NFL 1st Round: Saturday Previews

The first round of the NFL playoffs kicks off on Saturday with eight of the twelve teams in action (Green Bay, New England, Baltimore and San Francisco have the byes). Here’s the Notebook breakdown of the Saturday games…

Cincinnati-Houston (4:30 PM ET, NBC): Cincy is the #6 seed, so as the lowest in the AFC bracket a win would send them to New England. As the #3 seed a Houston win earns a trip to Baltimore.

The general perception of the 9-7 Bengals is that they’re a team that wins with defense, but in truth they rate about the middle of the AFC in both points scored and points allowed. The perception comes from a statistical focus on yards gained/allowed rather than points gained/allowed, a focus that to me is one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.

The Bengals’ signature strengths are the ability to rush the passer, as well as the ability to prevent the opposition from doing the same. They don’t have one dominant pass rusher—Geno Atkins at defensive tackle is the best, but it’s mostly a team effort that has them 2nd in the AFC in sacks. They also play good defense in the red zone, and it will be imperative to hold Houston to 3s instead of 7s and avoid having to play catchup. Because if the Texans can tee off on Andy Dalton it’s going to be long day for the Bengals. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips brings the pressure from the edge with linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed and the Texans are one of the game’s best at winning the turnover battle. If they’re playing with a lead, this defense, coupled with a feisty home crowd can create an environment ripe for a rout.

Houston has all the weapons in place to turn this into a rout. Even with T.J. Yates at quarterback, the Texans have been nursing Andre Johnson’s hamstring all year long to make sure he’s healthy for this game, the benefit of playing in a lousy division. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are both capable of big plays in the running game and Yates has a top pass-catching tight end in Owen Daniels. The rub with this team is that they’re weakness plays into Cincinnati strength, and that’s execution in the red zone. A team with a good running game and a good tight end should not rank 25th in the NFL for red-zone scoring percentage, but that’s the case in Houston. Perhaps having the ability to throw a fade rout to Johnson will improve things on Saturday.

Ultimately, I think the Texans just have too many playmakers. Throughout the skill positions and at linebacker you have players capable of changing a game on a dime. You’ve got good overall defense and a sound running game. If Matt Schaub were healthy, this would be my AFC Super Bowl pick. Even without Schaub, it’s still a team good enough to beat the Bengals. Let’s call it 19-10 Texans.

Detroit-New Orleans (8:00 PM ET, NBC): It’s the #3 vs. #6 game in the NFC. New Orleans is playing for a trip to San Francisco, while a Detroit win sends them back to Green Bay.

If you listen to the media, you might think this game will be all about offense and the quarterback matchup of Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees. And in this case, the media is actually right. The Saints & Lions rank 2nd and 3rd in the NFC in points scored behind only the Packers and Las Vegas is prepared for a high-scoring game with an Over/Under line of 59, a number that’s high for college and through the roof by NFL standards, which rarely venture past the 50 mark.

While the general portrait of this game as a shootout is accurate, they are the subtler factors underneath that will ultimately settle who wins. Working in New Orleans favor is the fact they can run the ball consistently, with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles all sharing the load. Defensively, New Orleans does a better job in the red zone, and if the points are flying, a couple red zone stops will be the difference between winning and losing. While each team has a top receiver on the outside—Marques Colston for New Orleans and Calvin Johnson for Detroit, I like New Orleans’ secondary options better with tight end Jimmy Graham and Sproles out of the backfield, each among the league’s best in their roles. Working in Detroit’s favor is that the defensive end tandem of Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch is very capable of getting to Brees. Watching these two go against one of the NFL’ s best pass-protection offensive lines will be a great battle. Detroit’s defensive backs are much better playing the ball than their New Orleans’ counterparts. The Lions rank 3rd in the NFC in turnover ratio while New Orleans is tied for 10th, and the biggest reason for the difference is that the Lion DBs can make interceptions, while the Saints do not. If corners Chris Houston and Eric Wright can steal just one or two possessions from Brees, we can be talking upset.

In the area of weaknesses, neither defense plays the run all that well and that’s something New Orleans is much better suited to exploit. The attention on Brees’ record-setting year detracted focus from a running game that was very good, the exact opposite of what New Orleans dragged into the playoffs last year before losing a first-round game in Seattle. On the Detroit side, this makes the big X factor to be the performance and health of Kevin Smith. He’s usually hurt, so his numbers for the year are basically non-existent, but the few times he’s been healthy he’s been able to take over a game. The softness of the New Orleans rush defense affords him that chance Saturday night in the Bayou.

Detroit’s got a much better chance of winning this game then they are being given credit for, but their upset scenario—a big game from Smith, interceptions from the corners and red-zone stops is a pretty narrow window to operate in. It’s not unthinkable, particularly the latter two, but counting on Smith requires a huge leap of faith. New Orleans is more consistent, better balanced, playing at home and red-hot. I’ll call this one for a 45-28 final.