The Bengals are souring. The Texans are tanking. Is that all there is too it? Let's dive in and take a closer look at the first playoff game of the weekend.
It was only logical for the Texans to settle in as -4.5 point favorites for this game. The line opened up at the "dead" number of -5, but early action came in on the underdog. There was a point where the line fell all the way to -4 at one point, but it didn't last long given that it's a key number (odds from SBRforum).
Where is money going to go in the final couple days? If anything, I'd expect more money coming in on the Bengals given the way both teams have played down the stretch. This line could close at -4, but I'd be surprised if we saw a ton of movement either way.
Bengals Are a No-Brainer?
If you spend time reading previews for this game you would think that the sky is falling in Houston. In fact, given all the numbers being thrown around you'd wonder how the Bengals can lose this game. Let's summarize...
The Texans have lost three of the last four games. The Bengals have won six of their last seven, with the only loss coming by one point to the Cowboys - a game they had control of for much of the way.
The Bengals defense gave up an average of 117 rushing yards in the first half of the year, but only 97.4 in the final half - including no 100 yard rusher in the last nine.
Matt Schaub has one TD and three INT in the last four games and has taken 12 sacks. It's also his first playoff game of his career.
The Texans pass defense has given up 29 TDs this season. Only the Redskins have given up more among the remaining playoff teams. Only the Redskins and Patriots have given up more big plays in the air (20+ yards). Over the first nine games they gave up 15.7 points per game, but 26.8 in the last seven.
Not So Fast My Friends
All that said, there a few key reasons why I like Houston to not only win this game, but to cover the spread as well. First of all, while those numbers might be alarming to some, they don't tell the whole story. When it comes to match-ups I rely much more on the advanced metrics.
The biggest thing that the Texans will do to win this game will be to make the Cincy offense one-dimensional. Green-Ellis was on a nice roll heading into the playoffs, but he pulled a hamstring and is expected to only be around 70-80% this weekend. Without a balanced attack, Andy Dalton will be forced to spread the field and win this with his arm.
Certainly he is capable, but he's only 47.5% on 3rd down this season. The Texans defense are near the top of the league in this category. The playoffs are all about those make-or-break moments when you need someone to come up big. Who beyond AJ Green is going to do that? They haven't found a reliable option opposite of him all year. Gresham is the closest thing they have, but he's also an inconsistent threat.
Yes Houston has had some problems in the 2nd half of the year, but until they play a team like the Patriots or Broncos I'm not about to get too worried about their prospects. A lot of their troubles came when guys like Cushing and Joseph were out of the lineup. Joseph will be in this game and he's more than capable of matching up with Green on the outside.
Offensively, it's imperative that the Texans get the running game going in order to maximize what Schaub does best - control the short-mid-range game and attack deep off play-action. Neutralizing (or minimizing) the impact of the Cincy D-line is task number one (especially Peko/Atkins).
I like their chances of establishing the tempo, even if it takes a couple of quarters, because I don't see them falling behind by two scores unless something freaky happens. The Bengals D has been good, but let's keep in mind it has come against one of the weaker group of offenses any team faced this year.
When it comes to the NFL, anything can happen. This is especially true in the playoffs where momentum can have a significant impact. The dark cloud of finality wears heavy on teams when they fall behind and it can snowball in a hurry. It's also the time of year when many sharps tread lightly because the lines are so ultra-sharp.
That said, I still believe in this Houston team and I think they match-up well against Cincy. Too much pressure is going to fall on Dalton and it could be a long day if he's not at his very best. With the help of the home crowd, they should be able to remain patient and dictate their style of play.
NFL Pick: HOU -4.5.