NFL 1st Round: Cincinnati-Houston

It’s time preview the NFL 1st round playoff matchups on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll use the same basis format for all four games—a basic outline of how the teams match up with each other, some historical context, how Las Vegas sees the game and then wrap it up with TheSportsNotebook’s predictions—and keep in mind, those betting against my bowl picks are turning a profit this holiday season. Here we go with Cincinnati-Houston (Sat, 4:30 PM ET, NBC)…

THE MATCHUP: Houston has been slumping in December, while Cincinnati is coming on down the stretch, but let’s give the Texans a little credit—the losses were to the Patriots, Vikings and Colts, so it’s not like they folded up against mediocre teams. Houston might also be getting a little healthier this week, with tight end Owen Daniels and outside linebacker Brooks Reed expected to play.

It’s a cliché to say turnovers will be important in a playoff game, but this is a case where the cliché is right on. Cincinnati’s offense is completely mismatched on almost every level—they don’t run the ball well, Houston stops the run. Andy Dalton isn’t playing well in the passing game, Houston’s pass defense is solid. The Bengal offensive line doesn’t pass protect, the Texans can get after the quarterback. There’s one thing Cincinnati does do well though and it’s take care of the football. Houston excels at forcing turnovers, so this will be a key battleground—can Cincy hold on to the ball, play the field position game and let its defense go to work?

Marvin Lewis has turned out another top defense in Cincinnati, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is beast, able to collapse pockets from up the middle and stuff the run. Between he and Houston’s J.J. Watt, the likely choice for Defensive Player of the Year, this might be the first postseason game in NFL history where the TV networks are better off hyping the battle of two defensive players.

Houston builds its offense around running the ball with Arian Foster, but their home run swing comes with the deep ball to Andre Johnson. It’s here where the use of tight end Daniels becomes crucial—Matt Schaub needs an underneath option to either draw someone up in passing situations, or just to convert  the third-and-manageable situations that most good running teams have to thrive on. This is another offense that takes care of the ball, going up against a defense that’s good at taking it away.

If the game is dominated by the defenses and the turnovers stay even, Houston has an edge in special teams. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst net punting averages, while Houston has a good return game and the Texans kickoff coverage is among the league’s best.

Any case for Cincinnati to win has to be based entirely on December momentum. I’m not saying that’s a bad reason, but it has to kept in mind that Houston has a narrow, but clear edge when it comes to playmakers who can make a decisive play and they have a narrow, but clear edge when it comes to winning the kind of defensive game that Cincinnati needs to play. Plus, the Texans are playing at home. How much weight do you put on their December slide?

THE CONTEXT: It’s a rematch of last year’s first-round game, right down to being the Saturday afternoon game, meaning it’s the one TV is the least interested in. It seems these two cities can’t avoid being football rivals. The old Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) used to have all kinds of bad blood when Jerry Glanville coached in Houston and Sam Wyche was in Cincinnati. The cities have even mixed it up in baseball a little bit, with the Reds and Astros having good races in 1981 & 1999. Could Saturday’s game be the continuation of an unlikely rivalry?

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: Houston is a 4 ½ point favorite, which seems a little high and reports from Las Vegas are that money is coming down on Cincinnati, so I’m curious to see if this line drops between now and Saturday. It’s a reasonable number based on the entire season’s body of work, but less so on current form, which would suggest it be closer to a field goal. It’s hard not to like the Bengals in a defensive-oriented game, knowing you can lose by three and still cash in. The Over/Under is 44, which also looks high unless the defenses also either score or set up easy touchdowns themselves.

PREDICTION: I’m picking Houston to win, but if I were at a betting window, I’d grab the points and take the Under. Houston wins it 20-17.