West) vs. Houston Texans (9-7, 1st AFC South)
Location: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas
Time: Saturday, January 9th, 2016, 4:35 PM
Line: KC -3.0, O/U
Breakdown: Bill O'Brien can probably rest easy win or loss this weekend after successfully winning the AFC South Division and hosting a home playoff game, but in actuallity, this season for the Texans head coach is borderline Chip Kelly-like.
After resurrecting post-Sandusky scandal era Penn State University football in the college ranks, the former Tom Brady QB coach with the New England Patriots was viewed as a good fit for an NFL head coaching job. He made a change at quarterback, with Matt Schaub making for a fairly easy drop choice, but bringing in two of his former players to vie for the starting QB job this year (Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallet were both backups for Brady earlier in their careers with New England) was dicey at best. Hoyer has been wildly inconsistent (5-4 as starter) and Mallet flat out flopped (got cut after being late too much and pouting too much). If it weren't for playing in a horrible, awful, terrible division (they got to play the Titans, Jaguars, and Colts twice, going 5-1 in those games) and having a defense that (on paper) is top five in the NFL quality, and has shown signs of their potential at times this year, this team would be at home. But not playing. Just watching. Like the rest of us. [On the other hand: Kelly also played in a slop of a division this year in the NFC East and got crushed in games where it counted, still had a chance to make the playoffs, but ultimately the Philadelphia Eagles imploded, largely in part to too many questionable dismissals and acquisitions by Chip Kelly....like reallly, Byron Maxwell???]
O'Brien's job is safe for now, but you gotta like the Chiefs (11-5) -3.0 riding a franchise-record 10 game winning streak here. They are due for a loss now if you're looking at the other side of it, but there's no reason to believe that Alex Smith and Andy Reid game-managing plus a hot Chiefs defense (12.8 points per game allowed, +16 turnover margin in last 10 games) shouldn't be enough to win by atleast a couple of field goals.
Pick: Chiefs, 26-16
Key for Texans: Find ways to get DeAndre Hopkins aka 'Nuk Da Bomb' the football early and often. It will be a difficult task with talented rookie cornerback Marcus Peters likely to be matched up with him most of the game, and all-pro linebacker Justin Houston returning to the lineup to help harrass Hoyer.
Key for Chiefs: Don't turn the ball over and wear out the Houston defense. Short gains that move the chains early will open up deep shots down the field late. There will be plenty of possessions to rely on as the Texans offense is pass heavy and doesn't have a ball control identity.
Game: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, 2nd AFC North) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, 1st AFC North)
Location: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Time: Saturday, January 16th, 2016, 8:15 PM
Line: PIT -1.5, O/U 44.5
Breakdown: Most of the top AFC teams were breathing a sigh of relief after the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) somehow lost its matchup Week 16 to the lowly Baltimore Ravens (5-11), and it looked like they, boasting the NFL's scariest passing attack, would miss the playoffs.
The New York Jets (10-6) couldn't close the deal in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills (8-8) (Rex's revenge game) however and the Steelers jumped back in to the picture, putting frowney faces on all defensive secondary players and coaches in the AFC. The reason for that is Pittsburgh has put up 30+ points per game in seven of its last nine games and Ben Roethlisberger looks back to normal health. The Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) were hot to start (started 8-0) then clung to the division lead after Andy Dalton (broken thumb) went down against these very Steelers in Week 14 and are currently trying to find an offensive rhythm under backup quarterback A.J. McCarron (2-1 in three starts, wins were against the 5-11 San Francisco 49ers and Ravens) at a time when you least want to be trying to find an offensive rhythm.
The -1.5 line isn't as curious as it first seems when considering the Bengals are at home, it's technically a division game, and DeAngelo Williams suffered an ankle injury in Week 17 that initially looked serious, although he is listed as day-to-day and will probably give it a go in this one (The Steelers desperately need Williams in the lineup to maintain offensive balance since Le'Veon Bell is on injured reserve and the next viabale option at running back is Fitzgerald Toussaint). But when you add in to account that the Bengals' playoff life was tenuous even with Dalton as the starting quarterback, and Roethsliberger's history of playfoff success, there is no reason to believe that the Steelers can't win by a touchdown against a McCarron-led offense despite being on the road.
Pick: Steelers, 30-17
Key for Bengals: The defense is gonna have to gamble and come up with some big plays. Carlos Dunlap leads the front seven and will do his job putting pressure on Big Ben but it won't hold up if Cincinnati has to play from behind, limiting pass rush opportunities.
Key for Steelers: Keep everything in front of you on defense at don't allow any explosive plays. McCarron is less likely to beat you in the intermediate passing game as he simply hasn't had the experience needed to break down defenses beyond his first pass option.