A great NFL season is wrapping up, and I will post more on the regular season later. First, I wanted to get my Wildcard picks in before the lines moved too much. Like Simmons, I'll be picking against the spread and home teams are in caps.
Bengals -4.5 over TEXANS
I think you need two things to beat the Texans: ability to cover deep and the ability to throw. In the early part of the season, when Houston played Denver, the Texans broke the game open with two long TD passes off play-action, one each to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. After that, the Broncos adjusted and started throwing on the Texans, making the game much closer than the 14 point final margin. These weaknesses manifested in much starker form in big losses to the Patriots and Packers, but also in games to the Jaguars, Lions, and Colts. Big passing games can help you run with the Texans.
So does Cincy have what it takes to unseat the Texans? First, they have a great passing defense. On a net yards/attempt (adjusted for sacks), they rank 6th in the league at 5.6. In Football Outsiders' team defense passing DVOA, they rank 9th, and they are 9th versus #1 receivers. Geno Atkins is really good on the line. They have two guys on the right side of the line with double digit sacks. And Carlos Dunlap is coming on strong. They have not allowed a 300-yard passer since Week 2 (Cleveland of all teams), and are 9th best in preventing all 25 yard+ big plays (only 70 on season). Houston may not generate lots of big passing plays, tying for only 14th in 25+ yard plays with Washington, but these seem to change the game for a Texans team that runs well and plays defense. Finally, Bill Barnwell at Grantland.com noticed something I didn't: from the first half of the season to the second, the Bengals pass defense DVOA improved from 24th to 1st. First!!! Meanwhile, the Texans pass offense DVOA dropped from 4th to 21st. I think the Bengals can prevent Texan receivers to get behind them and will be able to limit Andre Johnson.
What about offense? This is where I'm concerned. Andy Dalton has been an average QB this year and I think you need to pass ~30 times against the Texans. That week 17 win against the Ravens was really ugly. Dalton is tied for 17th with Rivers for big passing plays, and though he has done an adequate job getting the ball out (8th in profootballfocus time/throw stat), he has still taken 46 sacks, or just under 3 a game (3rd most!!!). The offense generates few big plays, just 6% of plays going over 25 yards, 7th worst. This makes their big play +/- -9, 18th in the league (Texans a little better at -5, 15th). The stats confirm: Dalton is a very mediocre second-year QB.
I really don't love this Bengals team. I know Houston has been terrible in pseudo must-win games down the stretch, but they also manhandled the same Bengals in the same game last year. I am nervous about 4.5 points (think it should be 3.5), but still think the Texans win. I would bet the Bengals to keep it close throughout, limit big plays, but not be able to punch it in with their quarterback, setting up a perfect garbage cover scenario. As you can tell by length, this was my hardest pick, and I have Cincy down for garbage cover potential. But I'm still not comfortable riding with Dalton. One caveat: Arian Foster has a lot of carries (351) and I think is a little worn despite some decent yards/carry stats (taking out a 39 yard gain, only 3.8 YPC against the Colts last week. The Texans did a terrible job managing him early and are playing. If he doesn't look like the same guy, look out. This could be an upset brewing.
PACKERS +7.5 over Vikings
This started at +9.5 before migrating to just over a touchdown. Two things: A) the Pack played a horrendous defensive game last week against a Vikings team that needed and wanted it more. They're getting Woodson back and will be better. B) I don't trust Christian Ponder without Percy Harvin. Neither should you.
Colts -6.5 over RAVENS
The Ravens haven't had a win against. A playoff teams since week 3 over the Patriots. The Colts are on a hot streak with the #Chuckstrong phenomenon. I know they are 28th in team DVOA, and I think it will come back to bite them. I also think they've improved and the Ravens have not. I know the Vegas sharps are with the Ravens, but I'm going with Chuck; I'll bet against Indy next week.
Seahawks +3.0 over REDSKINS
This will be a lot of fun. Two fearless rookie QBs inventive systems. Two things: Seattle has a much better defense than Washington. Seattle is 4th in defensive DVOA while Washington is 17th. The best teams Griffin has faced in DVOA defense are the Rams (7th) and Bengals (10th), but that was in weeks 2-3 and they lost o both. It's hard to adjust to Seattle's defense an I'm not convinced the Redskins will do so fast enough. Second, I don't buy that Griffin is incredibly healthy. Ligament strains aren't something you can rest for a week and come back from. Even 80% of Griffin may make Shanahan hesitant to run all the playbook. The teams are close: WAS is 2nd in big play +/- and SEA is 3rd, but given the injury and Wilson's improvement, I think the Seattle offense can do more here. With the way Seattle is playing, I'm picking them to cover.