NFL Playoffs 2012: Picking the Wild Card Winners

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IJanuary 5, 2012

NFL Playoffs 2012: Picking the Wild Card Winners

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    The 2011 NFL regular season is over and the league's second season—the 2012 NFL Playoffs—is about to begin this weekend.

    Spoiler alert: If you enjoy the suspense of NFL games and do not want to know how the playoffs are going to unfold, then stop reading right now.

    However, if you are a betting man or woman, legally of course, or someone who reads the last few pages of the book before opening to the first page, this article is for you.

    I am not Nostradamus, so I do not advise waging your hard-earned fortune on my predictions, but if you want to sound smarter than your bar buddies and family members as you watch each game of the 2012 NFL Wild Card Weekend, then by all means, please read on.

Bengals vs. Texans

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    AFC Wild Card Game

    Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012:  No. 6 Cincinnati (9-7) at No. 3 Houston (10-6), 4:30 ET (NBC)

    Both of these teams are limping into the playoffs and starting rookie quarterbacks after strong starts to the regular season.

    The Bengals have lost five of eight, including a 20-19 home loss to the Texans in Week 14, after starting the season 6-2.

    The Texans, who lost starting quarterback Matt Schaub in Week 10 and backup Matt Leinart in Week 11, have lost three straight to close the regular season since wrapping up the AFC South in their win over Cincinnati.

    The Texans' second-ranked defense has given up 23.3 points per game in their last three losses after not allowing more than 14 points in consecutive games during their 10-3 start.

    The Bengals scored nearly 20 points per game in the same stretch, going 2-1.

    Cincinnati's Andy Dalton will get his first playoff win on Sunday, ending the Texans' Super Bowl hopes, which were officially dashed when Schaub's leg injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers crushed their hopes for a championship.

    Prediction: Bengals 23, Texans 17 

Steelers vs. Broncos

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    AFC Wild Card Game

    Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012:  No. 5 Pittsburgh (12-4) at No. 4 Denver (8-8), 4:30 ET (CBS)

    First off, I disagree with the NFL's current playoff system which allows division winners to host playoff games against teams with better records.

    In 2008, the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers (8-8) hosted and defeated the AFC Wild Card Indianapolis Colts (12-4) by a score of 23-17. In 2011, the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks (7-9) hosted and defeated the NFC Wild Card New Orleans Saints (11-5), 43-36.

    The Broncos earned their playoff bid thanks to a midseason 7-1 stretch behind a stout defense under the helm of quarterback Tim Tebow, after starting the season 1-4 with current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton.

    Denver lost its final three games of the regular season by a combined score of 88-40, including a 40-14 Christmas Eve trouncing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills and a 7-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17.

    The Steelers have won eight of their last 10 games and their last two, following a 20-3 Week 15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in which a banged up Ben Roethlisberger passed for 330 yards but could not get his team into the end zone.

    The Steelers are the better team, and despite all the hoopla surrounding Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, Pittsburgh will advance to the divisional round by defeating the Broncos in Denver, just as they did in the 2005 AFC Championship Game.

    Prediction: Steelers 38, Broncos 13

Lions vs. Saints

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    NFC Wild Card Game

    Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012:  No. 6 Detroit (10-6) at No. 3 New Orleans (13-3), 8 ET (NBC)

    The Detroit Lions started the season strong at 5-0 and won three of their last five games with bookend losses against the Saints and the Green Bay Packers (15-1).

    The Saints, winners of eight straight since a shocking 31-21 loss to the St. Louis Rams (2-14) in Week 8, are the hottest team in football.

    They also have the hottest quarterback in football in Drew Brees, who broke Dan Marino's single-season yardage record in Week 16, and they've score more than 40 points in their last three games.

    The Lions gave up 45 points and six passing touchdowns to the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers in Week 16, so going up against the Saints prolific offense should be more of a challenge than they can handle.

    Detroit can put up points, too, so expect a high scoring affair in Saturday's prime-time matchup.

    Just don't expect a Lions victory.

    Prediction: Saints 45, Lions 34

Falcons vs. Giants

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    NFC Wild Card Game

    Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012:  No. 5 Atlanta (10-6) at No. 4 N.Y. Giants (9-7), 1 ET (FOX)

    This is another case in which the team with the better record has to go on the road thanks to the four divisions in each conference.

    The Giants, winners of the disappointing NFC East, won three of their last four regular season games, but you never know which team is going to show up.

    Their passing game is among the best in the league and their defensive front four is the most dominant unit in the league.

    The Falcons are also 3-1 in their last four games, with a 45-16 Week 16 loss to the red hot Saints.

    Atlanta was blown out of the playoffs last season by the Packers and that won't happen this year, at least not in the first round.

    The Falcons will try to run the ball against the Giants' heavy pass rush, but it won't be enough to keep up with the high-flying G-men.

    Prediction: Giants 31, Falcons 24