Saturday's 4:30PM ET Game
Cincinnati @ Houston
The Texans are playing at home as 4.5-point favorites in the Wild Card Round, but this is a club springing leaks. Houston has dropped three of its last four games and become a different team over the course of the year. The run game isn't nearly as dominant as it used to be. When Arian Foster hasn't faced the Colts' bottom-four run defense, he's managed 392 yards on his last 117 carries (3.35 YPC), wearing down on a league-most 391 touches. Houston's pass defense, another early-season strength, has been problematic since midyear. The Texans haven't so much as intercepted a pass since Dec. 2, over that span allowing Andrew Luck (twice), Christian Ponder, and Tom Brady to amass a 9:0 TD-to-INT ratio against them. Cincinnati is a much hotter team, having won seven of its last eight with the lone loss occurring in Week 14 versus Dallas, 20-19, in a game the Bengals controlled for three-plus quarters. Aside from the fact that the Texans are at home, it's hard to pinpoint reasons for confidence in Gary Kubiak's team. ... A.J. Green is the big name in Cincy's offensive corps, but complementary pass catchers Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins may give Wade Phillips' defense just as many issues. Having lost inside linebackers Brian Cushing (ACL) and Darryl Sharpton (hip) for the season, the Texans will trot out coverage-deficient veterans Bradie James and Tim Dobbins as starters. Houston slot corner Brice McCain is out with a broken foot. Feisty, elusive, and deceptively physical, Hawkins will be a tough cover for overmatched fill-in CB Brandon Harris. Gresham is a pedestrian talent, but he too will be a difficult assignment for the likes of James, Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud. The Bengals can win these matchups over the middle.
Friday Update: The Texans lost their fourth inside linebacker to a season-ending injury when Dobbins (ankle) was placed on injured reserve Friday. Ruud, an in-season street free agent pickup, will get the start next to James. Houston's defense remains vulnerable in pass coverage over the middle.
Green will square off with Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson on the perimeter. Rather than shadowing No. 1 receivers, the Texans have generally played "sides" at corner this year, leaving Joseph on the right and Jackson on the left. Joseph had a disappointing season and at this point is arguably the weaker link. Houston's pass defense failings make this a plus matchup for Green and upstart rookie X receiver Marvin Jones, who sees far fewer targets than Green but flashes playmaking ability. ... For the second straight year, Andy Dalton has faded down the stretch. Over his last five games, he's accounted for six touchdowns compared to seven turnovers with a paltry 5.84 yards-per-attempt average. Dalton has talent limitations, and they become glaring when his pass protection experiences any hint of leakage, or when Green isn't consistently winning outside. Dalton and a run game that was down, then up, then down again over the course of the year are Cincinnati's biggest question marks. ... J.J. Watt is a literal one-man wrecking crew. He carried Houston's pass rush on his back this season, leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks. Watt moves all around the formation, playing tackle in dime packages and both end spots on base downs. Neutralizing Watt will be critical for Cincy's upset chances. The Bengals have a top-five offensive line, excelling in both pass and run blocking. ... Feature back BenJarvus Green-Ellis will start against the Texans, but missed Week 17 with a hamstring strain and whether he'll be at full strength Saturday is uncertain. The Texans' heavyweight front seven defends inside runners like Green-Ellis much better than perimeter threats ala Bengals pace-change back Cedric Peerman, so it might not be a bad idea for playcaller Jay Gruden to scale back Green-Ellis' snaps. If Gruden insists on feeding an ineffective Law Firm, the Cincy offense could render itself one dimensional.
Foster made fantasy football owners happy all year, but his on-field performance has increasingly become a major worry. And it's not all on him. Using rare offensive line committees at right tackle (Derek Newton, Ryan Harris) and right guard (rookies Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones), the Texans have struggled mightily on outside zone runs. The run game is the foundation of Houston's offense, and it's become decidedly mediocre. On Saturday, the right side of Houston's line will match up with Bengals All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and wickedly-talented left end Carlos Dunlap. Not only does Cincinnati rank third in the NFL in sacks (51), it creates run-game havoc via backfield penetration. This defense is good enough up front to thwart Houston's sagging ground attack, turning Matt Schaub from glorified game manager into the single biggest reason the Texans win or lose. ... Recent play suggests Schaub isn't the man for the job. Timid and too reliant on the checkdown, Schaub has completed 84-of-131 passes for 946 yards (7.22 YPA), one touchdown, and three interceptions over the last four games. He's also absorbed 12 sacks, the highest total during a four-game stretch of Schaub's career. As alluded to previously, Mike Zimmer's defense happens to be pretty good at rushing the passer. It's another big cause for concern for Houston.
Houston and Cincinnati met in last year's Wild Card Round, as well, and Andre Johnson whipped the Bengals for 90 yards and a touchdown on five receptions. It's debatable whether last year's playoff stats have any relevance whatsoever for the rematch, but Johnson could conceivably put up even bigger numbers should Zimmer's front seven control the Texans' rushing design, as is being predicted here. Johnson was an absolute monster in the 2012 regular season, setting a career high with 1,598 receiving yards at age 31. ... Houston uses a rotation of possession threat Kevin Walter and rookie DeVier Posey at Z receiver. Walter has topped 33 yards just once since mid-November, while Posey is attempting to battle through a recent spate of drops. Any production the Texans get from Walter or Posey should be considered a bonus. ... A big-time pass-catching weapon early in the season, injuries have pushed tight end Owen Daniels to the backburner for the past month and a half. Daniels has dealt with chest, knee, hamstring, and back ailments dating back to Week 12, failing to clear 50 receiving yards in any of the ensuing six games. Kubiak's offense was at its early- and midseason best when Daniels, X-factor Garrett Graham, and swiss-army-knife fullback James Casey were clicking in two- and three-tight end packages. But it hasn't been that way for awhile. The Texans will move the ball in the passing game if Daniels shows up healthy and Kubiak suddenly rediscovers some of that elusive magic.
Score Prediction: Bengals 23, Texans 21
Saturday's 8:00PM ET Game
Minnesota @ Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers opens the postseason with a full arsenal as slot man Randall Cobb returns from his ankle sprain and Jordy Nelson rejoined the lineup in Week 17, at the back end of an injury-plagued year. Greg Jennings caught fire late in the season, securing a team-high 15 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns in Weeks 16-17. Include red-zone maven James Jones and talented if underachieving tight end Jermichael Finley, and Green Bay boasts the most lethal pass offense in this year's playoffs. The Packers have not had all five pass catchers play in the same game since the season opener. It's the one area in which they hold a commanding edge on Minnesota. ... The Vikings ranked 24th versus the pass this regular season, allowing opponents to compile a 28:10 TD-to-INT ratio, 63.9 completion rate, and 92.3 QB rating -- the league's eighth highest clip. During Leslie Frazier's six seasons overseeing Minnesota's defense, Rodgers has shredded the Vikings for 24 touchdown passes, only four picks, and 70.7-percent completions. Green Bay is a virtual lock for passing success Saturday night at Lambeau. Minnesota will simply hope to contain it by feeding Adrian Peterson in the offensive run game and playing assignment-sound defense to keep Rodgers off the field. ... One worrisome injury for Minnesota is slot corner Antoine Winfield's broken hand, which was aggravated in last week's home win over Green Bay and limited Winfield to 18-of-65 snaps. Rodgers attacked fill-in Marcus Sherels relentlessly after Winfield's departure, and go-to guy Cobb wasn't even playing. The Cobb matchup with whomever Minnesota uses to guard the slot could have a big impact on the outcome of this game.
The Vikings can rush the passer (fifth in sacks) and hold their own against the run (No. 11 rank), but the back end of Frazier's defense is reeling entering January. Right corner Chris Cook has struggled since returning from a broken arm two games ago. Winfield isn't himself, and rookie Josh Robinson's playing time has been cut. Top outside reserve A.J. Jefferson was never any good, and along with Sherels got eaten alive in the Week 17 game by Rodgers. Nelson, Cobb, Jennings, and Jones ought to have their way with this unit. And Rodgers doesn't play favorites in his progressions; he unfailingly throws to the open man. ... The Packers are committed to a hot-hand backfield approach, although the running game could be a bit of an afterthought in the Wild Card Round considering Minnesota's stoutness versus the run and susceptibility against the pass. 5-foot-8, 203-pound scatback type DuJuan Harris (14 carries, 70 yards) carried the mail in Week 17. In Week 16, late-season street free agent pickup Ryan Grant led the team in carries (20) and rush yards (80), scoring a pair of garbage-time touchdowns. Alex Green had been the lead back before that. Ultimately, Packers coach Mike McCarthy utilizes the running game as a change-of-pace element of offense; a complementary means of moving the ball. If the run game is not clicking early on, McCarthy will be more than willing to abandon it and give Rodgers the keys.
Although Christian Ponder has played better recently, the Vikings can confidently be expected to saddle up Peterson as their offensive centerpiece. Facing Packers coordinator Dom Capers' mixed fronts, Peterson gashed Green Bay for 409 yards on 55 carries (7.44 YPC) in these clubs' two regular season meetings, scoring three touchdowns. Capers used an eight-man box on 13 of the 55 runs. Peterson averaged an incredible 6.9 yards per tote versus the 13 crowded looks. ... An unsung hero behind Minnesota's rushing success has been lead blocker Jerome Felton, who had Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk's number in Week 17 and has quietly been a bulldozing force all season. Green Bay ranks 17th in run defense and allows the seventh most yards per carry in football (4.53), so Capers' group is very much vulnerable on the ground. ... Rock-solid line play is another reason for Vikings optimism. Tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco, and center John Sullivan have been a picture of continuity; not one of them has missed a start this year. Kalil limited All-World pass rusher Clay Matthews to three tackles, one sack, and one QB hit in the regular season finale. Ponder has absorbed just four sacks and committed one turnover in his last three games, while accounting for five all-purpose touchdowns.
Ponder made big-time throws late in the Week 17 upset and finished with a season-best 120.2 passer rating. While Ponder may prove in over his head if Minnesota falls behind, demanding that its quarterback engineers a comeback, he is playing well enough to effectively manage games and keep his team competitive. Overall, the passing game is still a weakness on the Vikings' side. They can't afford a big early-game deficit. ... Z receiver Michael Jenkins managed three catches for 37 yards and a touchdown in the two 2012 meetings with Green Bay. He's mostly a blocking receiver. ... X receiver Jerome Simpson was a major disappointment in his first -- and likely last -- regular season with Minnesota, catching 26 passes for 274 yards and zero touchdowns. He didn't exceed 50 yards in any of his 12 appearances. ... Rookie slot man Jarius Wright possesses big-play ability, but has been wildly inconsistent filling in for injured Percy Harvin. Wright did blow by Packers right corner Sam Shields for a 65-yard bomb off play-action to set up last week's game-winning touchdown. If the Vikings are to have any semblance of passing success in Green Bay, Wright and Kyle Rudolph are the likeliest means. ... Rudolph has been less of a receiving factor down the stretch, however, as his on-field impact is showing up more as a blocker in the running game. He still finished the regular season with nine touchdowns. All nine occurred in the red zone.
Score Prediction: Packers 30, Vikings 20