Bengals at Texans
This is an interesting matchup of rookie quarterbacks, but both teams are limping into the playoffs. The Texans lost their final three games of the season to teams with a combined record of 17-31, while the Bengals backed into the postseason after losing their finale against Baltimore.
The Texans beat the Bengals in Week 14 20-19, and that was T.J. Yates’s best performance of the year. He threw for 300 yards and 2 TD’s. But he hurt his shoulder in last week’s loss to the Titans. He’s expected to start, but if anything happens then Jake Delhomme would be in line to play—yikes!
Andre Johnson will be available for Houston, but I’m not sure that he’ll be up to speed. He’s missed 9 games this year, and neither Kevin Walter nor Jacoby Jones stepped up at all in his absence. They both ended up with fewer receiving yards than they had last year, when they didn’t have to compete with Johnson for looks!
The key for Houston, obviously, is Arian Foster and Ben Tate. But Cincinnati has a top-10 run defense, and they were solid against Foster and Tate the first time these teams met. They’ll load up to stop the run, and I don’t think T.J. Yates will be able to repeat his performance from last time. He’s struggled the last few weeks since then, and Houston won’t be scoring a ton of points.
Of course, it won’t be easy for the Bengals to score, either. Houston’s defense is strong all around, but especially against the pass. Corner Johnathan Joseph has been an amazing acquisition, and Connor Barwin and Brian Cushing have been impressive at the linebacker spots. But I really like what Andy Dalton has done this year. He and A.J. Green have established a great connection, and I think they’ll be able to do enough, along with some running from Cedric Benson, to push them over the top this week.
Lions at Saints
Since that embarrassing loss to the Rams, the Saints have won 8 straight games, while the Lions are coming off an embarrassing 45-41 loss to the Packers and backup QB Matt Flynn, who shredded them for 480 yards and 6 TDs!
The Saints are just on such a roll right now. Drew Brees is breaking records, and if not for the year Rob Gronkowski had, everybody would be talking about Jimmy Graham having one of the great tight end seasons of all time. Even more importantly, the Saints can run the ball this year. Their team leader in rushing was Darren Sproles with just 603 yards, but as a team they were 6th in the league in yards and averaged close to 5 yards a carry! They come at you with Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory, and those guys will have a huge game against a Detroit team that is one of the worst in the league against the run. And if Matt Flynn can throw for 480 yards and 6 scores against them, what will Drew Brees do?
On the other side, Detroit has a high-scoring offense, but it’s one-dimensional. Their running game has only showed up a couple times this year. New Orleans struggles against the run, but that won’t matter if the Lions don’t hand the ball off more than 15 times in the game. Calvin Johnson has been amazing this year, but I’m not so sure Matthew Stafford is really ready for the big time stage yet.
We saw these teams play just a month ago, and the Saints won easily, 31-17. I think the Saints will be able to move the ball at will, and stop Detroit enough times to make the score look pretty lopsided.
Falcons at Giants
I think this game comes down to one question: can Atlanta keep Matt Ryan upright against the incredible pass rush of the Giants? Despite injuries limiting Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck to half the season, the G-Men still ended up with 48 sacks. The front line for the Giants is finally all healthy, and they’ve been great the last few weeks. Jason Pierre-Paul and Co. are up against a Falcons line that has some question marks. Of their tackles, Sam Baker has struggled, and Will Svitek has been very up and down. The Falcons will have receivers open all game long, but that won’t matter if Matt Ryan is on the ground.
For the Giants, meanwhile, I think they’ll have lots of open receivers, too. Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham will be too much for the Falcons secondary. I know Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have struggled in the run game this year, but they’re as healthy as they’ve been all season, and these are guys who have shown in the past that they are capable of playing a lot better than we’ve seen this year. If they step up, watch out! I believe the running backs will show, while the New York pass rush will overwhelm the Falcons, sending Big Blue into Round 2.
Steelers at Broncos
The bubble has burst in Denver. They got blown out in Weeks 15 and 16, and could only muster 3 points against the Chiefs last week in what appeared to be a must-win game.
But all isn’t well for the Steelers, either. Big Ben will play, but he’s doing it with a hurt ankle. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is out, forcing Isaac Redman and John Clay into action. This year, the Denver defense has played great games, and they’ve played awful games. Pittsburgh hasn’t been the kind of offense to run away from teams this year, and with all the injuries I definitely think Denver’s defense will be able to keep it low scoring and close.
But they should still be able to pull out a victory against a Denver offense that is really struggling to move the ball right now. They gave up the fewest points in the league this year, while Denver’s offense was one of the lowest-scoring units. They might have the #1 rushing unit, but they haven’t seen a defense like Pittsburgh’s. The Steelers will get enough production from Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, and company to get the victory.