Matchups: Wild Card RoundWednesday, January 04, 2012
continue story »
Cincinnati @ Houston
Cincinnati Must: Limit Houston's run game. This, obviously, is more easily said than done. The Texans finished second in the league in regular-season rushing offense as one of just two teams to produce two 900-plus yard backs. Change-of-pace runner Ben Tate is the thunder to feature back Arian Foster's lightning, displaying aggressive, punishing power and surprising speed en route to a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. Foster is the home-run hitter, ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing despite missing three games. Exceptionally versatile, Foster also ranked third among running backs in receiving yards. With rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, Tate and Foster are the Texans' offensive foundation. If the Bengals take that away, they'll stay competitive throughout.
Houston Must: Make Andy Dalton beat them -- without A.J. Green. After an impressive start to the year, Dalton faded as defenses figured him out down the stretch. Whereas the rookie completed 61.5% of his passes with a 12:7 touchdown-to-turnover ratio in Cincinnati's first nine games, Dalton's completion rate fell to 54.8 with eight TDs and eight turnovers in the final seven. The Texans are equipped to check Green with top cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who routinely shadows opposing top receivers. When the Bengals and Texans met in Week 14, "J-Jo" held Green under 60 yards, and Green got most of his 59 on a 50-50 third-quarter jumpball for a gain of 36. Houston's defense ranks third against the pass, so this will be a very tough matchup for Dalton.
X-Factor: Ben Tate. In these teams' aforementioned Week 14 meeting, the Bengals held Foster in check (41 yards, 15 carries) but were burned by his "backup" Tate for 97 total yards on 11 touches, including an explosive 44-yard first-quarter burst to set up an early field goal. Houston's game plan entering most weeks is typically to get Foster 20 carries and Tate 10, though the latter may pose more matchup problems for Cincinnati's quick but relatively smallish front seven. Yates separated his left shoulder in Week 17, so the Texans will likely make an effort to limit his number of pass drops. This could lead to more opportunities for Tate off the bench.
Why the Texans will win: Even with Yates struggling, Houston possesses more big-play ability on offense than Cincinnati and has a more well-rounded defense. Andre Johnson's return to a near full-time player gives the Texans a weapon the Bengals didn't have to sweat in Week 14. At home, I like Houston to hold Cincinnati to two TDs or fewer, and cover the three-point spread.
Prediction: Texans 23, Bengals 17
Detroit @ New Orleans
Detroit Must: Establish their running game early, and stay with it. Coordinator Scott Linehan's Lions offense was the most lopsided in football this season, leading the league in pass attempts but ranking 31st in runs. Linehan needs to veer from his usual game plan in the Wild Card round. The Saints' primary weakness is run defense after opponents averaged nearly five yards per regular-season carry against Gregg Williams' unit. Williams blitzes more than any defensive coordinator in the NFL, often resulting in over-pursuit by linebackers and safeties. As well as being a way to create ball movement, running the ball consistently and successfully would be an effective means to keep Drew Brees off the field. Brees usually wins pass-happy shootouts.
New Orleans Must: Keep Calvin Johnson in check. The Saints executed a take-away-Megatron defense in their Week 13 matchup with these same Lions, double and triple teaming Johnson and holding him under 70 yards. Williams used cornerbacks in press coverage with safeties over the top and linebackers in a "cut" technique, jumping in the way of Johnson's slant routes. Detroit's other pass catchers, such as Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson, are largely possession threats with limited playmaking skills. Johnson can single-handedly dominate a game.
X-Factor: Lions tailback Kevin Smith. In addition to Williams' constant blitzing, the Saints' run defense has suffered due to middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma's decline. Battling chronic knee problems in his eighth season, Vilma no longer possesses sideline-to-sideline range and was never an elite run stuffer. The Vilma liability is especially problematic because the Saints insist on using him as an every-down linebacker, playing on all base downs and in nickel and dime packages. In Vilma's 11 starts this season, New Orleans has allowed 1,170 yards and nine touchdowns on 228 carries (5.13 YPC). In backup Jo-Lonn Dunbar's five starts inside, the numbers allowed fall to a more passable 568 yards on 123 rushing attempts (4.62 YPC) and only two scores. The Lions can best attack this weakness by running Smith directly at Vilma.
Why the Lions will win: I'm aware the Saints are 10.5-point favorites and did not lose a home game all season. Playing to win, Detroit was lit up for six touchdown passes by Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn in Week 17. I think this game will be a 50-50 shootout, however, and the Lions' superior pass rush will be the difference. Detroit can pressure Drew Brees and make him one-dimensional in terms of vertical passes to a far greater extent than New Orleans' defense can do to Matthew Stafford. In what is almost certain to be a high-scoring affair (59-point over/under), I like the Lions to pull out the road upset and head to Lambeau Field for Week 19.
Prediction: Lions 37, Saints 34