Wild Card Playoffs: Cincinnati - Houston and Pittsburgh - Denver
A Tale of Two Games - Cincinnati vs. Houston and Pittsburgh vs. Denver

Cincinnati is lucky just to get into the AFC Playoffs after losing straight up in Week 17.  The team with the most attractive or ugliest, depending on your taste, uniforms in the National Football League, lost 16 to 24 to Baltimore but because New York lost to Miami and Denver lost at home, Cincinnati got the nod.  They might have gotten another nod in facing Houston who has lost three straight games.  What was Houston’s last victory?  A 20 to 19 win over Cincinnati on Dec. 11.

In the second AFC Wildcard game, Pittsburgh travels to Denver with their starting running back out because of an ACL tear suffered in Week 17.  Pittsburgh, because of their experience in the NFL Playoffs, is still a 9 point favorite over the home team.

Keep reading for more info on this weekend’s AFC Wildcard Matchups in Pro Football betting action.

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans

When:  Jan. 7 at 4:30 pm EST

Betting Line:  Houston -3, Total 38   

Analysis:  At first glance it doesn’t look like Cincinnati has much of a shot in this game.  Their two best players on offense, QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, are both rookies, they’re on the road, and they’re 1-5-2 against the spread in their last 8 games.  That’s not very good.  But, then, football handicappers take a look at the Houston Texans and realize that the Bengals actually have a big shot to not only cover the spread but to also win straight up. 

Houston’s defense has been brilliant, but with QB Matt Schaub on the bench, the offense has sputtered.  Three straight losses to Carolina (13 to 28), Indianapolis (16 to 19), and Tennessee (22 to 23), have led many to question whether or not the Texans can take down the Bengals in this AFC Wildcard contest.  QB Taylor Yates and WR Andre Johnson, although both probable, may not be at 100% and Cincinnati’s defense is ranked 7th in the NFL.

The difficulty of handicapping this game is reflected in bettors’ sentiment.  52% favor the Bengals while 48% favor the Texans.  Using trends is meaningless since neither team has real playoff experience and both sport unproven quarterbacks.  To me, the Bengals’ chances come down to how well their defense stops Houston’s rushing attack.  If Cincinnati’s D keeps Arian Foster and Ben Tate under control, like they did to Steven Jackson by holding him to 71 yards in, then the Bengals can upset the Texans.

If Cincinnati’s D allows Foster and Tate to run all over them, like they did when giving up over 190 yards and 2 touchdowns to Ray Rice this past Sunday, then the Bengals will lose.  In the first game between these two, Cincinnati held Foster to 41 total yards and Tate to 67 although 44 of Tate’s 67 came via a single run.

I believe that the Bengals’ defense repeats that performance this Saturday.  They’ll keep Foster and Tate under control while Yates (or God-forbid, his replace Jake Delhomme) struggles in the passing game.  I like the Bengals to at least cover the 3 points while also having a shot to beat the Texans straight up in this contest.

Pick:  Cincinnati Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

When:  Jan. 8, 4:30 pm EST

Betting Line:  Pittsburgh -9, Total 34.5

Analysis:  Man, the shine has worn off on The Savior’s halo hasn’t it?  NFL defensive coordinators, like I predicted many weeks ago, have figured out how to stop Mr. Tebow.  During Denver’s three game losing streak, Tebow has gotten progressively worse.  He completed 50% of his passes against New England in Week 15, 44.8% of his passes versus Buffalo in Week 16, and 27.3% of his passes against Kansas City in Week 17.  These are Timmy’s last three QB ratings:  80.5, 37.9, and 20.6.  20.6…in the words of my two-year-old son, wow

Does Denver have any shot against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday? Well, unless Tebow has learned how to throw the football, then, no. Pittsburgh has the ultimate QB spy in strong safety Troy Polamalu.  Polamalu is fast enough to contain Tebow.  Yes, Pitt free safety Ryan Clark won’t play but why does it matter?  Tebow can’t throw.

Pittsburgh losing running back Rashard Mendenhall on offense due to the ACL tear is bad news for the Steelers but back up RB Isaac Redman is more than capable of picking up the slack.  Redman averaged almost 5 yards per carry versus Cleveland in Week 17 after Mendenhall went down and Denver’s D allows over 120 yards per game on the ground.

Speaking of the Broncos’ defense, the unit simply hasn’t been playing nearly as well recently has it had during Denver’s winning streak.  The Broncos gave up 141 yards on the ground and 310 yards through the air to the Patriots in Week 15.  Then, in Week 16, the Broncos gave up 161 yards on the ground and 190 yards through the air to the Buffalo Bills.  Holding KC to only 106 yards on the ground in Week 17 was nice, but Pittsburgh’s offense is much, much better than Kansas City’s.

If Denver cornerback Champ Bailey shuts down WR Mike Wallace, then now healthy QB Big Ben Roethlisberger is going to find old pro Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller or incredibly fast Antonio Brown.

Denver doesn’t have much of a shot of keeping this one close.  I like Pittsburgh to run and pass all over Denver on offense and to shut down Tebow and the Broncos’ rushing game on defense.  It’s a lot of points to give up, but I don’t see how I can go the other way.  The Steelers cover the 9 point spread in this Wild Card weekend Pro Football playoff betting action

Pick:  Pittsburgh Steelers