If you aren’t sure which side to bet in Saturday’s postseason matchups, thankfully we’ve enlisted the help of expert NFL bloggers to debate why their favorite team covers the spread in the Wild Card Round.
Stephanie Stradley of Houston’s Ultimate Texans blog goes head-to-head against Matt Verderame of Kansas City blog Arrowhead Addict, and Mickey Mentzer of Bengals blog Cincy Jungle butts helmets with AFC North rival Jeff Hartman of Pittsburgh blog Behind the Steel Curtain.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (+3.5, 40)
WHY THE CHIEFS WILL COVER
Matt Verderame writes for Arrowhead Addict. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter @ArrowheadAddict.
Houston and Hali
The Chiefs have two of the best pass rushers in the National Football League with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. While the pair has only combined for 13 sacks this year, this is going to be a huge challenge for Houston. The Texans are without left tackle Duane Brown, who tore his quad in the Week 17 win , so Chris Clark will get the start. The Texans are going to struggle here.
Alex Smith’s legs
Both quarterbacks are going to be under pressure Saturday afternoon, but one can run for a few key first downs. Alex Smith ran for just shy of 500 yards this season and continually picked up big yardage when the pocket collapsed. Brian Hoyer has a 1.5 QBR this season under pressure and less than 50 rushing yards. Huge advantage for the Chiefs.
The Kansas City defensive coordinator provides a ton of different looks and formations with one of the elite secondaries in the league. The Chiefs are loaded on the back end with Eric Berry, Marcus Peters, Ron Parker, Sean Smith, Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch. Sutton plays to his strengths and shows different coverages, proving to be very difficult for opponents to handle.
WHY THE TEXANS WILL COVER
Stephanie Stradley writes for the Ultimate Texans blog at the Houston Chronicle online. You can follow her on Twitter @StephStradley and read her personal blog at Stradleylaw.com.
I don’t believe in momentum. But I do believe in coaching adjustments, chemistry, health, dominant performances. The Texans have an experienced defense with playmakers on all levels whose play down the stretch was better than any team since Week 8. They have been key to winning games with a variety of “Island of Misfit Toys” quarterbacks. I think the yearlong traditional/efficiency statistics undervalue the amount of improvement and then dominance of the Texans defense over the course of this season.
Also, J.J. Watt is one of a handful of defensive players in NFL history who can regularly just take games over on defense, especially in “got to have it” situations. Not always successful because it is a team game, but it happens all the time from him. You can see that effect in the Texans’ absurd defensive third down numbers, a league best at 28.5 percent.
NRG Stadium can be very loud and during a Texans playoff game (there’s only been two, both wins) it can be extraordinarily loud in support of its defensive-minded team. Literally, when J.J. Watt got an interception for a touchdown in the 2011 playoff home game, the concrete beneath the seats was shaking (I didn’t know that was possible, but I talked to an engineer and he told me I was likely not imagining that. The more you know).
The noise can be a huge challenge for offensive linemen because Watt’s first move is absurdly quick for anyone, much less someone his size and strength that opponents can’t really prepare for it, and any hesitation by opposing linemen can result in a big defensive play.
The Chiefs and Texans are very similar teams: Offensive-minded head coach. Offenses designed to minimize turnovers, adjust and compensate for skill player holes/deficiencies. Resilient teams where outsiders do not respect the quarterbacks. Many dominant, experienced defensive playmakers. Relatively healthy for this time of year.
It is possible that the line does not accurately reflect the current state of the Texans, and with a game where no result would surprise, you might as well grab the home dog. A defensive, home-field slugfest pretty much sums up the best case for the Texans.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals (+3, 45.5)
WHY THE STEELERS WILL COVER
Jeff Hartman is the editor of Behind the Steel Curtain. You can follow them on Facebook and on Twitter@btsteelcurtain.
Roethlisberger has something to prove
The Steelers haven’t had a playoff win in nearly five years, and that stretch falls on few considering the majority of the players haven’t been with the team that long. The biggest shoulders that weight falls on is none other than Ben Roethlisberger. The franchise quarterback has had some tremendous games in 2015, but also some head-scratching mistakes to compound his season.
Roethlisberger realizes this team and this offense, can carry the team to the Super Bowl and now it is time for him to put it on tape. I look for Big Ben to have a solid game against the Bengals on the primetime stage Saturday night.
Opportunistic defense vs. A.J. McCarron
If Andy Dalton were playing this might be different, but all signs point to A.J. McCarron getting the start Saturday as Dalton continues to nurse his broken thumb on his throwing hand. McCarron hasn’t thrown an interception as a starter for the Bengals, but in the Week 14 matchup against Pittsburgh he threw two picks – one being a pick-six by William Gay.
The Steelers’ defense might not be the next coming of the Steel Curtain, but they do know how to take the ball away, ranked third in the NFL in takeaways. In this matchup, I like the Steelers defense against the young signal caller.
Paul Brown Stadium feels like home
The Steelers know Paul Brown Stadium well. So well, they rarely ever lose there. The Steelers have a tremendous record in the home of the Bengals, and Roethlisberger’s record there is nearly flawless. Pittsburgh will be comfortable in this setting, and shouldn’t have any issues with their surroundings.
The home-field advantage the Bengals cling to has to be diminished by an AFC North opponent who consistently wins in that venue. The Steelers have already won there this year, and look to finish the season series with another win in Ohio this Saturday night.
WHY THE BENGALS WILL COVER
Mickey Mentzer writes for Cincy Jungle. You can follow them on Facebook and on Twitter @CincyJungle.
Make Pittsburgh one dimensional
With the Steelers most likely missing their top two running backs, the Bengals need to shut down the third-string runner Fitzgerald Toussaint. If Cincinnati truly stuffs the running attack and can focus on not getting beat in the passing game they will beat the Steelers.
Without worrying about the run, Cincinnati can disguise blitzes based on the penetration they get with the front four. Ben Roethlisberger won’t know what kind of pressure Cincinnati could be dialing up.
Throw the ball
With a young quarterback the thought may be to play conservatively to limit or avoid mistakes. In this game, the Bengals need to throw the ball and test the Steelers deep. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a very good defense. The only phase of that unit that ranks in the Top 10 of the league is the rush defense.
Playing to the opponent’s strength is not how to win a football game. A.J. McCarron is young and not afraid to throw down the field. The Bengals should allow him to do that against a below-average secondary.
Protect A.J. McCarron
The Steelers are going to want to rattle the Bengals’ young quarterback and the easiest way to accomplish this is with pressure. The Bengals’ offensive line has to do a better job in protection than they did in the first meeting.
Join the debate in the comment section below. Who covers in Saturday’s AFC Wild Card games: Kansas City or Houston? Pittsburgh or Cincinnati?