Last Week: 12-4, my best final week ever. That tackled the season with a 174-82 mark, counting the tie as a loss.
Wild Card weekend is all about two things: momentum and matchups. When momentum and matchup converge for the same team, it’s real hard to pick against it. You’ll notice that as a theme here…
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans: As I was watching the Texans lose to the Colts last Sunday, I posited on Twitter that I thought the Bengals were going to crush the Texans in this game. Here’s why:
• Since RG Antoine Caldwell went down with injury, the Texans offensive line has gone from an asset to a detriment. RT Derek Newton, himself an injury replacement for Rashad Butler, has shuffled in and out of the lineup. The running game has largely held up, but the pass protection has been a significant downgrade.
• Matt Schaub is in a serious slump. Over the last four games, Schaub has thrown one touchdown while getting sacked 12 times. This is intertwined with the line issue, as Schaub is as immobile as they come. The bread and butter of the Texans passing game, bootlegs and rollouts on play action, have been all but eliminated thanks to the protection issues and Schaub’s inability to adapt.
• The Houston pass rush has ground to a halt outside of JJ Watt. Outside is the key word there; Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed have not been effective, and rookie Whitney Mercilus has tailed off. They have combined for 1.5 sacks in the last five weeks. For a 3-4 defense, that lack of outside production is fatal.
• Cincinnati’s own pass rush is devastating. Geno Atkins is the best interior rusher in the league with his 12.5 sacks and relentless attacking, but he’s no lone wolf. Michael Johnson bagged 11.5 rushing off the edge, with fellow end Carlos Dunlap getting 6.5. They rotate in Wallace Gilberry who also got six sacks. The point? You can’t help on Atkins much, and if you help on the ends, Atkins alone will kill you. He matches up head on against rookie Ben Jones, who has been woefully overmatched by far lesser talents than Atkins.
• A.J. Green and his propensity for making big plays in key moments. The Texans have issues in coverage. Forget the low completion percentage they allow because they give up big plays, ranking 26th in yards per completion. The decline in play of Johnathan Joseph has been one of the more underreported stories in the AFC. If the Texans overplay Green, they leave themselves vulnerable to Andrew Hawkins and emerging rookie Marvin Jones. Cincinnati’s complementary weapons to Green are better and more explosive than Houston’s side dishes to Andre Johnson.
• Neither team is built to come from behind, which makes scoring first an imperative. The Bengals did not allow a touchdown on the opening drive all season long. They know how to come out of the gate strong, allowing the fewest 1st quarter points in the league. The Texans ranked 21st in that category and are trending in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, no team scored more 1st quarter points than Cincinnati. That’s a decided advantage to the road team.
These are two ships passing in the night, with the Bengals winning seven of their last eight and the Texans losing three of four. The Bengals sputtering offense concerns me, as does the fact that they are the Bengals. The franchise has never won a road playoff game and has found interesting and creative ways to lose many of them. But I’m sticking to my gut here.
Bengals 17, Texans 16
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay: How quickly we get a rematch of last week’s thriller, where the Vikings won their way into the playoffs with a last-second win over the rival Packers in Minnesota. Adrian Peterson ran wild, and rookie kicker Blair Walsh tied the NFL record for most 50+ yard field goals in a season.
Those two players are really the only reason why Minnesota has any chance at Lambeau Field. Peterson is otherworldly as a runner, and he had no trouble gashing the Packers defense in either meeting this year. Even with extra defenders in the box, AD can turn any run into a touchdown. And when he isn’t able to get it into the end zone, Walsh has the leg to put valuable points on the board. Green Bay’s kicker, Mason Crosby, is the biggest weakness on the team. If Peterson controls time of possession and the game breaks into a kicking duel, Mike McCarthy might as well jump in Lake Michigan. That’s where disgruntled fans who have been completely flummoxed by his unwavering, inconceivable loyalty to the worst kicker of the last 15 years will throw him if Crosby costs them a game.
Fortunately for McCarthy, he won’t need a towel other than to wipe the Gatorade off his face when they bathe him in it after the win. In the playoffs, the better quarterback usually wins. When the gulf between the quarterbacks is as vast as between Aaron Rodgers and Christian Ponder, it’s near impossible to overcome.
The Vikings defense isn’t too shabby, but unless Rodgers ventures into “off day” mode--which he has done a few times this year--the Packers offense will score plenty of points. Newfound running threat DuJuan Harris offers some semblance of offensive balance, while mercurial TE Jermichael Finley appears to have finally extricated his head from his rectum. The Vikings cannot cover all those weapons, and Rodgers has enough escapability to frustrate Jared Allen.
I also think the return of Charles Woodson to the Green Bay defense will help take away Ponder’s only legit passing game weapon, Kyle Rudolph. Jarius Wright has come on nicely down the stretch, but fellow rookie Casey Hayward has seen him in the SEC and has been playing great all year long. Green Bay moves on, comfortably but not emphatically.
Packers 28, Vikings 22
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens: When Ray Lewis announced his retirement on Wednesday, this game went from a toss-up to a lead pipe lock in my mind. I was already leaning towards the Ravens, who have been in this situation before and are very good at plowing out of the first round of the playoffs. Now the Ravens, who have not played well for much of the last six weeks, have a renewed enthusiasm and reason to come out motivated. Play For Ray.
Lewis is the undisputed defensive icon of the last 20 years. He is beloved by players of all generations for his competitive fire, his dedication to his craft, and his team-first forceful encouragement. For most of his career he was the best ILB in the game, though he has fallen off the past few seasons. But when I think of leaders in the NFL, the first guy that comes to mind is #52 in purple. You’d better believe the Ravens are going to rally around that.
Andrew Luck has been a great story, albeit a better story than actual quarterback. Chuck Pagano is the feel-good story of the season, if not the decade, and his ties to Baltimore mean he’ll receive a heroic welcome back. But in this city, in this game, it’s all about Ray Lewis. No way he goes out with his team losing to the team that hightailed it out of Baltimore and sucked the hearts out of so many fervid fans. No way Ray Lewis lets that happen. No way the Football Gods let that happen. Sorry Colts, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Enjoy the first of many trips to the playoffs, you weren’t supposed to be here anyways.
Ravens 23, Colts 20
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins: This is set up to be a marquee matchup between two of the most exciting rookie QBs ever in Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. For football fans with an open mind, this is the epitome of the future--mobile, hyper-accurate QBs with intelligence, athleticism, and considerable charisma controlling the game. The fact that both are black rankles some, but those people can keep on enjoying their myopic, antiquated, sad little world. Regardless, I think this compelling matchup hinges on which defense can do a better job against the opposing QB, as I see their talents essentially washing out one another.
Washington might be at home, but their defense is not at an advantage here. London Fletcher and his backer mates have been pretty good in the middle of the defense, but the front and back ends are vulnerable. The Skins do get CB Cedric Griffin back from his four-game suspension, which should help the pass defense. They need all the downfield help they can get, because DC Jim Haslett loves to blitz. He called up 27 against Dallas last week, and no team brought six or more rushers on a higher percentage of opposing pass attempts than the Redskins. The problem here is that Russell Wilson wants teams to blitz him. His top attribute is his ability to avoid the initial blitz surge and create plays behind it. That’s a real bad matchup for Washington.
As much as you can like a defense against the wizardry of RG3, I like Seattle’s chances. They clog the interior without needed to crash down with their ends, and their LBs are both patient and fast. Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are very good read-and-react backers, and they are quick enough to make plays in space. The size of their corners disrupts passing angles down the field, and Kam Chancellor is very good at blowing up moving targets should RG3 get free. The gimpy Griffin of last week doesn’t stand much of a chance against this defense. I expect he will be better, but the Skins do have another option.
Last week, Washington showed they could ride Alfred Morris to victory, and backs who can take it right to Seattle have had some success. Morris wastes no time in getting north/south, and he is very good at anticipating the defender reaction off the block. If his presence can draw Chancellor and fellow safety Earl Thomas away from overage help, the Skins have a real chance. The Washington faithful are desperate to cheer for anything that wins, so I expect the crowd to be raucous and hyper-sensitive. If Morris breaks a 30-yard run, they might hear it up the road in Baltimore. But I don’t think there will be enough of that to overcome the number of times Wilson & friends find success against the home defense.
Seattle 30, Washington 27