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Fade Material: NFL Wildcard Weekend Predictions

Pittsburgh Steelers James Harrison sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for a lost of six yards in the second quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 4, 2011. UPI/Archie Carpenter

My predictions for the college football regular season were 31-23-2 against the spread and my picks for the NFL regular season were 33-32-3 ATS after a 3-1 effort in Week 17.

Is that enough intro foreplay for you? Good – let’s get to the Wildcard Weekend predictions.

Bengals @ Texans, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Andy Dalton has officially hit the rookie wall. As I noted in my Wildcard playoff preview, he’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice earlier this week after being hospitalized with the flu. He should play but how effective he’ll be after spending the week with his face presumably hovering over a toilet bowl instead of the Bengals’ playbook remains to be seen. I fully expect Wade Phillips to throw a few wrinkles at the rookie and for Houston’s defense to take over this game from the start. The Texans can worry about the fact that T.J. Yates is their starting quarterback next week when they travel to Baltimore.
THE PICK: TEXANS –3

Lions @ Saints, 8:00PM ET
I truly believe that the Lions have a shot at upsetting the Saints this weekend in New Orleans. They have a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in the game in Calvin Johnson, and a pass rush that can get after Drew Brees. But betting against the Saints at home is the equivalent of sticking your hand in a circular saw and expecting there not to be blood. (Too much?) Thus, I’m taking the easy way out and going with the over. New Orleans’ defense is a much better unit at home than on the road, but Detroit’s passing game is explosive. Points won’t be an issue in this game but both teams will probably have to get into the 30s for the over to hit. No problem – I’ll take that bet.
THE PICK: OVER 58.5

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET
A lot of people are expecting a shootout for this game but I just don’t see it. Both teams have a tendency of playing things close to the vest and conservative in big games, which is why the under is an attractive play. Even though striking a balance offensively should be their main goal, Atlanta will likely lean on Michael Turner in attempts to avoid New York’s nasty pass rush. On the flip side, the Giants haven’t been able to run the ball much this year but that doesn’t mean they can’t. The Falcons will be without starting strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas (knee), who is one of their better run defenders. In his place will be 2009 sixth round pick Spencer Adkins, who has mainly been a special teams contributor throughout his short career. Those, look for the Giants to pound the rock as well in what should be a close game throughout.
THE PICK: UNDER 47

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM ET
The total is sitting really low but I’m not going to over-think this one. Tim Tebow is going to have a hell of a time figuring out Pittsburgh’s defense and Denver’s D is good enough to slow down a Steelers’ offense that has been in a major funk the past couple of weeks. Without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury), the Steelers will rely on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game, which is worrisome seeing as how Big Ben is dealing with an injury of his own. If Pittsburgh was at full strength I wouldn’t hesitate to lay the nine points but at this point the under is the safer bet.
THE PICK: UNDER 34

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Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2012 NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend Preview

New York Giants Eli Manning gets set to pass in the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in week 5 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 9, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

Bengals @ Texans, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
The biggest concern for the Bengals right now might be the fact that rookie Andy Dalton has hit a wall. He’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice on Wednesday after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. In his Week 14 matchup against Houston, he went 16-of-28 for 189 yards and one touchdown, which wasn’t enough as the Texans rallied for a 20-19 victory. For all the talk surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation this week, Dalton may be the key to this game. The Texans’ pass rush is one of the best in the league and their run defense has been stout as well. Cedric Benson was limited on Wednesday because of a foot injury and he’s also been dealing with a back issue. If the Bengals can’t get their running game going, Dalton will become the focus. Wade Phillips will surely throw a few wrinkles at the rookie in his first postseason game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dalton responds to his biggest test as a pro. Win or lose, Dalton has had a great year and performed well beyond expectations. But for the Bengals to advance to the Divisional round, he’ll have to raise the level of his play.

Lions @ Saints, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
The key to this game isn’t Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Detroit’s secondary. Believe it or not, it isn’t Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham or Sean Patyon either. The key to this game is Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and the rest of the Lions’ defensive line. You don’t beat an elite quarterback by blitzing him on every play. You beat him by dropping defenders into coverage and rushing him with your front four. Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady – they’re all the same. They can beat a blitz because they know their respective offenses like the back of their hand and they know exactly where to go with the football to burn a defense. But like any quarterback, they struggle the most when under pressure. Granted, it’s easier said than done to only bring four down linemen on a given play. If Suh and Co. don’t reach Brees, he’ll have plenty of time to wait until his receivers get open before delivering those accurate passes of his. Plus, a big reason why Brees is so good is because his offensive line has been excellent in pass blocking this season. Opponents try to overload with blitzes because Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod and Jahri Evans have been immovable objects up front. But it’s gut-check time for the Lions. They certainly have enough offensive weapons to match Brees and Payton, but if they can’t bring heat using their front four then they’ll be dead upon arrival.

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While most of the national focus this week is on the explosive battle in New Orleans and whether or not Tim Tebow has any magic left in that inaccurate left arm of his, this Falcons-Giants matchup might be the most even of the four Wildcard games. Both teams are built to run the football and therefore, fans may be treated to a heavy dose of Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But it’s been the play of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning that has gotten the Falcons and Giants as far as they are. Ryan’s 92.2 QB rating is his best in four seasons as a pro and in his last four games he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0. Manning, meanwhile, has compiled a QB rating of 92.9 this year, which is only bested by his 93.1 mark in 2009. He also set franchise records for passing yards (4,933), attempts (589) and completions (359), and has set an NFL record by throwing 15 of his 29 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, that the Giants have five wins this season in which they erased fourth-quarter deficits. While Atlanta’s ability to slow New York’s pass rush will be a huge factor this weekend, this game will likely come down to the basics: penalties, turnovers, and execution (or lack thereof).

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM, Sunday
With how pitiful Tim Tebow and the Denver offense looked last week at home versus Kansas City, there are plenty of NFL observers who envision a blowout this Sunday at Sports Authority Field. But as I wrote earlier this week in my “Five Questions…” piece, the Steelers aren’t exactly steamrolling into the playoffs. In their last four games Pittsburgh is averaging just over 14 points per game, which includes a 27-0 win over the hapless Rams in Week 16. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ offense started to struggle when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in a Week 14 victory over the Browns. But even two weeks prior to that when Big Ben was healthy, the Steelers managed just 13 points in a 13-9 win over the Chiefs. For as bad as Tebow has looked the past two weeks, Denver’s defense certainly has the capability of keeping things close, especially if the Steelers can’t run the ball without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury). Granted, the Broncos aren’t going to win if they only manage a field goal like they did last Sunday, but this might not be the rout that many people expect.

Fade Material: NFL Week 13 Predictions

Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (C) works against Denver Broncos J.D. Walton (L) and guard Chris Kuper at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on October 30, 2011. Detroit crushed Denver 45-10. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

If it weren’t for a Jets-Bills “shootout” I would have went 4-0 last Sunday. But seeing as how I’ve struggled all year with my NFL picks, I’m grateful for a 3-1 week. The Browns, Falcons and Broncos were my winners, while the under in the Jets-Bills contest was the lone loser. That puts me at 21-24-2 on the season.

Bengals @ Steelers, 1:00PM ET
If the Bengals lose today their playoff hopes certainly won’t be dashed. But if they can’t beat Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the regular season, what makes them think they can beat either team in the playoffs? Or beat New England in the playoffs, for that matter? The Bengals have the revenge factor on their side after the Steelers beat them just three weeks ago in Cincinnati and have played hard all season. I think the Bengals, at the very least, will keep things close today in the “Steel City.”
THE PICK: BENGALS +7

Falcons @ Texans, 1:00PM ET
With T.J. Yates under center and the Falcons on a mini-roll, Atlanta would seem like a great bet at -1. But the Falcons have a couple of injury issues that are worth noting. First and foremost, their top corner Brent Grimes is out following knee surgery and their starting nickel back Kelvin Hayden is out with a toe injury. Thus, the inexperienced Christopher Owens will start for Grimes and the extremely inexperienced Dominique Franks (a fifth-round pick from 2010) will fill in for Hayden at the nickel. Granted, even if I were starting at corner for Atlanta the Texans aren’t going to be throwing much with Yates. Houston will rely on its running game and defense to win this one and with Michael Turner and Julio Jones banged up, I like the Texans to pull off the small upset.
THE PICK: TEXANS +1

Chiefs @ Bears, 1:00PM ET
I was shocked when I saw the opening line for this game, which was Bears -9. The spread is down to 7, which makes more sense, but I still think it’s too high. I don’t trust Mike Martz to put Caleb Hanie in successful situations and furthermore, to revolve his offense around Matt Forte, which is what he should do. The Chiefs are extremely limited offensively with Tyler Palko under center but at least this will be his third consecutive game as the starter. He should be more comfortable and confident in his abilities and I expect Kansas City’s defense to keep this game close, just like it did last week versus Pittsburgh.
THE PICK: CHIEFS +7

Lions @ Saints, 8:20PM ET
This one could get ugly quickly. The best way to beat an elite quarterback like Drew Brees is to pressure him with your front four and then drop the back seven into coverage. That’s hard to do on its own and it gets to be an even bigger challenge for a team like Detroit that will be without its best defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh. The Lions also have a slew of defensive backs out with injury and just don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Saints. I like New Orleans to roll.
THE PICK: SAINTS -9

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