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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.

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2012 NFL Wildcard Round Playoff Odds

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads the team out to warm up before the start of the Steelers-Arizona Cardinals game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on October 23,2011. UPI/Art Foxall

Bengals +3 @ Texans, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Before I looked at the point spreads for this week, I wrote down what I thought the line would be for each game. While I nailed both of the NFC games, I was off considerably for each AFC contest. For this matchup in particular, I had the Bengals as 1-point underdogs given the quarterback situation for the Texans. I thought Jake Delhomme would start because all indications out of Houston on Sunday were that T.J. Yates wouldn’t play. But now that Yates is expected to start, the line makes sense. While Houston enters postseason play as the most injury-riddled team in the tournament, the Texans still have an excellent shot of advancing because of their running game and Wade Phillips. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are a matchup problem for most teams, even those that can stop the run. And Phillips will surely throw in a few wrinkles to confuse quarterback Andy Dalton, who is playing in his first career playoff game. Laying any amount of points on the Texans seems risky but the Bengals aren’t exactly steamrolling into the postseason.

Lions +10.5 @ Saints, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
Attaching the hook to this game was a smart move by oddsmakers, who had to do something to give Saints-backers a moment of pause. There are probably plenty of bettors in Vegas who are laying the wood with New Orleans considering how dominant it’s been at home. But the Lions have already made a trip to the Superdome this year and thus, there will be no surprises. At 10, bettors may be apt to lay the points in hopes that, at the very least, they’ll get a push. But at 10.5 the Lions become a more attractive play. Detroit will also have Ndamukong Suh (who was suspended the first time these two teams met) for this contest, as well as a healthy Louis Delmas and Chris Houston (who were banged up in the first meeting). I’m not suggesting the Saints can’t or won’t cover: they certainly can. They’ve been an unstoppable force at home this season and Drew Brees looks ridiculously comfortable running Sean Payton’s offense on the Superdome turf. But 10.5 points is a lot for a playoff game, especially when you consider how good Detroit’s passing game is thanks to Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. NFL fans may get the shootout that they’re hoping for.

Falcons +3 @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
If the roles were reversed and this game was being played in Atlanta, I’d fully expect the Falcons to be favored by 3. That’s because these two teams draw plenty of similarities to each other and thus, home field advantage is what sets the line. (On a neutral field I would almost expect the game to be set as a pick’em.) There will be plenty of New York backers for this one, especially when you factor in the Giants’ fierce pass rush, Matt Ryan’s 0-2 record in the postseason, and the Falcons’ lackluster play on the road this year. But while Atlanta is 4-4 on the road, New York is 4-4 at home so again, this is a pretty even matchup on paper. That said, if you’re a trends bettor then you have to love Atlanta. The Falcons are 5-0 against the spread in their last five road games versus the Giants and the road team is 8-0 against the number in the last eight meetings. The under is also 5-1-1 in the last seven meetings so if you’re looking for an edge when it comes to the total, under 47 might be a solid play.

Steelers –9 @ Broncos, 4:30PM ET, Sunday
I was way off when predicting the line for this game. You knew Denver was going to be an underdog given its brutal performance the past two weeks and the fact that Pittsburgh was coming to town, but I figured the spread would be around 5.5 or 6. Nine seems way too high, even when you consider how brutal Tim Tebow could look against Dick LeBeau’s defense. But the Steelers’ offense isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders right now. In their last four games, Ben Roethlisberger and Co. have scored 14, 3, 27 and 13 points, respectively. And that 27-point barrage came against a hapless St. Louis team that couldn’t move the ball in Week 16. Considering Big Ben has a bad ankle and Rashard Mendenhall is done for the season because of a knee injury, this game may be closer than people think. Remember, the Broncos are playing excellent defense right now so this may turn out to be a field goal-fest. (And if that’s the case, then maybe the under is the best play on the board, even though its sitting at 34.5.)

2012 NFL Wildcard Weekend Odds

Bengals +3 (38)
Texans –3

Lions +10.5 (58.5)
Saints –10.5

Falcons +3 (47)
Giants –3

Steelers –9 (34.5)
Broncos +9

Check out more odds at TopBet online sportsbook for the NFL playoffs and other sports.

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