No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) @
No. 3 Houston Texans (12-4)
Winners of seven of their last eight, the Cincinnati Bengals are arriving in Houston on fire, as they are set to face a Texan team going through its coldest streak of the season, having dropped three of its last four games.
The Texans of course have the star power that Cincinnati lacks, but don’t let that fool you. Matt Schaub has thrown just one touchdown in his last four games and has not surpassed 300 yards passing since Houston’s Thanksgiving matchup in Detroit. The Bengals have one of the better passing defenses in the league and should be able to contain his targets decently.
For the Bengals, Andy Dalton has had an impressive second year in command of his team’s offense, but going against one of the best pass-rushing teams may be an issue for him, as he has been sacked the third most of any quarterback in the NFL.
When it comes to the running game, the Texans have a struggling Arian Foster, who will be watched carefully after being removed from a game two weeks ago due to an irregular heartbeat, and Cincinnati’s running back, Benjarvis Green-Ellis, who is listed as questionable with a hamstring injury.
Expect Green-Ellis to play, since the season is on the line, but he will be limited. On the other hand, don’t expect Foster’s arrhythmia to be any hinderance to his game. Although he’s crossed the plane for just one score in the past three games, and has only one 100-plus yard rushing game in the last five weeks, he should be able to easily climb over the 100-yard rushing mark against the Bengals’ average running defense.
With a similar passing matchup (taking into account Schaub’s cold streak) and two teams lacking playoff experience, there’s a good chance there will be a handful of mistakes, making for a close game.
Houston – 24
Cincinnati – 20
No. 5 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) @
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Indianapolis Colts have been the luckiest team in football this year, but the Luck will run out (pun intended) this week in Baltimore.
Despite being 11-5, the Colts have yet to convince me that they are equipped to win a playoff game. They have impressed us all with Andrew Luck having turned the franchise from a 2-14 disgrace to where they are now, but if you take a closer look at the games they have played this season, they could have easily ended up with a losing record.
Nine out of Indianapolis’ 11 wins have been by a margin of one touchdown or less. They have also only pulled off one convincing win on the road, and that was against the eventual 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars.
What is concerning is the Colts’ defense on the road. At home (where they are 7-1), Indy’s defense has been one of the best, giving up an average of 19.2 points per game; but on the road, its 29.1 points per game surrendered is fourth worst in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are as comfortable as can be at home, averaging 31.8 points per game, good for fourth in the league. However, Baltimore has looked shaky late this season, losing four of its last five games, one of them being an unusual pounding at home against Denver. But in recent years, the Ravens have had early round success, making it past the wild-card round in each of the last four seasons, and against a weak defensive unit, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice should be able to coast down the field.
So we have a rookie who has carried his team through success in a series of nail-biters facing a team of veterans with plenty of playoff experience, hungry to reach the title game that they have been seeking for years.
I’ll take the latter of the two.
ALSO, CHECK OUT NFC WILD-CARD PREDICTIONS
Taylor Snow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @taylorcsnow.