Looking at the slate of games, familiarity is the name of the game for these matchups. Houston and Cincinnati faced each other last year in the exact same place and timeslot. Minnesota and Green Bay just played last week in perhaps the best regular season game of the year. It's always familiar when the Colts return to Baltimore, but add the fact that Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator of the Ravens last year, and the familiarity is added. On the surface, there isn't much to work with for Seattle and Washington, but both teams play in the 2nd half of the season is very familiar as both teams finished 7-1 to get to this playoff game. Since it's Saturday, let's make start by preview the NBC doubleheader slate.
Cincinnati at Houston: Spread: Texans by 4.5
As recently as Week 13, the Texans were riding high on their way to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Then they finished the year losing 3 of their final 4 games and now they must face a rematch with the Bengals from last year's wild card round. Everyone knows how well the Colts, Seahawks and Redskins played in the second half, but the Bengals played just as well to finish the season; going 7-1 after a 3-5 start. Cincinnati has made the playoffs for the second straight season, something they've only done once and that was with help of a shortened season (to be fair, this is the first time ever the Texans made the playoffs twice, though this is their only two playoff appearances).
The key to the success for the Bengals has been their defense, which is very strong up front and in the secondary. Carlos Dunlap has become a force at getting to the quarterback, joining an already effective combo of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson. Losing Johnathan Joseph to the Texans hasn't hurt the Bengals as Leon Hall and Terrence Newman have been as good a CB combo as you can see in the NFL. Offensively, they need more consistency from Andy Dalton. He has weapons like A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, yet Dalton will still make some head-scratching decisions.
Houston has struggled offensively as the season wore on, particularly in the passing game. What has become alarming is their defense since the OT win against Jacksonville has been giving up a ton of yards and points to opponents. If they are to go far in the playoffs, this has to improve, since the Texans were built on a strong defense.
A lot of signs to be worried if you're the Texans and the Bengals are very good defensively. I know I shouldn't pick Andy Dalton on the road, but I see the Texans finish their flame out and the Bengals will get their first road playoff win ever.
Bengals win 17-7
Minnesota at Green Bay: Spread: Packers by 7.5
Last week's Packers-Vikings had plenty on the line (first round bye for Green Bay, Adrian Peterson's chase for Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record) but the most important thing about last week was the Packers were guaranteed another game, while the Vikings needed to win. And the Vikings got the best game of the season from Christian Ponder and another performance from Peterson which left people wondering if he's human to prevail and reach the playoffs. Now, they get the rematch against the Packers, only this time it's in Green Bay and the Packers are now in win or go home mode.
A lot of what you see from the Vikings is the greatness of Peterson and a better defense when Jared Allen is creating havoc. Problem is that unless the defense is superior, a passing game is necessary for the Vikings to win. Unfortunately for them, Christian Ponder just doesn't add a passing game at most times. You can tell the difference in the Vikings chances in both games with the Packers. Peterson ran for 210 yards at Lambeau, then ran for 199 yards. Why did the Vikings win one and lose the other? Because Ponder threw for 234 yards and 3 TD's last week, whereas he threw for 119 yards on 12-25 passing with a touchdown and 2 INT's. So yeah, Christian Ponder is the key for the Vikings between winning and losing.
Now, let's add the fact that the Packers are healthy at WR and that Aaron Rodgers is have his most impressive season considering that he doesn't have a OL to write home about and have to worry about staying upright half the time. Having Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb and James Jones all ready to play makes Rodgers dangerous. Having Charles Woodson back (though not the player he's always been) can't help but help the Packers, if not for nothing, keeping Tramon Williams off the field.
Congrats on carrying the Vikings to the playoffs, AP. I know you'll show up, but I don't see the rest of the team doing so. Too much Rodgers, too much Ponder.
UPDATE: Christian Ponder is dealing with bursitis in his arm. Joe Webb would start in that case. I think Webb gives the Vikings a better chance since he's more mobile and the Packers haven't seen him yet this year. Problem is he wouldn't be in any rhythm with his receivers, and it's awfully tough to ask Webb to win a road game within a few hours.
Packers win 35-17 with Ponder. Packers win 35-24 with Joe Webb.
Last week: 8-8
Season record: 130-118-6