The AFC Wild Card Games carry countless storylines and plenty of intrigue, and there will be no shortage of entertainment for NFL fans this coming weekend.
The Denver Broncos clinched home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and the New England Patriots ended up in the No. 2 seed. These two teams have earned some well-deserved rest during the wild-card matchups.
But the Houston Texans did not capitalize on their opportunity to clinch the conference’s top seed, and they will have to put their season on the line against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the other matchup, the Baltimore Ravens will host the Indianapolis Colts. Here are my predictions for both games.
No. 3 Houston Texans vs. No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
The word momentum will used ad nauseam during the AFC Wild Card matchups, as both of the lower seeds in this matchups have been playing well recently, while the division winners have looked shaky.
The Bengals went 3-5 in the first half of their schedule, but the team has only lost once in the past eight games and it has finished the season on a three-game winning streak.
Houston, however, has lost three of its last four games. The stretch of poor play started with a 42-14 blowout defeat against the New England Patriots and also included an abysmal offensive performance in a 23-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Texans' offense will need to make a drastic turnaround on Saturday, as the Cincinnati defense has been on fire late in the season. The Bengals' Week 9 matchup with the Denver Broncos was the last time the team allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points.
While Houston easily dealt with the Bengals in last year’s Wild Card Round, Cincinnati will return the favor this weekend with a victory.
Prediction: Cincinnati 24, Houston 17
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 5 Indianapolis Colts
In this game, Baltimore will the team that needs to figure out a way to significantly elevate its level of play or risk losing in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in John Harbaugh’s tenure.
But this is the first time that the Ravens have had a losing record in December under Harbaugh. Heading into the postseason with such low morale is uncharted waters for the team’s core group of players.
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To make matters worse, the Colts are red hot. Chuck Pagano’s return to the sideline inspired Indianapolis this weekend and the team beat the Texans, despite being unable to change their playoff seed.
Indy is now 5-1 in its last six games, and the team will carry plenty of momentum into this matchup. However, all the adrenaline may work against the Colts due to their youth and inexperience.
In addition, the Ravens have played in nine playoff games in the past four years. The team’s seasoned veterans give Baltimore a much greater chance to turn around its fortunes than the Texans, who played the first postseason game in franchise history last year.
Ultimately, experience and talent will allow Harbaugh to keep his streak of winning at least one playoff game alive.
Prediction: Baltimore 28, Indianapolis 24