Albert Breer picks four things to look for in this weekend's wild-card matchups.
1) The line-of-scrimmage battle in Cincinnati. To see how the Texans can win in the playoffs, let's go back two years. In January 2010, the Ravens, led by ailing quarterback Joe Flacco, came into Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots had never lost a playoff game. Easy pickings for New England? Not exactly. Ray Rice opened the game with an 83-yard touchdown run, Terrell Suggs strip-sacked Tom Brady three plays later, and it was curtains for the Patriots. Baltimore was able to pull off the upset because it dominated the line of scrimmage. If Houston can do the same, it will take pressure off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates and put pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. The good news for Houston is that the Texans have the horses on both sides of the ball to pull this off. Rice himself, along with the rest of the road-adverse Ravens, exposed some of the flaws in the Bengals' defensive front last week. If they can successfully control the line of scrimmage, Houston will, ironically, be bound for Baltimore.
2) The turnover battle in New Orleans. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think the Lions have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Saints. Last week's battle royale at Lambeau is proof, ugly as it was for the defense. I do, however, think the Saints are ultimately going to win, and the biggest reason is turnovers. Matt Stafford and Drew Brees, great as they are, have thrown a combined 30 interceptions this season, and each are in the top (or, more aptly, bottom) 10 in that category. Each team will put the ball in the air 40 times or so (Brees has attempted at least 40 passes in nine games this season, and Stafford has done it in eight), so there figures to be ample chances for each defense to come up with game-changing takeaways. On paper, that would seem to give a huge edge to the Lions, whose defense has 34 takeaways to New Orleans' 16. But playing in that dome can be an equalizer in this regard, as can the pressure of a playoff spot, which would seem to swing the advantage back to the more experienced Saints.
3) The Giants' pass rush at the Meadowlands. Eli Manning has had a great year. However, I have a feeling that he'll be merely fine this weekend, doing just enough to put up 20-30 points. That will leave the game to be decided by the Falcons' offense and Giants' defense, which should make for a fascinating battle. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's unit has piled up 11 sacks in its past two games. Osi Umenyiora's return last week allowed Justin Tuck to play more of a joker role, making the Giants a matchup nightmare once more. Can Atlanta's offensive line handle that rush and give Matt Ryan the time he needs? It's tough to say. But this is not: If Ryan does get enough time to throw, the Giants and their messy secondary will be in big trouble, especially with Thomas Dimitroff's visions of Roddy White and Julio Jones terrorizing defenses coming to fruition. White has 100 catches for 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns; Jones has 27 catches for 592 yards (21.9 yards per game) and eight touchdowns in his past six games (excluding Week 10 against New Orleans, when he barely played). Projected over 16 games, that pace would yield Jones 72 catches for 1,579 yards and 21 touchdowns. So, yeah, Tuck, Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul had better get to Ryan.
4) Ben Roethlisberger's mobility in Denver. The Steelers quarterback was mobile enough in the regular-season finale but didn't throw it all that well. He later admitted to suffering a bit of a setback while attempting to play through his high ankle sprain. Roethlisberger was wearing a hard plastic brace on the ankle, one that went up his calf, against the Browns, and if he's limited on Sunday afternoon, it'll be difficult for him to escape the speed that Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller bring to Denver's defense. The bright side: Roethlisberger will probably have time to feel things out, because it's hard to see Tim Tebow and the Broncos' offense doing much early on. The Steelers lead the league in total defense and pass defense, and while their eighth-ranked run defense hasn't been as stout as it has in recent years, it should be able to beat up Tebow, which is key to slowing the Broncos' option looks. The Steelers will also have LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison together for just the second time in 13 games.
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