Opening weekend of the NFL playoffs is bittersweet. The chance to watch playoff-caliber football on Saturday and Sunday is so exciting, but it also means that football will be done for the year in a little more than a month. Considering its limited supply, plan your schedule around football. The action begins Saturday afternoon.
Sadly, there will be no Washington Redskins picks in this column. If you can't take football without the Redskins, please direct your attention to the NFL Draft and the eight million mock drafts floating around.
With only four games, we can examine each one a little more in-depth. All lines courtesy of SB Nation Odds.
The Bengals backed their way into the playoffs with a loss last week to the Ravens. Enough other teams lost that the Bengals got the sixth and final playoff spot. Prior to the Ravens' loss, the Bengals had won two in a row after losing to the Texans.
These two teams met in Week 14 and the Texans beat the Bengals by a point, 20-19, with Yates under center.
Breakdown: Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are much better than any combination of Yates/Delhomme and an iffy Andre Johnson. The big question here will be can the Bengals aggressive defense shut down the vaunted Texans run game and star running back Arian Foster. In the Week 14 matchup, Foster rushed for 41 yards while backup Ben Tate was the team's leading rusher. Defense carried the Texans for much of the year after starting quarterback Matt Schaub went out in Week 10, but the team defense did not hold up as well down the back-stretch of the season.
In this game, expect a lot of Bengals running back Cedric Benson to open up the pass game for Dalton. With Green facing Jonathan Joseph for much of the day, Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end Jermaine Gresham should make up the slack. I think the Bengals win outright and move onto the second round.
Pick: Bengals 24, Texans 17
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (-11): Just try and imagine how loud the Superdome will be Saturday night. Just try. That place will be MADNESS. Both teams come into this game with high-powered offenses, but the Saints enter this game scorching.
Quarterback Drew Brees is breaking records and making people debate who should get the MVP award. (For the record, I say Aaron Rodgers.) The Saints haven't lost since Halloween, and if you're counting, we have had Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years since then. More importantly for the Saints, the defense is beginning to produce turnovers again. A potent offense and turnovers from the defense was the formula that brought the Saints the Lombardi trophy just a few seasons ago.
For the Lions, making the playoffs is a huge step for a franchise that has been so bad for so long. Detroit has the pieces in place to be a contender for many years. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson make the Lions' offense dangerous.
Breakdown: These teams met in early December and the Saints took away a 31-17 win. I think this game goes similarly. The Saints are playoff-tested and playing their best football of the year. Further, they remember the taste of a shocking first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks last year.
The Lions keep it close in the first half, but in the second half, Brees finds Marques Colston and Darren Sproles too much, too often. A late interception from Stafford will send the Lions back home, but with valuable experience.
Pick: Saints 39, Lions 24.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants (-3): The Falcons did us all a big favor last week in blowing out Tampa Bay. In a game where the line should be closer to four or five, the inflated win total Atlanta posted over the Bucs keeps this line down. That means you should bet the Giants.
The Giants come into the game having won two straight games they had to have. They fought their way into the playoffs. Granted, they only had to fight their way in because of mind-blowing losses, including a Week 15 beating from the Redskins. But forget that. The Giants' defensive line looks physical again, the teams single biggest advantage.
The Falcons had a good year, but after seeing the Week 16 loss to the Saints, I cannot expect this Falcons team to win on the road in the open-air stadium of the Giants.
Breakdown: The Falcons come into the game with an offense capable of exploding, but with questions protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. The Giants defensive line features two stars, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, both of whom will punish Ryan on Sunday.
Giant quarterback Eli Manning, on the other hand. will remain cool in the pocket and find his big play weapon Victor Cruz. I expect to see the salsa at least once in the end zone in this game. Ahmad Bradshaw seals the game late with impressive running as the Giants put away the Falcons. Pick: Giants 27, Falcons 16
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (-8): On one hand we have Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, a polarizing figure personally, but statistically a below-average NFL quarterback. On the other is Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who brings his own controversies but is a quarterback known for playoff heroics with two Super Bowl rings to back it up.
The Broncos were a mess before inserting Tebow into the starting lineup, and improved significantly with him. At one point, with Tebow playing an unconventional style where he ran more than he threw, Denver ran off a six-game winning streak. But on closer inspection, most of those wins were narrow escapes against weaker opponents.
Breakdown: The Steelers do not come into this game healthy, and that could be a problem. The loss of safety Ryan Clark, who can not play due to the altitude in Denver, is significant. But last week at home against Kansas City, in a game they had to win, Tebow went 6 for 22 for 60 yards passing and an interception. I like Tebow, and root for him to succeed, but anything close to that will result in a lopsided score for the Steelers.
Now, prepare yourself to hear about Big Ben's ankle injury, and how he might not play. Get ready to hear about the loss of Rashard Mendenhall and what that could mean for the Steelers. But know this: Big Ben will play. If anything, I think Roethlisberger likes to hype up injuries. Maybe it is playing possum or maybe he just likes the additional attention. Regardless, he will be fine. As for Mendenhall, backup Isaac Redman is a good fit for the offense.
But ... think about the last few massive home underdogs in NFL playoff games, i.e. Seattle last year. The game seems like a lock before the ball is snapped, and isn't that what he have here? Check out this info from Covers.com. Scary how strong the trends are for non-winning teams -- Denver went 8-8 -- in the first round of playoffs.
Also, consider Pittsburgh barely beat the Cleveland Browns last week and the offense has scored less than 10 points in two of its last three games. Denver will start strong with a wild home crowd, and running back Willis McGahee will put up decent numbers. Pittsburgh will probably do enough to win, but an invigorated Denver defense, putting pressure on an immobile Roethlisberger, will keep the game close. This line should only grow as the public keeps hammering the Steelers. Bet like a sharp.
Pick: Steelers 17, Denver 13
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