There's a strong case to be made for the road dogs here, especially if you put significant stock in momentum.
The Texans have averaged 13 PPG over their three most recent losses, which is particularly discouraging for Texans fans. Houston's offense has looked lost at times and has been unable to get Arian Foster going.
But Foster will be the key to this matchup.
The Bengals rank 12th in run defense and 6th in overall defense. Led by DT Geno Atkins and DE Michael Johnson, this is an underrated, well-coached defense that has been well prepared by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (who has head coaching aspirations, h/t Sports Illustrated).
If Houston can’t get their run game rolling early, it could be a long day for QB Matt Schaub.
Still, the Texans were an 11-1 team with Super Bowl aspirations just a month ago. They played last year's playoff game with third-stringer T.J. Yates and still handled "the Bungles" by three touchdowns. The Texans could’ve had Stringer Bell under center that day and still beaten Cincinnati, as Dalton struggled miserably and the stellar Texans defense was the difference.
That brings me to the biggest key of this game: Houston's defense.
CB Johnathan Joseph has his work cut out for him with A.J. Green. (It's not that the gap from Calvin Johnson to Green is too wide—it's that Green, in my opinion, is the second-best receiver on the planet.) Joseph is a very good corner but he'll still need help from the rest of Houston's secondary, which has been mediocre this season. Houston ranks 7th overall in defense but just 16th vs. the pass (7th vs. run).
I expect Green to get his yards, as the dude is a freak of nature.
Speaking of freaks of nature, how can we discuss Houston’s defense without mentioning MVP candidate J.J. Watt? He’s been the most dominant defensive player in football and will certainly make his presence felt on Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
I want to pick the Bengals here, I really do. I think they absolutely have a chance to win, and getting five points in a tossup game is always nice (as any handicapper will tell you).
Still, something is telling me the Texans will flip the script at their playground in the playoffs.
Again, if Houston can’t get Foster and the run game rolling early and often, I think Cincy steals this one.
That’s my long-ass way of telling y’all that I’m taking the Texans.
PICK - Houston 27, Cincinnati 20
When these two teams met last Sunday on the final week of the regular season, I was all over the home-dog Vikings, cashing a nice ticket with my local book.
Half-man, half-amazin’ Adrian Peterson ran for nearly 200 yards and ended the season eight yards short of Eric Dickerson’s all-time rushing record (2,105 yards). Peterson also ran for 210 yards in a Week 13 loss to the Pack at Lambeau Field. That’s no typo—Peterson ran for 210 yards, but the Vikings still couldn’t manage a victory on the Frozen Tundra at Lambeau.
Minnesota has the 2nd-ranked running game in the NFL and the 31st-ranked passing attack. As I mentioned in last week's preview, teams can stack the box all they want—there ain’t no stopping AP. He’ll get his, as the Purple People will feed him early and often. Expect somewhere near the career-high 34 carries he received in Week 17 in Minnesota.
The Vikes were an impressive 7-1 at home this season, but just 3-5 away from the Metrodome. They lost, 23-14, at Green Bay, and wouldn’t ya know it? That point difference is the spread in this playoff contest.
It’s going to be cold Saturday night in Wisconsin, with game temperatures expected to be in the 20s. The Pack get back future Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson, who always seems to step up and make a few big plays when it matters most. They’ve also recently welcomed back LB Clay Matthews, who was sorely missed in the middle of their defense. According to the injury report, dangerous wideout weapons Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were both full participants and should be good to go.
Look, Adrian Peterson is my vote for MVP. The man came back from shredding his knee to being better than he ever was, which was already better than everybody else. What he’s done this season is simply remarkable and I wish that he had gained those nine yards to shatter the single-season record.
But everything about this game points to the Packers by double digits. I’ll end my argument with the names of the two players who occupy the most important position on the football field: Christian Ponder, and Aaron Rodgers.
PICK - Green Bay 34, Minnesota 17