Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
A few weeks ago, this would’ve been a no-brainer. Houston went into Week 14 with an 11-1 record and the AFC’s #1 seed seemingly locked up. One disheartening 1-3 stretch later and they are here, playing on Wild Card weekend. Whatever “progress” was made by their great start feels all-for-naught now; they are in the exact same place they were last season, playing the Bengals on Wild Card weekend.
Of course, it would be unfair to talk about Houston without mentioning injuries. Houston’s down-slide has coincided with a serious bout of the injury bug, particularly on defense. Unfortunately for Texans fans, it doesn’t look like any real relief from those issues is coming anytime soon. Linebacker Tim Dobbins just joined star Brian Cushing on season-ending injured reserve. Coach Kubiak’s “if he can walk he’ll play” quip about Brooks Reed doesn’t inspire much optimism; if he goes it sounds like he’ll almost certainly be hobbled. Tight end Owen Daniels, a key component to the teams play-action passing game, has seen his production dip dramatically in the past month as he has dealt with nagging chest and knee issues; failing to get a bye week doesn’t bode well for him to get significantly healthier.
Houston has enough concerns before looking at their opposition. The Bengals quietly won 7 of their last 8 games to overtake the hated Steelers for their playoff spot. The Bengals have been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team this year (they followed up a three game win-streak with four straight losses before going on a tear in the second half), but they are red hot now and have some very good things going for them. A.J. Green was arguably the AFC’s best receiver in only his second season. Andy Dalton and Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis are rarely spectacular but certainly capable players, especially with the benefit of a pretty good offensive line. Tight end Jermaine Gresham had the best season of his young career and is starting to flash the potential that made him a first round pick in 2010 (although picking him over Rob Gronkowski still warrants some explaining).
The Bengals true strength lies on defense, however. The Bengals have allowed a stingy 12.75 points per game over the past eight weeks. They also boast playmakers on every level. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins is flanked by rock solid pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Linebacker Rey Maualuga is very good against the run. Cornerback Leon Hall is excellent. The defense is rounded out by plenty of solid if unspectacular veterans like Domata Peko, Michael Johnson and Manny Lawson.
The Texans boast more top end talent, including the inhuman J.J. Watt, and will have the benefit of playing at home. However, it’s hard to envision them flipping the switch and pulling a complete 180 from their recent play, especially against a worthy opponent. This isn’t last year’s upstart Bengals; these guys can really play and they will take advantage of a Houston team that simply isn’t been able to fire on all cylinders right now.
Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers
So you’re telling me there’s a chance? Minnesota isn’t a playoff team by most measures, but it’s amazing what a certain superhuman masquerading as a running back can do for you. The Vikings dramatically made the postseason in the season’s final week by beating these Packers in an absolute thriller of a game, giving hope to the idea that they could replicate that success this week.
However, a few things stand in their way. First is the fact that, despite playing in front of a raucous home crowd, getting 199 yards from Purple Jesus AND a career game from Christian Ponder, the Vikings barely snuck by the Packers, needing a Mason Crosby miss on the games final play to avoid overtime.
This week they will be on the road. Eli Manning and Mike Vick have made Lambeau seem like less of a daunting place to play, but it’s still not the advantage of playing at home. They will also need the notoriously inconsistent Ponder to replicate last week’s performance and then some just to have a chance.
The Packers have made no bones about it; they will be throwing the kitchen sink at Adrian Peterson. Peterson is Peterson, he will break some plays no matter how many defenders stack the box. However, if the Packer’s D can uphold their lofty goal of keeping Peterson under 200 yards (remarkably I can say that’s a tough goal without a hint of sarcasm), it will be up to Ponder to make enough plays. Last week’s game says that’s possible, but a season’s worth of poor play says it’s a dicey proposition.
This problem is magnified tenfold by the presence of the guy under center for the other team. Aaron Rodgers is, simply put, a monster. He’ll also have his full arsenal of weapons available for the first time since the beginning of the season. Minnesota’s defense has been decent, but Rodgers throwing to Jennings, Nelson, Jones and Cobb is too much for even the leagues best; the Packers will put up points. Sure, it’s possible that Minnesota could match them and keep up, but far too many things will have to break their way for me to count on it.
Side note: How rare is it that Aaron Rodgers goes into a game with significantly less focus/pressure on him than another individual player? Simply more testament to the power of Peterson.