Finish the line yourselves, sickos. Here’s my preview for this weekend’s NFL Wild Card games.
Bengals vs. Texans
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Houston
Neither quarterback for this game terrifies opposing defensive coordinators. T.J. Yates, Houston’s starter since Matt Schaub went down with a shoulder injury in Week 12, has matched Schaub’s accuracy – 61.2 vs. 61.0 percent – but he’s coming off an injury. He also lacks Schaub’s decision-making skills, throwing three picks and fumbling four times in just six games. Cincinnati, meanwhile, counters with Andy Dalton, a less accurate passer who in his rookie year has thrown a troubling 13 interceptions, despite the 20 touchdown passes.
Fortunately for the Texans, they have one of the most elite running backs in the game: Arian Foster, whose 94.2 yards per game ranks second in the NFL. Houston can overcome a weak passing game with their juggernaut rushing attack.
Defensively, the Bengals are good, but the Texans are better. Texan linebacker Connor Barwin is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, and the Texans have the third best pass-defense in the league. They also have the fourth best run-defense and allow the fourth-fewest points per game. Supposedly, defense and running the ball wins in the playoffs. If conventional wisdom holds, the Texans beat the Bengals. Pick: Texans.
Lions vs. Saints
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. at New Orleans
Matthew Stafford‘s fantastic season – 63.5 percent accuracy, over 5,000 yards, a touchdown-interception ration better than 2.5:1 – has put the Lions in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Led by the NFL-leading Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ receivers can chew up double-digit yardage easily and often. And as icing on the cake, the Lions get to go against the Saint pass-defense, which is ranked 30th in the NFL.
The Lions should be able to score against the Saint secondary, but to win they’ll have to match Drew Brees. Brees led the NFL this season with a 71.2 percent completion percentage, and he blew away the NFL single-season record for passing yards, finishing with over 5,400.
Detroit doesn’t have a particularly good pass-defense (22nd in the NFL), and Brees has more options than Stafford does: the drop-off between Johnson, Detroit’s best receiver, and Brandon Pettigrew, their second-best, is over 900 yards and 11 touchdowns. Both Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston have recorded over 1,100 receiving yards for the Saints. As a tight end, Graham presents match-up nightmares for the Lions that Johnson won’t for the Saints’ corners.
Stafford doesn’t have the experience Brees has, and that usually makes a difference in the playoffs. Pick: Saints.
Falcons vs. Giants
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. at New York
This game is a toss-up. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New York’s Eli Manning both complete 61 percent of their passes. They’ve both thrown 29 touchdown passes. Though Manning’s tag-team receivers of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks dwarfs Ryan’s pair of Roddy White and Julio Jones by nearly 500 combined yards, Manning has also thrown four more interceptions trying to target them.
The Falcons have a mediocre pass-defense, but the Giants have a downright horrible pass defense, ranked fourth-worst in the NFL. Giants corner Corey Webster might pull down an interception, but otherwise Ryan should pick this defense apart. And even if the pass-defenses step up, the advantage stays with the Falcons. The Giants have the statistically worst running game in the NFL, and the Falcons have the sixth-best run defense. Meanwhile, the Falcons’ Michael Turner is a game-changing running back.
This game might come down to special teams. The Falcons’ Matt Bryant is the most accurate place-kicker in the NFL, converting over 93 percent of his field goal attempts and all of his extra points. If takes a field goal to beat this one-dimensional Giants team, you can’t do much better than Bryant. Pick: Falcons.
Steelers vs. Broncos
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. at Denver
The Steelers have the best defense of any playoff team. Their fantastic pass-defense will come in handy down the road against teams like the Patriots, Packers or Saints, but first they need to get by the Broncos, who aren’t a passing team. Tim Tebow is a runner first, a passer second, and the Denver offense has been restructured towards the college-style, option-based running game Tebow thrives in.
Fortunately, the Steelers are also very good against the run. As long as they keep Tebow behind the line of scrimmage, they can grind the Broncos’ offense to a standstill. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, brings a veteran presence Tebow just can’t match. Roethlisberger is still sore over losing in the Super Bowl last season, missing an opportunity to guarantee induction into the Hall of Fame and cement his place among the very highest echelon of modern quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh’s defense, meanwhile, has three players who can all make plays down-field: Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and William Gay. The Broncos lack a big-play defender. One wild card game always comes down to the defense, and this year Steelers-Broncos will be it. Pick: Steelers.