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Can the Texans and Bengals upset the odds on Wild Card weekend?

The AFC Wild Card playoff games this place this evening.

Chiefs (11-5) @ Texans (9-7)

Saturday, 9.20pm 

Source: David J. Phillip/AP/Press Association Images

How the Texans can win — Get the ball into the hands of DeAndre Hopkins
Hopkins started the season — one where he amassed 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns — with a two score, 98-yard performance against the Chiefs in week one. Rarely used as a slot receiver, when Hopkins lines up out wide on Saturday he’ll face either Marcus Peters or Sean Smith.

Both match-ups could suit the Texans receiver as, per Pro Football Focus, no cornerback has given up more touchdowns over the past five weeks than Smith (four) while only one player has given up more penalties (7) in that time than Peters.

However, Peters is also one of the front-runners for Defensive Rookie of the Year with a league leading eight interceptions so, if he can avoid the pass interference penalties, the Texans may want to be careful what they wish for.

How the Chiefs can win — Don’t let JJ Watt be JJ Watt
BREAKING: JJ Watt is very good at football. You can pick your jaw back up off the floor now. This year he had 17.5 sacks, two of which came against the Chiefs at the start of the season. Given that he’ll be facing the same offensive line on Saturday, there’s every reason to expect Watt to have as good a game this time around.

Alex Smith’s completion percentage on passes this season was 65.3% which makes him the eighth most accurate quarterback (of those with more than 300 passes) in the league. However, according to PFF, while under pressure, Smith’s accuracy drops to 55.8% making him one of the bottom five quarterbacks in the NFL.

Source: NFL Gamepass

Key to avoiding this pressure is getting the ball out of his hands quickly — something the Chiefs try to do with short passes — or using his feet. Among quarterbacks, only Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor and Russell Wilson have rushed for more than Smith’s 498 yards this season and a big game on the ground could be key to avoiding Watt and company.

Who will win?
The Chiefs are 3.5-point favourites and, given they’ve won ten games on the spin, that’s hardly a surprise. However, here are the records of the last six Super Bowl winners over the final six games of the season which shows momentum — if it even exists — means little.

2014 Patriots: 4-2
2013 Seahawks: 4-2
2012 Ravens: 2-4
2011 Giants: 3-3
2010 Packers: 3-3
2009 Saints: 3-3

Combine that with the fact an Andy Reid side hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2008 season and Kansas City are suddenly no longer such a sure bet. However, they’re still a better football team than the Texans and that’ll be enough to get them into the divisional round next week.

Chiefs by 5.

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) @ Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Sunday, 1.15am

Steelers Bengals Football Ben Roethlisberger tries to escape pressure from Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Source: Gary Landers/AP/Press Association Images

How the Bengals can win — Hand the ball off to Gio Bernard
It’s more than likely that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton misses this game and, even if he doesn’t, his record of four straight trips to the playoffs followed by four straight losses inspires very little confidence. And, while the Dalton we’ve seen on the field this year is a very different beast to the one we’ve been used to, there is the obvious concern over the fractured thumb that has kept him out of action since week 14.

With AJ McCarron at quarterback, the Bengals can still get the ball to AJ Green but to do so they’ll need to set up the run game and that will involve changing who their primary running back is. While Jeremy Hill has 794 yard on his 223 carries this season, he only managed to gain 76 yards on 22 carries (3.45 yards per carry) in the two games with the Steelers this year.

Giovani Bernard, however, managed 52 yards on just seven touches against Pittsburgh this season (7.4 ypc) and has just 64 less yards over the course of 2015 than his team-mate despite having 69 less touches. The Steelers may have the fifth best run defence in football, but trusting Bernard behind the NFL’s best run-blocking offensive line is still Cincinnati’s best option.

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How the Steelers can win — Keep throwing the ball to Heath Miller
Heath Miller had a very average season. Ranked 10th among tight ends in receptions and 15th in total yards, Miller caught 60 of his 81 targets (74%) over the course of the season.

Against the Bengals, however, Miller has looked like the best tight end in the league. Over the course of their two regular season games, he caught 20 of 22 passes thrown in his direction (91%) for 171 yards. If you consider that in his 13 other games he averaged less than three catches per game (2.85) you get a sense of just how much a part of the gameplan he must be on Saturday night.

However, the one caveat is that Miller is likely to see much more of Vontaze Burfict this time around. The linebacker missed their first game this season and played a very limited role in the second and while he’s primarily known for his role as a run defender, expect him to keep a very close eye on the Steelers tight end.

Who will win?
The Bengals playoff record is horrendous, especially in recent years, so it’s no surprise the Steelers will go into Cincinnati as 2.5-point favourites. However, his connection with Miller aside, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been poor against the Bengals this year, throwing just one touchdown to four interceptions.

He also has question marks over who will line up behind him in the backfield with DeAngelo Williams limited in training this week with an ankle sprain and that’s before we consider some less than impressive performances down the stretch that required the Jets slipping up to even allow the Steelers into the playoffs.

Key for the Bengals is scoring three touchdowns. In games where they’ve put 21 or more points on the board this season, they’ve won 11 of 12. Divisional games are so hard to call, especially in the playoffs, but home advantage could be key here as the Steelers are just .500 on the road this year, the second worst record of teams who made the playoffs.

Bengals by 3.

We’ll have a preview of the two NFC Wild Card games tomorrow.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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