Fresh off a regular season where I was fairly accurate with picking against the spread in ESPN’s Pigskin Pick’em, I’m going to start posting picks each week. I’ll continue to do this in 2013, but I figure the opening round of the playoffs is the perfect time to get things started. More than likely that means all my picks from this day forward will be way off-base, but when has been wrong ever deterred me?
So here are my picks for this weekend’s games:
Cincinnati over Houston
Green Bay over Minnesota
Baltimore over Indianapolis
Seattle over Washington
Keep reading for more detailed breakdowns after the jump.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
Saturday, January 5 at 4:30 pm ET on NBC
*Line: Texans -5
This is a rematch from last year’s opening round playoff game. The Texans won that game fairly handly with T.J. Yates under center. This time, Matt Schaub is back, and conventional wisdom says that should mean the Texans win this game. But I say not so fast. These are two teams that play basically the same type of game. Both teams are run-first offenses that have one major weapon on the outside. For Cincinnati, it’s wideout A.J. Green, and for Houston it’s Andre Johnson. Neither quarterback: Schaub nor Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton are that good. Because both pass defenses will be keying on their opponents top target, this game will boil down to which team wins in the trenches.
Both teams will try to run the ball against each other, and when the opponent does turn to the pass will want to pressure the quarterback. This is a good game to watch if you want to see two of the league’s premier pass rushers in Geno Atkins (Bengals) and likely Defensive MVP J.J. Watt (Texans). Both both teams sport two of the better offensive lines in the AFC. The Bengals will feature rookie Kevin Zeitler at right guard and right tackle Andre Smith tasked with stalling Watt. Zeitler is a former teammate of Watt’s at Wisconsin, so there’s a chance he may not be as overmatched as your typical rookie.
For Houston, faced with containing Atkins will be guards Wade Smith and rookie Ben Jones. Jones has been rotating with fellow rookie Brandon Brooks. Neither have been great this year. At right tackle, the Texans have been rotating players there as of late with Derek Newton and Ryan Harris. They will be tasked with containing Carlos Dunlap, one of the league’s more unheralded pass rushers. Newton is a first-year starter that has struggled, and Harris has been just adequate. If Atkins and Dunlap can win those matchups against those inexperienced players, this is a matchup that could slant towards the Bengals.
Both teams sport good run defenses, but the Texans unit has faded namely because of the injury to Brian Cushing. They now sport an over the hill Bradie James, inexperienced Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud. Barrett Ruud, ladies and gentlemen! I like BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ chances against the non-tackling Ruud.
Spread Pick: Bengals
Straight Pick: Bengals
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Saturday, January 5 at 8:00 pm ET on NBC
*Line: Packers -8
This is a rematch of last week’s game. This happened three times during the 2009 season, where teams were matched up in the season finale and then squared off the following week in the wildcard playoffs. The team that won the season finale won the playoff game 2 out of 3 times. The lone outlier was actually the Packers, who beat the Cardinals in Week 17 that year, and then lost to Arizona the following week in Aaron Rodgers’ first playoff game. This week’s game will be Christian Ponder’s first playoff game. It will be the eighth such playoff outing for Mr. Rodgers.
Through two regular season matchups, we’ve seen that the Packers cannot stop Adrian Peterson. Peterson rushed for a combined 409 yards on 55 carries (7.4 avg) and 2 touchdowns. So expecting the Packers to put the clamps on him this week is probably a pipe dream. Basically holding him to under 180 rushing yards is a win for them.
Their key is going to be to try and slow Peterson down enough, to force Ponder to throw it enough where they can create some turnovers. The problem however is that the Packers have struggled getting pressure against Ponder in both outings. The positive is that Clay Matthews is making strides coming back from hamstring. And I think he’ll be the key in this game. If Matthews manages to school Matt Kalil a bit (this is only their second matchup) that should give the Packers something they’ve missed in both previous games against Minnesota.
The Vikings haven’t really found a way to stop the Packers offense. They’ve been able to slow them and stall them at times, but not stop them. That was certainly the case last week where Green Bay was perfect on four redzone opportunities. The Packers really had no issue moving the ball against the Vikings over the final 40 minutes of the game, with the only real instance where they were stopped was when Brian Robison stripped Rodgers from behind. The Vikings turned that into 7 points (after their own near turnover on an almost Peterson fumble), which was the difference in the game.
I suspect this weekend’s game will be similar, with Rodgers preying on a weakened Vikings secondary. Top corner Antoine Winfield is sporting a broken right hand. When Winfield played against the Packers in Week 13, the Vikings defense fared well against the Packers. When he played during the early portion of last week’s game, the Packers offense looked sluggish. When he was pulled, Marcus Sherels entered the game and proceeded to be beaten like a drum.
Winfield is expected to play, despite not practicing this week. If he can play at a high level, then the Vikings have a chance. If not, then they are screwed barring Peterson going for 280 yards this time. Winfield’s broken hand limits his abilities in run support and in press coverage. So even if he’s in position to make a play in coverage, he may not be able to make it. I respect Winfield a ton because he’s been one of the league’s most consistently excellent corners throughout his 14-year playing career. But I can’t be optimistic about him recovering enough from an injury that forced him out of a game 6 days before.
Another X-factor in this game is Mason Crosby. If this game is close and comes down to a field goal, the Packers are probably screwed. Crosby is their field goal kicker and has struggled this year, making only 64% of his field goals. The Packers will need to score touchdowns to make sure Crosby doesn’t factor into this one.
Spread Pick: Packers
Straight Pick: Packers
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Sunday, January 6 at 1:00 pm ET on CBS
*Line: Ravens (-7)
This one should be a good one. “Chuck-strong” versus Ray Lewis. This will mark what will likely be the final home game for Ray Lewis, who earlier this week announced his intention to retire following this season. Unless they should meet the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens path to the Super Bowl this year will take them outside the state of Maryland.
The Colts on the other hand have been buoyed by head coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this season. Bruce Arians took over as interim coach, leading the Colts on a 9-3 record during that time. Pagano returned last week and managed to lead the Colts to a 28-16 home win over the Houston Texans.
But through their late season success, the Colts weren’t really playing anyone. They were handled fairly easily by the Patriots (59-24) in Week 11, and the Texans beat them soundly 29-17 in Week 15. Both were their only two playoff opponents after their initial Week 5 upset of Green Bay in the first game Pagano missed. That Packers win came at home, as did their Week 17 win over Houston. Their previous loss to the Texans and Patriots both were on the road. Chuck-strong may not matter much against an antagonistic crowd.
Baltimore is a team that is much better team at home than away, sporting a 6-2 record in the confines of M&T Bank Stadium. With the emotion of the fans finally bidding farewell to Lewis, who is a sure-bet as a first ballot Hall of Famer after a 17-year career, it’s going to be a formidable venue on Sunday afternoon.
The Ravens past playoff success has ridden upon the back of their standout defense, which has been subpar for most of this year. Injuries to Lewis, Lardarius Webb, and Terrell Suggs have sapped them. Ed Reed hasn’t played at an elite level, and Haloti Ngata despite a Pro Bowl bid is having a down year by his usual standards. So the onus has been on the offense to carry the team. They haven’t done that much this year, but did so against the New York Giants in Week 16 when they put up 533 total yards.
They will lean on Ray Rice in this game. The Colts defense overall has been weak this year, but their run defense has been exceptional porous. They gave up 352 yards on the ground against the Chiefs, their last home game in Week 16. In fact, they’ve given up over 100 yards in 7 of their 8 road games this year, and over 200 twice.
Unless the Colts can build an early lead and take the Ravens ground attack out of the game, they will be hard-pressed to win. That’s not something they’ve done to a high degree this year. Their best method of doing that will be generating big explosive plays in the passing game, primarily with T.Y. Hilton. Baltimore for the most part this year hasn’t really struggled there. But in recent games, there have been a few big plays go for six against them. If the Ravens can keep Hilton from making the big plays, they shouldn’t have much issue in this one.
Spread Pick: Colts
Straight Pick: Ravens
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
Sunday, January 6 at 4:30 pm ET on FOX
*Line: Seahawks (-3)
Ah, they save the best for last. The most intriguing matchup. Similarly to the Bengals-Texans game, you have two teams that play very similar styles of football. Both sport offenses centered on the ground game helmed by mobile rookie quarterbacks. And both teams have been red-hot down the stretch, with Washington winning its last seven, and Seattle its last five.
The Seahawks have not been great this year on the road, but things changed somewhat for them in Week 13 with a 23-17 overtime win over the Chicago Bears. Then in Week 15, they put a 50-burger on the Buffalo Bills on the road (in Toronto). Does that mean the Seahawks have turned the corner with their road performance? Perhaps.
The Redskins have won four straight at home following their Week 10 bye, kicking off their seven-game winning streak with a 31-6 beatdown of the Eagles. And in 2 of their 3 early season home losses, they were in it until the final minutes against playoff teams (Cincinnati and Atlanta). They won’t be a pushover at home.
The key to this game seems to rest on Robert Griffin III and the health of his knee. He looked a bit sluggish to me with that knee brace last week against the Dallas Cowboys. And the Seahawks defense has the capacity to be top-notch. Their pass rush is formidable. Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin coming off the edge against right tackle Tyler Polumbus is troublesome for RG3.
Brandon Browner also returns this game, and joins Richard Sherman as the Seahawks intimidating press corners. Pierre Garcon, a player that has played very well in spurts will need a very big game to overcome them. And frankly, I don’t think Garcon has it in him. He’s always been overrated in my book as a guy that puts up good numbers, but doesn’t really pass the eyeball test as a top-end receiver. He’ll need to prove me wrong on Sunday.
Seattle can be run on, and that will likely be what the Redskins rely on to try and keep Griffin upright. Alfred Morris has had a great rookie season, and they will need to find some openings to generate some big runs as Morris did against Dallas (he rushed for exactly 200 yards). I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a scenario where the Redskins won this game, and Morris didn’t have at least 130 yards on the ground.
The other issue for the Redskins is whether or not their defense can stall Seattle’s attack. The Redskins pass rush has been subpar for most of the year sans Brian Orakpo, who’s been out with injury since September. The Redskins did dial up their blitzing late in the year, and it was successful against the Cowboys in Week 17. Will it be against Wilson and the Seahawks? Wilson has been very good against the blitz this year (96.7 passer rating), and thus I’m hard-pressed to see how the Redskins can get to him.
Pete Carroll’s Seahawks are playing with a lot of confidence as of late, and if they maintain the status quo they should have the advantage against the Redskins. The bottom line is, the Redskins will need top-notch performances from their Big Three: Griffin, Morris, and Garcon if they want to pull out the victory.
Spread Pick: Seahawks
Straight Pick: Seahawks
* Lines are based upon those used by ESPN for their Pigskin Pick’em Challenge.