The 2011 NFL playoffs get underway on Saturday afternoon. This year's slate of Wild Card games features a pair of rookie quarterbacks duking it out in Houston, a potential shootout in the Bayou, a toss-up in the Meadowlands and the league's most enigmatic quarterback against an elite defense in Mile High.
In other words, get ready for an awesome weekend.
Now, the most important question to answer prior to these Wild Card games is not who will win, but rather who will cover. There is a distinct difference between the two, and if you're looking for answers to the latter, you've come to the right place.
Pundits love to talk about how the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, but this AFC Wild Card matchup is the antithesis of that theory. T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton, who boast an average quarterback rating of 80.5, will lead the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals into the worst game of the weekend.
The Texans are 3-2-1 ATS since Yates took over at quarterback. Houston will have a healthy Andre Johnson in the lineup this weekend, which should significantly improve an offense that has averaged just 18 points over its last six games.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are 6-2-1 ATS in their last nine road games. Cincinnati also likes to keep games close, having lost six games by eight points or less.
These two teams met in Cincinnati in Week 14, and the Texans squeezed out a one-point victory. All signs point to a close game, so the value lies with Cincy and the Red Rifle.
The Pick: Bengals (+3)
The Texans-Bengals game might be an ugly one, but the Saints and Lions should produce enough fireworks to compensate. Matthew Stafford leads Detroit to its first playoff appearance in over a decade against a scorching-hot New Orleans team that is gaining steam as a Super Bowl favorite.
New Orleans went a league-best 12-4 ATS this season, including a perfect 8-0 ATS at home. The Saints are also 8-0 ATS in their last eight games overall.
Things didn't go quite as swimmingly for the Lions this season, but they did finish the year with a respectable 7-7-2 record ATS. The key for Detroit may be turnovers. When Matthew Stafford throws multiple interceptions, the Lions are 1-3 ATS.
These two teams met in Week 13, and the Lions only lost by 14 despite racking up 105 penalty yards. Even though the value clearly lies with Detroit, how can you bet against Brees in the Superdome?
The Picks: Saints (-10.5)
The third game on the 2011 Wild Card slate pins the New York Giants against the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams accrued great momentum in Week 17, and this is easily the toughest game to gauge.
The Giants always seem to peak right around playoff time, and they are 5-1 ATS in their last six playoff games. New York has been wildly erratic this season, but they finished the season strong, posting a 4-1 record ATS in their last five games.
Atlanta is a far more difficult team to figure out. The Falcons only defeated one team with a winning record this season and went 1-4 ATS in outdoor games. Even though there is are no frigid temperatures or precipitation in the forecast, this is cause for concern. However, the Falcons do boast a potent offense loaded with weapons, and Matt Ryan is due for a playoff win.
The value might seem to side with the Falcons, but all signs point to a Giants cover here. New York is battle tested, and they have the ability to control the game with their two-headed rushing attack. And, once again, the Falcons only defeated one team with a winning record. You can't bet on this team, can you?
The Pick: Giants (-3)
Tebow Mania has slowly crippled to a halt over the past few weeks, and the Broncos quarterback will face his toughest test yet when the Steelers roll into town on Sunday. Denver may have backed into the playoffs, but they will square off against a Pittsburgh squad that has been decimated by injuries.
Denver rallied for six straight covers in November and December, but they have struggled since. The Broncos are 0-3 ATS in their last three games and are just 2-6-1 ATS against teams with a winning record this season. The altitude may seem like a big advantage, but the Steelers have won two of their last three meetings with the Broncos in Denver.
Even without Ryan Clark, Rashard Mendenhall and possibly Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers deserve these nine points. Pittsburgh is 10-1 ATS in their last 11 games in January and is 9-2 ATS in their last 11 playoff games. Big Ben might be banged up, but he boasts a 10-3 record in playoff games.
From personal experience, I can assure you that betting on Tim Tebow is one of the scariest things a man can do. And if the Broncos can't score against the Chiefs and Bills, how will they score against the Steelers? Not even Jesus can help Tebow in this one.
The Pick: Steelers (-9)