The NFL Wild Card Weekend kicks off with the Houston Texans (12-4) hosting the Cincinnati Bengals (10-6). For the second year in a row, the Texans and Bengals will meet as the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds. The Texans came out on top 31-10 last year at Reliant Stadium. The Bengals enter this weekend having won seven of their last eight, while the Texans struggled in the final weeks of the regular season, losing three of their last four. Both teams have studs on each side of the ball, but this year’s match-up will focus on the Houston offense and the Cincinnati defense.
AccuScore simulations have the Texans as the favorites, with a 61.1 percent chance of winning. The average score after 10,000 simulations is 24-20, meaning it’s a much safer bet to take Cincinnati and the points when betting on the spread. Houston has just a 48 percent chance of covering the -4.5 spread. The over/under chances are comparable: with a 50.8 percent chance of the total score going over 43 and a 46.2 percent chance of it going under. Just a note though, the total has gone under in 7 of Cincinnati’s last 8 games, and in 4 of their last 6 games on the road. Being the home team, Houston has twice the chance of Cincinnati at getting a big win (10 points or more), while both teams have a much more equal chance at getting the close win (4 points or fewer).
Although the focus on Houston has been their potent ground game, it’s important to note that they win consistently due to their well-balanced offense rather than a run-heavy or pass-heavy attack. They finished the regular season seventh in total offense (372.1 yards/game) and eighth in scoring (26 ppg). The Texans averaged 132.7 yards/game on the ground (good for eighth in the NFL), led by running back Arian Foster who had 1,424 yards, and a league-leading 17 TDs (15 rushing).
Their passing attack wasn’t too shabby either (finishing 11th in NFL), led by quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Schaub notched another 4,000-yard regular season and added 22 TDs with that. Johnson did what he does best, finishing fourth in the NFL with 112 receptions and second in yards (career-high 1,598). Fantasy football owners are familiar with Owen Daniels as well, the Houston tight end who led the team with six TD caches.
The key to this all this success has been an offensive line that has given up just 28 sacks all season. Guys like Duane Brown and Wade Smith have been effective all season, making sure the Texans protect the ball as well as possible. Houston has fumbled the ball just four times all season, best in the AFC.
Matt Schaub is projected to throw for 240 yards with a passer rating off 90.2. There’s a very high probability he throws at least one touchdown, but also a semi-high chance he throws an interception as well. Foster is projected to carry the ball 22 times for 105 yards and 1 TD. Andre Johnson is projected to catch the ball 6-7 times for 90 yards; Daniels is projected to get 46 yards on 4 receptions.
I doubt Foster gets another 153 rushing yards on the Bengals, but Houston definitely needs to establish the ground game early. Houston wants Schaub to target Johnson down the field often, but the space won’t be there unless Cincinnati stays worried about the hand-off.
The Houston offense will be matched up against one of the hottest defenses all season. They finished sixth in the league in total defense (319.7 pg), and allowed just 20 ppg (8th best in the NFL). They’re slightly better against the pass than the run, but still top-12 in both: seventh in passing defense (212.5 ypg) and 12th against the run (107.2 ypg). Cincinnati finished the seven games with a 6-1 record primarily because the defense has given up 300 yards of total offense just once in the past seven games. Cincinnati defense finished the season third in the NFL with 51 sacks, even better than the Houston Texans’ defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been a monster all season, leading the team with over 12 sacks and forcing four fumbles for the season.
The Bengals’ defense is known for forcing turnovers, but AccuScore projects the Texans’ defense forcing more this weekend. Overall, the Texans have a better chance at forcing more turnovers; they are projected to get nearly one sack more than the Bengals, but have a slightly lower probability of forcing an interception or fumble.
Cincinnati’s offense will feature two second-year rising stars in quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Dalton threw for 3,669 yards, 27 touchdowns and rushed for four TDs; Green tacked on 1,350 receiving yards and 11 touchdown receptions. While I’m sure they’ll play a lot better than they did in last year’s game, Dalton needs to watch out for J.J. Watt. Dalton was sacked 46 times this season (third most in the NFL), and I’d bet a whole lot of something that he’ll get sacked at least once this weekend. J.J. Watt finished the regular season with a league-leading 20.5 sacks; the Houston pass rush sacked Dalton four times last year. He also threw four interceptions. Last but not least, look for the CB Jonathan Joseph – WR A.J. Green match-up.
Dalton is projected to throw with 237 yards with a passer rating of 80.2. He has a very high probabililty of throwing at least 1 TD, but also one interception. Green is projected to catch the ball approximately five times for 88 yards. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is projected to carry it 16 times for 62 yards.
It’s the playoffs, and I’d be shocked if Houston got a “big win”. Both defenses know how to party, and the game should stay fairly close and somewhat low-scoring. I’m taking Houston, 21-17.
Originally written for AccuScore