Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
The first game we take a look at is between the slumping Houston Texans & the Cincinnati Bengals who've made the playoffs after winning 7 of their last 8 games to end with a 10&6 record.
(Matt Schaub will be looking for the win in his first ever post-season game)
Houston were our outright picks for Super Bowl glory at the start of the year & that was looking a pretty good bet as they assembled an 11&1 winning record by week 13 & looked set to claim top seed in the AFC & home advantage in their playoff games but they took a beating in Foxboro at the hands o the Patriots & seemed to suffer ending up losing twice more but this game may give them a real chance of rallying & getting a rematch with the Patriots. Although the Bengals look to be the team on the up when you take a look at the teams they've beaten it becomes a little less impressive with the three teams they've beaten with winning records all somewhat out of form at the time & the Bengals have been beating teams they should beat but losing to the teams they shouldn't for the past couple of seasons, they rarely seem to be able to spring a surprise against the stronger teams.
Houston have a side with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball with J.J. Watt their defensive star & a strong candidate for the defensive player of the year award - Watt along with Antonio Smith get a lot of sacks & the Bengals' offensive line isn't great at protecting passer Andy Dalton, they've given up 46 sacks & rank 26th (of 32) in the category. On offense Houston have a good passer in Matt Schaub, he's not spectacular but has good fundamentals in all aspects of the game & is a good decision maker, he also has one of the league's best receivers in Andre Johnson to throw to & Johnson has at times looked close to his best this season, getting the AFC's offensive player of the month for November, it's a pity they don't really have depth at the position as they can become a little predictable. The rushing attack is where the Texans excel & Arian Foster is an exceptional running back who can get success against any side.
(Michael Johnson & Geno Atkins have really stepped up to the mark for Cincinnati this season)
The Bengals have an exceptional talent in receiver A.J. Green & he'll be looking to take advantage of the Texans' secondary that is definitely the weak point of their defense & has even looked a little confused at times in recent weeks with blown coverages - they can't afford to do that as A.J. will be sure to take it to the house & add to his 11 regular season TDs. The Bengals are also pretty sharp on defense, ranking 6th in yards & 8th in points given up with a big improvement from week 10 onwards where they restricted opponents to 20 points or less in all of their last 8 games (although it has to be noted they didn't face any offensive powerhouses apart from maybe the Giants who were in & out all season). Michael Johnson & Geno Atkins have been coming up with the sacks for the Bengals & although they allow too many themselves they rank 3rd in sacks gained on defense & will be targeting the Texans' rookie guard Ben Jones who could be a weak link. The Bengals don't really have anything to worry Houston on he ground, we're unconcerned with BenJarvus Gren-Ellis's running threat & Houston will be too & that'll mean their pass rush will be turned up to 11 & could prove the difference. We like he Texans to win but the point spread looks about right so we'll target the points total instead, Ladbrokes put it at 43.5 & 7 of Cinci's last 8 games have been 44 points or under & half of Houston's games haven't hit that either so the value has to be backing under 43.5 points.
Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers
We've an NFC North divisional match up in the late night game on Saturday as the Vikings travel to take on the Green Bay Packers - they only played this last week (in Minnesota) & the Vikings were victorious yet the Packers are this weekend's shortest priced team to win.
(Adrian Peterson's wonderful season could be drawing to a close but he'll give Green Bay plenty of trouble)
Home field advantage is clearly a big factor here & Green Bay prevailed 23-14 in the game here in week 13 & their only loss at Lambeau all year came in their first game of the season against the hard running 49ers. Aaron Rodgers is an awesome talent at quarterback & his refusal to focus too much on any one receiver means that opposing defenses struggle to lock down targets & add to that his ability to extend plays he comes out right near the top of the tree when assessing all NFL passers. Green Bay do allow Rodgers to get sacked too often (51 times this year) & it could lead to him getting injured at one point but it doesn't appear to have hurt them so far & they are excellent in the red zone, ranking 3rd in scoring efficiency when getting within 20 yards of the end zone. The Packers running game is also slightly improved this year although no individual back has been putting up big numbers, they're most likely to try to pass the ball anyway as that's where their weapons lie & the Vikings rank 24th against the pass.
The Vikings don't have the versatility of some teams but they do have an incredible running back in Adrian Peterson who has come back from major knee surgery to put up the 2nd biggest rushing yards season in league history. AP has also had a lot of success against the Packers in both games this season, running up big numbers even though the defense know the ball is likely to be handed off, he's also taken the ball into the end zone for touchdowns 12 times this yea as well as moving the ball up the field with regularity. In terms of passing the Vikings clearly aren't as much of a threat although Christian Ponder has improved in his 2nd season, he is a little predictable though with Percy Harvin his favourite target apart from when in scoring range when Kyle Rudolph's number invariably gets called. Rudolph is a huge tight end & at 6"6 it doesn't matter who he goes up against he'll have a favourable match-up so he's an obvious target when in short yardage situations. Bad news for the Vikings this week is that Ponder's throwing arm is reportedly sore & that may mean they run even more often, that may not be a bad thing as Green Bay's defense is heavily reliant on causing turnovers through interceptions & running the ball eliminates that threat. Green Bay should score enough to win this game but they lost to Minnesota last week & only won by 9 in the previous game so take the Vikings with +9.5 points to win on the handicap/points spread.
Under 43.5 points in Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans at 10/11 (Ladbrokes)
Minnesota Vikings to beat Green Bay Packers with +9.5 point handicap (Paddy Power & 32Red)