NFL Wild Card Weekend: Saturday Betting Preview
A dramatic last weekend of the NFL's regular season saw Indianapolis shock the Texans before the Vikings secured a wild card spot by topping the Packers, the biggest result came in Washington, where the Redskins won the NFC East for the first time in 13 years.
Now, we turn our attention to the post-season, as we are gripped in playoff fever, and eager to see who will play out Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans come February 3rd. The first Wild Card matchups pit the impressive Cincinnati Bengals against the Houston Texans, followed swiftly by a repeat of that Week 17 classic, as the Minnesota Vikings make their way to Lambeau Field to take on their divisional rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
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The Texans may well have led the AFC for almost the entire season, but after a lacklustre performance at the Colts last Sunday saw them squander an opportunity to take the conference's #1 seeding, they miss out on a bye week altogether, and face a tough match against AFC North runners-up, Cincinnati.
The Bengals, led by the second most tenured coach in the league in Marvin Lewis, have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, ending a run that had seen them fail to do so for thirty years, the league's longest active streak. An impressive offense has seen second year QB Andy Dalton find fellow sophomore AJ Green on 97 receptions for over 1300 yards, whilst breakout receivers such as Andrew Hawkins and Brandon Tate have allowed Dalton an alternative outlet. An underrated O-Line led by Andrew Whitworth has allowed BenJarvus Green-Ellis big days as he pounds the rock, and aggressive defense ranks 7th in the league against the pass.
Controversial rookie Vontaze Burfict has put behind him some apparent attitude issues to shine, and the Texans will need to be wary of the ever-improving D-Line, headed by Geno Atkins. Despite their loss last week, Houston can take heart in knowing that a horrendous end to last season saw a similar scenario a year ago. The Texans, playing in the franchise's first ever playoff game, topped the Bengals in the 2011 Wild Card round, inspired by a magnificent JJ Watt defensive touchdown, in a sign of what was to follow this season.
Watt, who ended the regular season with 20.5 sacks, only 2 behind the single season record held by Michael Strahan. Watt epitomises the Houston D, which lost key pieces in the run up to the season, yet still looked dominant. Where some felt they may struggle was up front on offense, after losing RT Eric Winston to free agency, however a top 10 pass and run offense has seen the Texans rack up over 400 points.
The most interesting battle should be between the Texans passing game, and that Bengals rush. Matt Schaub has looked shaky throughout December, throwing for as many touchdowns as picks over the past five games, including three 0 TD days.
Best Bet: Cincinnati +4.5 - 10/11
A win for Minnesota last week at Mall of America Field over the Packers confirmed their place in the post-season, yet felt bittersweet as future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson fell only 9 yards short of the NFL's all time single season rushing record of 2,105 yards.
In a strange twist of fortune, the pair meet yet again, but this time the stakes are higher. For Christian Ponder, Peterson, and the Vikings, a surprise playoff appearance may well be just that, however, they will be determined to make good on their chance and advance as far as possible. Of course, that is easier said than done over a Packers team that only two years ago pulled out all the stops to top Pittsburgh and take Super Bowl XLV. Ponder, one of an unprecedented six rookie or second year starting QBs to make a playoff appearance in 2012, hasn't been as reliable as he would have like throughout the season, and whilst defences have been focussing on, and failing to, stop Peterson all season long, Ponder has played to a level that, for the most part, would not be good enough to keep the starter's job. Consistent picks and a poor completion percentage were emblematic of his year; however improvements made in recent weeks will give Leslie Frazier hope.
The Vikings defence has also been out of form, rather uncharacteristically. Whilst their offense cranked it up a gear in an impressive four game win streak, defensive leaders such as Jared Allen failed to make his usual impression, registering only 12 sacks, his lowest total in a Viking jersey. Of course, the Packers offensive line will need to be wary of the Texas native, who could explode into life anytime. The OL ranks 2nd in the league for sacks allowed with 51, and will be determined to keep Aaron Rodgers, perennial MVP candidate on his feet in order for him to find any one of his dangerous receivers. Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones have combined to be the most potent group of wide-outs in the league, whilst Cobb possess a fiery return game. Mike McCarthy has had to rely on Rodgers this season as the seemingly eternal issues with the Packer's run game continue.
A committee of Alex Green, Ryan Grant and James Starks is expected to be used; however, leading the team in rushing TDs is actually Rodgers himself. He will create one of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend as he faces off against the Vikings pass rush, and if Minnesota can create pressure, Green Bay may not find this Wild Card matchup as simple as some believe it could be.
Best Bet: Minnesota +9.5 - 4/6