The NFL playoffs are upon us and we're ready to make some predictions for wild-card weekend. Which underdogs will prevail? Here are our picks:
By Amanda Rykoff
Heading into the season, the Houston Texans looked like they finally had all the pieces to challenge New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh at the top of the AFC. No Peyton Manning in Indianapolis made them a lock for the AFC South title and gave them the inside track to a first-round bye. They had one of the best running backs in the game in Arian Foster, one of the top wide receivers in Andre Johnson, a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Matt Schaub and a tough defense.
But that's all changed.
Foster remains an elite back, capable of burning defenses as a runner and a receiver. But Johnson has injured both hamstrings and returned last week for only his seventh game of the season. And Schaub? He was lost for the season during Week 10 to a foot injury. After a season-ending injury to backup Matt Leinart (yeah, I laughed, too), the Texans have rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, backed up by recently signed-out-of-retirement Jake Delhomme. The Texans lost their final three games of the season, including two at home and one at the hapless Colts. Does that sound like a team ready for the playoffs? Not to me.
In what I expect will be a low-scoring, ugly game, I'm picking the Cincinnati Bengals as my upset of this first weekend of the playoffs. Sure, the Bengals backed in as the last seed in the AFC, but they're here now and they will be looking to make a statement. The Bengals run defense has been outstanding (they finished 10th in the NFL, dropping a few spots after getting gouged by Ray Rice in the season finale) and should be able to contain Foster, forcing Yates to beat them. I don't see that happening.
I will take my chances with Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been a revelation this season (3,398 passing yards, 20 TDs, 13 interceptions), helped out by a cast of excellent, young receivers including stud A.J. Green (get the ball to Green!) and touchdown flipper Jerome Simpson. Fun fact: Dalton returns to his home state of Texas (he's from Katy, just outside Houston), where he won a college bowl game at Reliant Stadium while at TCU.
I know the Texans beat the Bengals 20-19 in Week 14, when Cincinnati lost a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and surrendered the winning touchdown to Yates at Paul Brown Stadium. I also know Johnson is one of the most dominating receivers in the game (what is it about wide receivers with the last name of Johnson?). I know the Texans are hosting their first playoff game in franchise history and Reliant Stadium will be fired up.
But there's something about this Texans team that seems star-crossed. And a close game (Texans are favored by 3) favors the Bengals. The Bengals have absolutely nothing to lose. They weren't expected to be here, so why not pick the most surprising team to pull off the upset?
Steelers' Goliath to slay David
By Jane McManus
This is too easy. Pittsburgh! The Steelers may technically be an underdog with the lower seed but they are primed to crush Denver, despite the decision not to have safety Ryan Clark travel. Since the first week in December, the Steelers have gone 4-1. Denver, on the other hand, lost the last three games of the season and backed into the postseason.
Barring some kind of divine intervention -- which is mostly hyperbole but in this case is discussed with a straight face -- Pittsburgh has this. The oddsmakers, who are favoring the Steelers by more than a touchdown, agree.
Denver is no Green Bay, which was the Steelers' last postseason opponent, in last season's Super Bowl. Pittsburgh is better equipped offensively in so many ways.
This game is the main event Sunday for a reason: quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Ben Roethlisberger. You have the technically flawed fourth-quarter miracle worker -- we can call him David -- against the Goliath of a proven pro at his position, with some ungodly alleged baggage.
It's good drama, but Pittsburgh is no underdog. Like David, Denver has to hope for some help from providence if it is to win this game.
Dalton's no rookie
By Melissa Jacobs
Cincinnati and Houston, the weekend's most lackluster matchup, is also one of the harder outcomes to predict. I like the Bengals, which my imaginary sportsbook tells me is an upset. Yes, the team playing on the road with the rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver, that has lost every contest against playoff teams this year, is going to prevail. And here's why:
Andy Dalton may be a rookie, but he's no "rookie." The young Bengal is poised in the pocket beyond his years, a crucial element for staving off that typical rookie playoff intimidation. The special chemistry between Dalton and fellow rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is well known. But most important, Dalton is playing clean football now. Since Week 11 he's thrown one interception, which is exactly the kind of momentum you want your quarterback carrying into the playoffs. The underrated Cedric Benson provides a strong ground threat, and the Bengals defense is one of the most turnover-inducing in the league.
Conversely, the Texans are in a bit of a downward spiral. While rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was a surprise at the onset of his impromptu starting gig, he has played much more like a rookie lately. In turn the Matt Schaub-less Texans have morphed into a conservative, run-first, second and third offense. They head to the playoffs the losers of three straight, including embarrassing losses to league bottom-feeders Indianapolis and Carolina.
Yates, who suffered a bruised shoulder last week, will start Sunday at less than 100 percent. This means The Jake Delhomme comeback story is one well-directed hit away from continuing. And anyone who has watched Delhomme post-2008 knows that would not be a winning situation. The rock of the Texans, receiver Andre Johnson, will play, although he continues to suffer from a nagging hamstring injury and has been pulled from multiple games since his return. And the defense has dropped a few notches since October when All-Pro linebacker Mario Williams tore his pectoral muscle and was sidelined for the season. This is not a team firing on all cylinders.
I have two predictions for this game. First, It will be the lowest-rated of the weekend and second, the Texans will be 0-1 in their playoff history.
Steelers a shoe-in
By Sarah Spain
Let's eliminate one underdog right off the bat: The Lions. I'm confident the Saints will handle Detroit with ease down in New Orleans. Of the four wild-card games New Orleans-Detroit seems most obviously tilted in favor of the higher seed. The Saints defeated the Lions handily in early December and have looked fantastic down the stretch, particularly at home in the Superdome (sorry -- the Mercedes-Benz Superdome). The Lions' lack of discipline and Matthew Stafford's accuracy issues will hurt them against the finely tuned machine that is the Saints.
The other three contests? Well, they look a little juicier...
A few weeks ago I would have circled the Texans as sure winners over the Bengals, but injuries have made them a riskier pick in the postseason. After beating Cincinnati in early December, Houston finished the regular season with three straight losses, two of those two teams with losing records. While I give Cincy a fighting chance to steal this game, I think the Texans will find a way to come out on top in their first playoff game in franchise history. T.J. Yates has proven just how important an effective backup quarterback can be -- or, more accurately, how important a backup to the backup quarterback can be -- and he'll win the battle of rookie QBs.
On paper, the final two wild-card games are the most interesting. The No. 5 seed Falcons (10-6) finished with a better record than the No. 4 seed Giants (9-7), but both marks are a mirage. The Falcons only beat two teams with winning records (Tennessee and Detroit), losing to fellow playoff-goers the Texans, Packers and Saints (twice). The Giants' nine wins included just ONE over a team that finished above .500, the Patriots. Falcons QB "Matty Ice" Ryan has been downright cold in the postseason, with no playoff wins in four NFL seasons, and he struggles when put under pressure. A meeting with the Giants' monster defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul could leave Ryan on his butt for most of the contest. While the Giants have been a remarkably inconsistent team, they've won down the stretch and enter the postseason feeling confident. They'll prove the seedings -- and not the records -- to be true when they get the win at the Meadowlands on Sunday.
Which leaves us with the Broncos and the Steelers. Once again, the No. 5 seed -- Pittsburgh -- has the better record. Denver finished 8-8 while Pittsburgh is 12-4. It sounds absurd to say the Steelers are the underdog in this matchup but they are the lower-seeded team and will have to pack their things and play on enemy soil. The altitude has already taken a toll on Mike Tomlin's team, as he made the decision to pull starting safety Ryan Clark from the lineup Sunday. Clark has sickle-cell trait and a past game in Denver caused him to become dangerously ill. Clark will sit Sunday and hope a win will give him another chance to suit up this season. Clark's absence will hurt the Steelers, as will that of running back Rashard Mendenhall, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn ACL. Even with those injuries, and the nagging ankle injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are the clear favorite. While the Steelers have won five of their last six games, Tim Tebow and the Broncos have failed to come up with the fourth-quarter heroics that made them this season's darlings.
Quarterback play key
The Cincinnati Bengals have the best shot at an upset in the opening weekend and will take down the Houston Texans.
Houston, making its first postseason appearance since entering the league as an expansion team in 2002, is on its third quarterback this season, after losing Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart to injuries. Rookie T.J. Yates is coming off a bruised shoulder in Sunday's loss to Tennessee.
As important as the quarterback position is during the season, it's even more important in the postseason.
The Bengals are also starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton, but Dalton's had a very good year, throwing for nearly 3,400 yards and 20 touchdowns. While the Texans played some of the best defense in the league, they also played one of the weakest schedules. Dalton and the Bengals should make them pay.