NFL Playoff Predictions: AFC Wild Card Preview

Matt ChapralesCorrespondent IJanuary 6, 2012

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers calls a play against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

The AFC features a pair of interesting Wild Card matchups. With lots to break down, let's get right to it.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8)

If Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing with a high ankle sprain, Rashard Mendenhall wasn’t out with a torn ACL and Ryan Clark didn’t carry the sickle-cell trait, it would impossible to see this matchup ending in anything but a Pittsburgh romp.

But the Steelers are dealing with all kinds of adversity, as well as the burden of being a big road favorite in the playoffs. With the Saints’ shocking loss to the 7-9 Seahawks on the road in a 2010 Wild Card game still fresh in everyone’s memory, it’s tough not to ponder the Broncos’ chances at an upset, given the circumstances.

As opposed to Seattle, which had two things going for it—a running back, Marshawn Lynch, who has a remarkable ability to get stronger as the season progresses; and a quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who had been to a Super Bowl—Denver is afforded no such luxuries to fall back on.

Running back Willis McGahee averaged just 78.3 rushing yards over the final four games. Quarterback Tim Tebow crashed and burned during that time, fumbling seven times (four lost) and throwing five interceptions.

The Denver pass rush, spearheaded by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, should be able to make life difficult for a hobbled Roethlisberger and keep the game close. But for a Broncos offense that scored a combined 17 points over the final two weeks against the Bills and Chiefs, it’s going to be nearly impossible to find the end zone against a Steelers defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed (14.2) and hasn’t given up a touchdown in three of the last four games.

The Broncos will need a defensive or special teams score to throw a scare into Pittsburgh, which isn’t likely.

Prediction: Steelers 16, Broncos 6


Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6)

There’s always one Wild Card game game featuring a team or teams that, talent-wise, are a notch below the rest of the field. Last year it was the Chiefs, who were smoked at home by the playoff-seasoned Ravens. In 2010 it was the Bengals, in ‘09 the Dolphins etc. The downfall of the so-called playoff fraud always boils down to its ability, or lack thereof, to take care of the football.

Make no mistake: Turnovers will determine the outcome of the Bengals-Texans game. Neither team protected the ball well when they met in Week 14. Houston committed four turnovers and Cincinnati two. And both teams continued to have ball security issues down the stretch. The Texans gave the football away at least once in each of their final three games, and turned it over nine times from Weeks 14-17. The Bengals have also yet to play an errorless game in that stretch, tallying six turnovers.

A closer look paints an even darker picture for the Texans. Of those nine turnovers, five were committed by T.J. Yates. The rookie quarterback threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles over the final quarter of the season, while also fumbling an additional time.

Dig a little deeper and go back to Houston’s 17-10 win over the Falcons in Week 13, a game in which Yates lost one fumble, lost a second on a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown before a pair of bizarre offsetting substitution penalties called it back, and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That play was overturned because of a holding penalty, taking a second defensive score off the board for the Falcons.

Certain contests, despite the outcome, can serve as a harbinger of things to come. The Atlanta game was noteworthy in that respect.

On the flip side, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled one time and threw just one interception from Week 13 on.

Not to be lost in the mix are the issues of Texans star running back Arian Foster, who has put the ball on the ground in four of the last five games, fumbling a total of five times (three lost).

Considering either one or both of Yates and Foster will be touching the ball on every snap - or, gulp, Jake Delhomme - Houston’s recent problems taking care of the football are unlikely to suddenly vanish. Dalton may be a rookie quarterback going on the road for his first playoff game, but all the pressure is on the Texans to come through in the franchise’s maiden postseason appearance. How does Houston respond following a turnover late in a tight game that hushes an anxious crowd? The writing is on the wall for an upset.

Prediction Bengals 20, Texans 17