Wildcard predictions

Eight teams look to keep the dream alive as wildcard weekend gets underway Saturday in Houston. But before we move ahead to the postseason, let’s take one last look back at the 2011 regular season that was and examine how things shook down from a point spread perspective.

2011 NFL season: 256 games
Favorites: 122-123-11 (49.8%)
Underdogs: 123-122-11 (50.2%)
Home dogs: 40-41-5 (49.3%)
Home favorites: 81-83-6 (49.4%)
Overs: 128 (51%)
Unders: 123 (49%)

*Stats courtesy of Covers.com.

CLICK HERE to check out all of the wildcard lines.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-7, 5-3 road) at HOUSTON TEXANS (10-6, 5-3 home)

Time: Saturday, 4:30pm ET
Opening line: Houston -3
Current line: Houston -3

X-factor: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. Cincinnati is 4-1 when Green amasses 90 or more receiving yards.

A.J. GreenThe Bengals will have to get A.J. Green involved in a big way on Saturday if they have any hopes of advancing.

The rundown: Since going live in Las Vegas last Sunday night, this line hasn’t budged off of the key number of 3. The Bengals enter the playoffs having gone 1-5-2 against the spread in their last eight games while the Texans roll into their first-ever postseason matchup on a three-game losing streak. Points will come at a premium, which is why the total for this game was set at 38.5.

Ball security will be of the utmost importance for this Cincinnati team. The Bengals are 3-5 this year when committing at least two turnovers and 0-2 when committing more than two turnovers. Cincinnati must get the football to wide receiver A.J. Green, but Houston will attempt to counter that punch with offseason acquisition Johnathan Joseph, who was recently voted into the 2012 Pro Bowl.

Matchup to watch: Arian Foster vs. Cincinnati’s run defense. The Texans are 5-2 this season when Foster rolls up 100 or more rushing yards. The Bengals finished the regular season ranked 10th in the NFL in run defense (104.7 yds/gm).

The pick: Home field advantage plays a big role here as Houston wins 17-13.

DETROIT LIONS (10-6, 5-3 road) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, 8-0 home)

Time: Saturday, 8:00pm ET
Opening line: New Orleans -9.5
Current line: New Orleans -10.5

X-factor: Detroit’s discipline. The Lions committed an average of 9.2 penalties per game this season (fourth-most in NFL) and went 3-4 when committing 10 or more penalties.

The rundown: The Saints went 8-0 straight up and against the spread at home this season and are 11-1 ATS in their last 12 home games, while Detroit is 0-3-1 ATS in their last four road games. It will take a near-flawless effort from the Lions if they want any chance of advancing to the Divisional Round next weekend.

If the Saints have an Achilles’ heel, it comes on the defensive side of the football. New Orleans forced a grand total of just one turnover in their three losses in 2011 and finished the season ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense (259.8 yds/gm). Drew Brees is going to roll up gaudy numbers, so it will fall on the shoulders of third-year quarterback Matthew Stafford to move the sticks and protect the rock if the Lions want to keep this thing close.

Matchup to watch: Detroit’s running game vs. New Orleans’ run defense. Despite finishing the regular season ranked 12th in the league against the run, the Saints surrendered 103 or more rushing yards in all three of their losses this season.

The pick: If the Lions can avoid falling behind by two scores in the first quarter, they’ll keep this thing close enough to cover. Unfortunately for Detroit fans, the Saints win 38-30.

ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, 4-4 road) at NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7, 4-4 home)

Time: Sunday, 1:00pm ET
Opening line: New York Giants -3
Current line: New York Giants -3

X-factor: Falcons running back Michael Turner. Atlanta is 28-2 when Turner records 21 or more touches (h/t @PayneInsider).

Matt RyanIs Matt Ryan headed for his first career postseason victory?

The rundown: The Giants roll into the wildcard round on the strength of back-to-back must-win games over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. However, Big Blue hasn’t won a playoff game at home since defeating the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the 2001 NFC Championship game. That’s right, it’s been more than ten years since Giants fans last saw their team come out victorious in a home postseason matchup.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are 5-0 ATS in their last five trips to New York. Atlanta’s top priority for this game will be to keep quarterback Matt Ryan upright so that he can have his way with a New York secondary that ranks 29th in the NFL against the pass (255.1 yds/gm). If rookie wideout Julio Jones can come up big in his first career postseason appearance, it will go a long way in justifying the Falcons’ decision to trade up 21 spots in last April’s draft to land the Alabama wide receiver.

Matchup to watch: Atlanta’s offensive line vs. New York’s defensive line. The Giants finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL in sacks (48), while Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked just 26 times this past year (21st-fewest in NFL).

The pick: Matt Ryan gets his first career postseason victory as the Falcons come out on top 27-24.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4, 5-3 road) at DENVER BRONCOS (8-8, 3-5 home)

Time: Sunday, 4:30pm ET
Opening line: Pittsburgh -8
Current line: Pittsburgh -8.5

X-factor: Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. In his seven wins as Denver’s starting signal-caller, Tebow committed just three turnovers. In Tebow’s four losses, the former Heisman Trophy winner committed nine turnovers.

The rundown: If Las Vegas sets the total for a game at 35.5 and then the early action comes in and knocks that number down to 33.5, chances are we’re headed for a low-scoring showdown. Such is the case for the weekend’s wildcard finale between the Steelers and the Broncos.

While the Broncos may have back-doored their way into the postseason after dropping three straight games to close out the year, there is a bit of history on their side heading into Sunday. Wildcard home underdogs are 14-7 straight up and 16-5 against the number, so don’t be surprised if Denver finds a way to keep this one close. However, no stranger to the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, the Steelers have won six of their last seven games and be sure to keep in mind that the road team is 5-1 against the spread in the last six meetings between these two teams.

Matchup to watch: Pittsburgh offensive tackles Max Sta rks and Marcus Gilbert vs. Denver pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The Broncos’ dynamic duo racked up a combined 21 sacks this season and will need to make quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s day hell for Denver to have a chance to pull this thing out in the fourth quarter.

The pick: Denver makes it a game but comes up short, falling to the Steelers 16-10.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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