Two games in the AFC this weekend pit a division winner against a wild card team. Both wild card teams come from the bruising AFC North. The Houston Texans, in their first playoff appearance ever, will play host to the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday and Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Here are my previews:
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6), Saturday, Jan. 7, 4:30 PM, NBC
After 16 regular season starts Dalton will make his first playoff start for the Bengals
The Texans make their first playoff appearance ever against the Bengals, a team that they defeated in Week 14 by a score of 20-19. The Texans started off the season strong but an injury to starting quarterback Matt Schaub has brought them back down to earth a bit. Rookie T.J. Yates will get the start for the Texans. The biggest boost to the Texans this weekend might not be who they welcome back to the field but who they welcome back to the sideline as defensive coordinator Wade Phillips returns after having emergency surgery a few weeks ago. The Bengals defense is led by their own rookie QB, Andy Dalton, who’s started every game for the Bengals this season. Fellow rookie A.J. Green is one of the better rookie receivers to come into the league in the past few years. Defensively the Bengals are underrated and have an effective “no-name” defense that finished the season ranked 7th in the league. The Texans attack you with their rushing game, lead by the two-headed monster of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. They kill you with play action after they get the running game going and love using Owen Daniels, their stud tight end, in the middle of the field. Andre Johnson is one of the best receivers in the league when healthy. Defensively the Bengals try to keep everything in the middle of the field. They are stout against the run and held the Texans to only 41 yards rushing in their Week 14 match-up. On the flip side the Bengals rely on their rookies, Dalton and Green, and bring in running backs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott to balance out the offense. The Texans 3-4 was the #2 defense in the league during the regular season, even without their best player Mario Williams. Expect this to be a low scoring, defensive battle. Both teams have rookie quarterbacks starting in their first playoff games and both teams have hungry, attacking defenses. I like the Bengals to make one more play on offense than the Texans and avenge their Week 14 1-point loss with a close win of their own.
Prediction – Cincinnati Bengals 20, Houston Texans 16
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8), Sunday, Jan. 8th, 4:30 PM, CBS
LB James Harrison leads the NFL's #1 defense into Denver on Sunday
The Steelers come into the game banged up, having lost starting running back Rashad Mendenhall to a torn ACL last week. They will also be missing stud safety Ryan Clark who can’t play in the elevated air in Denver due to a blood disorder. Ben Roethlisberger is already banged up and said he had a setback on his injured ankle last week. On the other side the Broncos lost their best offensive lineman Chris Kuper to an injury last week. Clearly the Steelers are the better team with all things being equal, they won four more games in the regular season after all, but the injuries may be a sort on an equalizer for the Broncos. The Steelers usual ground and pound offense has evolved a bit with speedsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown at receiver. The question is whether or not Roehlisberger can move around the pocket enough to find them in space. Big tight end Heath Miller will be key for the Steelers. On defense for the Broncos their sackmasters Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil need to at least make Roethlisberger uncomfortable in the pocket. Big Ben will have limited mobility at his disposal. Offensively the Broncos live and die by Tim Tebow. The Broncos are paced by a running game involving Tebow, Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. They pass only when they have to. The Steelers were the #1 defense in football again this year and will be a big test for Tebow and co. Pittsburgh’s edge rushers will put a lot of pressure on Tebow and their middle linebackers will keep everything in the middle of the field. If you pressure Tebow and make the game contingent on his arm, like the Buffalo Bills did on Christmas Eve, chances are he’s not going to beat you. I’ve tried to talk myself into the fact that the Broncos can beat the Steelers, as many others have given the circumstances. I just don’t see Tebow and co. having very much success against this defense. They might keep it close if Roethlisberger is hobbled but if he gets into any kind of groove the Steelers might run away with this one. Tebowmania will be closed for the season after Sunday and I think both wild card teams move on.
Prediction – Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Denver Broncos 13
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