional roller coaster in Indianapolis this season. The Colts have to be happier with their current form entering this game, winning five of their last six games, while the Ravens have lost four of five.

Baltimore gives away 6.5 points in this game. As favorites of six points or more, they’ve gone 3-1, winning each of those games by at least 13 points. The way they finished out their schedule doesn’t leave me very confident in them, but to be fair, they didn’t play a single game against a team that had been eliminated from the playoffs. Lewis’ return should provide a big boost to the club emotionally, but not on the field. There they will have to rely on their other veterans, a handful of whom took the week off last week, and should return to the field recharged and ready to go.

Jim Caldwell was brought in to get Ray Rice the football, and Rice exited last week’s game after only three touches, so fatigue should not be an issue. Indianapolis gave up 352 rushing rushing to Kansas City in Week 16, so Rice should get every opportunity to attack the Colts’ notoriously weak rush defense.

Indianapolis feasted on the league’s easiest schedule during the season, yet they were outgained by nearly a full yard per play. To make matters worse, the Colts have no running game to speak of, gaining only 2.5 yards per carry a week ago against Houston. The team tries to stretch the field more often than any other team in the league, and that might hurt them this week with Ed Reed patrolling center field. Andrew Luck threw 13 interceptions in eight road games this season.

This game offers my strongest recommendation of the week, as I think the Ravens win comfortably. The Colts put together 11 wins during the regular year, but that was mostly smoke and mirrors. The team beat up on lesser competition to pick up most of those wins, playing one of the easiest schedules the NFL has issued since the turn of the century. The Colts were 10-6 ATS on the season, but that number falls to 4-4 when they travel. When playing against tougher competition, they floundered as well, going 1-3 ATS as underdogs of a touchdown or more. Those three losses came by an average of 43-21.

Joe Flacco’s been wildly inconsistent over the second half of the season, but I’m much more confident backing him at home, where he’s thrown 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Indianapolis deserves a lot of praise for what they’ve been able to do this year, but when stepping up in class they’ve stumbled, and they’re stepping up in class in this game. The over is worth a look as well, as Baltimore should get their points, and Indianapolis seems to always be good for a cheap score or two once the game has been decided.

Prediction: Ravens 34, Colts 21

The play: 4* Ravens -6.5 (3* if you can only find Ravens -7) and 3* over 47

***

Seahawks @ Redskins

This game will feature two of the most impressive rookie quarterbacks to come along in a very long time. Both players will likely cancel each another out, so this game will be decided by the men playing alongside those two. This pick would be a no-brainer if the game were in Seattle, but then again, the spread would also be much higher. Seattle gives away a field goal here despite the fact that the franchise has lost nine straight road playoff games.

The Seahawks finished the year on a tear to post an 11-5 record, going 10-5-1 ATS along the way, and doing so against the league’s fifth toughest schedule. The team faces a whole different set of challenges away from CenturyLink Field. Russell Wilson’s home-road splits don’t look all that impressive, but he’s been a different quarterback over the second half of the season. In three road games since the team’s Week 11 bye, Wilson has accounted for eight Seahawk touchdowns, without turning the ball over a single time. Over the entire second half of the season, he’s compiled 20 total touchdowns and only three turnovers.

Marshawn Lynch is no slouch either, eclipsing 100 yards 10 times this year, and averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Seattle’s defensive secondary gets a boost with the return of Brandon Browner. With Browner playing opposite Richard Sherman, and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor manning the two safety positions, Seattle owns arguably the best defensive backfield in football.

Washington has won seven in a row since Mike Shanahan said the team was all but giving up on the season. Robert Griffin III was rolling along before suffering a PCL injury that has clearly affected him in his two games back. Griffin was noticeably bothered by the injury two weeks ago against the Eagles, but did show some improvement last week against the Cowboys. A fully healthy RG3 certainly changes the complexion of this game, as the Shanahans have drawn up some creative play calls that require Griffin to be mobile.

Few teams have been able to handle Washington’s use of misdirection in the backfield, the greatest benefactor of which has been bruising back Alfred Morris. Morris’ 1,613 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns would make him a lock for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in any year but this one. While Morris’ production has been a boon to the offense, the unit is at its most explosive when Griffin is moving around and getting the ball to his explosive group of receivers, headlined by Pierre Garçon.

While the offense draws all the headlines, the defense has struggled. The unit still hasn’t recovered from the loss of Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker in Week 2. Wilson has been making opposing pass rushers look silly for weeks, and he’ll have little trouble keeping his jersey clean this week.

I don’t love the fact that Seattle is giving away points in this game. I think they win the game, but I’m not confident enough in them to lay the points. If I were going to recommend something in this game it would be the over, but I’ll probably just end up staying away from this game all together.

Prediction: Seahawks 28, Redskins 24

The play: Pass