Last week: 7-9. Final regular season totals: 129-122-5, Pct. .514. Best Bets: 24-26-1, Pct. .480.
Home team in capital letters; point spreads (opening line) in parentheses after underdog team; selections with point spreads in bold.
HOUSTON 20, Cincinnati 13 (+5)—If anyone tries to tell you that there is no such thing as a team "peaking too early," just show them this year's Texans—and if they were playing almost any other team than the Bengals, they would very likely be culminating their end-of-season meltdown with a loss here; but they have simply owned Cincinnati, with four straight wins and covers, including last year, on the road, with a third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates).
If the forecast cooler-than-average temperatures result in the closure of the retractable roof at Reliant Stadium, the fact that the Bengals have dropped five of their last six indoors, with the lone win coming at 2-14 St. Louis last year, also becomes relevant. But a milestone of sorts was reached this year in Cincinnati, in the form of back-to-back non-strike winning seasons for the first time in 35 years, while the reprieve Houston earns by winning has every promise of being short-lived, as it will be on to the building at which they got smoked 42-14 a month ago, and things don't figure to turn out any different in the rematch.
GREEN BAY 37, Minnesota 14 (+8)—If the Vikings' ownership felt like complaining about the starting times of this week's games, they would have been well within their rights in doing so, as making this a night game greatly reduces their chances of pulling off the upset. It turns a Triple Witching Hour game (outdoors, on grass and in cold weather, all in the same game, for a team that plays indoors at home) into what might be characterized as a Quadruple Witching Hour game—and since moving into Triple H in 1982 Minnesota is 11-34 straight up and 16-26-3 against the line in Triple Witching Hour games.
Also, Adrian Peterson does have a history of fumbling in cold weather. Such a fumble in overtime in Week 16 (and on a Monday night, no less!) at non-contending Chicago in 2009 ended up costing the Vikings the top seed in the playoffs that year. With Charles Woodson expected back for the first time since Week 7, Green Bay's much-improved defense, which ranked 11th this season after trailing the entire league in 2011, should be able to take full advantage of the enhanced elements to post an easy win—and cover.
BALTIMORE 24, Indianapolis 13 (+6 1/2)—From 1989 to the present, the Modell Franchise (Cleveland Browns prior to 1996, Baltimore Ravens since that year) has made 10 playoff appearances, and only twice have they gone one-and-done (in 2003 and 2006).
Meanwhile the Colts were 0-3 against teams with winning records on the road in even this Cinderella season, and were outscored a staggering 129 to 62 in the trio. While they did snap a six-game cold-weather losing streak two weeks ago to clinch a playoff spot, they allowed an alarming 352 yards rushing that day—so look for "Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle," and right and left as well.
True, Indianapolis has actually covered the spread in the last eight meetings in the series, but the most recent such outing was a 14-point loss as a 15-point road underdog in Week 14 of last year. The Ravens go on to visit a team they lost to by 17 at home last month—and the game wasn't even as "close" as that would suggest.
With another how shall we say, less-than demanding schedule in 2013 (one in which their opponents combined to go 20 games under .500 in 2012), the Colts should be primed to contend again in Andrew Luck's second season. Thus the victories in both AFC wild card games are tempered by harsh realities, while both losers can take some very real positive things from this season—and into the next, at least in this case.
WASHINGTON 27 (+1), Seattle 17—Operator, please connect me with 1983—the first, last and only time the Seahawks have ever won a playoff game on the road (Seattle is 0-8 on the road in the postseason since)—so seeing them turn up as favorites in this spot raises one red flag right there.
I just love these situations when a team is finally getting an (obviously non-division) opponent at home after playing them multiple consecutive times on the road—four in this instance. Furthermore, Seattle has not won in the nation's capital since 1995, after which they have lost three times there both straight up and against the spread. Finally, don't let Seattle's location on a map fool you; this is, if not a warm-climate, then certainly a mild-climate city, so the late time slot figures to work against the Seahawks, though not as massively as the night-time start on Saturday hurts the Vikings.
It's kind of a shame that two of the big three rookie quarterbacks have to play each other, since one of them has to lose. But that's the way it goes; and after coming within a half-game of winning the NFC West this year, the Seahawks should pose a credible threat to San Francisco in the division in 2013 and very likely beyond. As for the Redskins, their win here, coupled with Green Bay's, sets up a matchup for them next week against a team with an awful lot to prove when it comes to getting it done in the playoffs.
BEST BET: GREEN BAY