Forget everything you ever learned from Christmas carols or ESPN bowl season commercials; this is the most wonderful time of the year.
The NFL playoffs kick off this weekend with a slate of four juicy wild-card matchups. Each game holds its own breed of intrigue, whether it be a rematch from last weekend, a rematch from last postseason, a showdown between formerly relocated franchises, or a showdown between rookie quarterbacks.
With so much to watch, and only so little time, let's take a look at how each game stacks up against the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (-4.5)
This year's least interesting Wild Card Game is last year's least interesting Wild Card Game redux. Bengals-Texans will kick off the postseason for the second straight year, although admittedly, this year's version promises to be much more interesting than 2012's stink-fest.
Most of this game's intrigue lies in figuring what, exactly, has gone wrong in Houston over the past eight weeks. The Texans only started losing four games ago, but it would be a misnomer to say that's when their struggles started; this problem dates back to a surprisingly close overtime win over the Jaguars.
As outlined by Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com, here's how Houston's DVOA rankings have suffered since Week 9:
|Split||Weeks 1-9||Weeks 10-17||Difference|
That's a harrowing decline, which explains the relatively small spread, but it's nothing the Texans are incapable of overcoming. Especially considering how they match up with the Bengals.
Even during its swoon, Houston has managed to do one thing particularly well: defend opposing No. 1 receivers. It struggles against teams' second options, ranking 28th in the NFL, but are fourth against primary pass-catchers (h/t Football Outsiders).
The Bengals offense runs almost exclusively through its top receiver, A.J. Green. After him it has a wildly below-average quarterback (who's played particularly bad in recent games), a host of middling, untested wide receivers, and a capricious running game that can't be trusted.
With the crowd at their back, against a team they've beaten under familiar circumstances (with T.J. Yates under center, no less), the Texans will come out and re-establish themselves. I'm not sure its a legitimate contender, but for at least one week, Houston will look the part.
The Pick: Texans (-4.5)
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (-7.5)
The Vikings have proven to be a matchup nightmare for Green Bay, running the ball down its throat in both meetings this season. The biggest difference between the two games has been Christian Ponder:
|at Green Bay (L13-24)||12/25||119||1||2||3.1||41.9|
|vs. Green Bay (W 37-34)||16/28||234||3||0||94.6||120.2|
That tells me that this game will come down to how Christian Ponder performs, on the road, at Lambeau Field, in inclement weather, against one of the league's best pass defenses.
Where do I sign up for the Packers?
In all honesty, the Vikings are a very different team away from Minnesota—especially outside of a dome. They've only played four outdoor games this year, losing each time by an average of 12.5 points. All four games came against quality competition (Washington, Seattle, Chicago, Green Bay), but...well, so will Saturday's game, right?
Green Bay is getting healthy at the right time, and even in the extreme cold, should be able to abuse A.J. Jefferson and the Vikings secondary. Adrian Peterson will predictably dazzle, but even he won't be enough to keep this one close.
The Pick: Green Bay (-7.5)
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens (-7)
On paper, this should be the biggest blowout of Wild Card Weekend. And that's despite the fact that Baltimore looks fantastically average on paper. Why? Because according to Football Outsiders, Indianapolis isn't just the worst team to make this year's playoffs; it's one of the worst teams to make any playoffs.
But there's hope in the form of historical precedent, as outlined by statistical guru Aaron Schatz:
An amazing stat: 8 of the 10 worst playoff teams by DVOA (1991-2011) won their first playoff game. #chuckstrong— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 3, 2013
Teams like the 2010 Seahawks graded worse than this year's Colts, but managed to upset an established playoff team in the Wild Card Round. Granted, they had the strength of home-field advantage (the beneficiaries of a historically weak NFC West), but still.
This game is hard to predict since it's gravid with intangible factors. Statistical analysis can only do so much in the face of ChuckStrong and Ray Lewis' farewell tour.
In situations like that, I usually opt to take the points. I'll ride it out until Sunday, hoping for it to bump up to 7.5, but there's no way I'm laying a touchdown with these Ravens. I'm not sure Indianapolis can win straight up, but a backdoor cover doesn't seem out of the question.
The Pick: Indianapolis (+7)
Seattle Seahawks (-3) at Washington Redskins
Seattle is the only road team laying points this week, and it's not all that hard to figure out why. Even after struggling to beat the Rams (in a meaningless game), the Seahawks still finished atop Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings.
The three-week stretch immediately preceding last week, where they won by an average score of 50-10, made them a public favorite. But in truth, they'd been playing like one of the league's best teams all season. If anything, the past month has hurt their value, now that squares and sharps alike are eager to bet on them.
People like to talk about how much better Washington has been at home, but I don't find that to be the case. Its last three games were nail-biting wins against the Cowboys, Ravens and Giants—all of whom are wildly overrated. Seattle wouldn't have needed fourth-quarter rallies to beat any of those opponents.
It's scary to lay points with a rookie quarterback, on the road, making his first playoff start. But it's even scarier to take a rookie quarterback who doesn't have full use of his dominant knee.
Robert Griffin's day will come, but Sunday will not be that day.
The Pick: Seattle (-3)
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