I'm not going to get too in depth on the X's and O's of these games because the fundamental matchups are over-analyzed to death on every media outlet you can find. Instead I'll summarize the reasons I like or don't like a side--or skip the game altogether.
CINCINNATI @ HOUSTON: At first glance my initial instinct was to ride the underdog in this one. TJ Yates has shown us what a 3rd string rookie QB looks like in December and I wasn't impressed. Theoretically, there should be value on HOU at -3. They should have the advantage both running the ball and stopping the run. This HOU O-line is used to facing 8 and 9 man fronts and still get the job done. Foster and Tate are well-suited for a smash mouth knock-down drag-out game. Both passing defenses are going to dominate the air and Dalton has apparently been dealing with the flu. I don't expect that to be an issue whatsoever on Sunday, but either way he'll have his work cut out for him.
There aren't many other mismatches in any other key areas except for two and both favor HOU. CIN is -39 in points from long drives this year while HOU is +52. HOU also average 3.7 extra completed plays per game. That might not sound like a lot, but let me tell you that teams that win that category--usually win the game. The caveat here is that HOU's offense is significantly different with Yates than with Schaub so these numbers need to be weighted and adjusted a bit. The Vegas line is exactly where it should be which is why I'm taking a pass on it. HOU's key injuries have balanced out the matchup and it's anyone's guess how this is going to play out. Home field advantage in the playoffs counts for a bit more than the regular season, so those on the fence could make the argument that HOU can do enough in the run and on defense at home for the win. Others could argue that CIN's advantage at QB is enough to make the difference in what has become a pass-heavy league. Personally I think too much rests on Yates shoulders and I want nothing to do with it. Also, CIN is 0-5 against tough teams in 2011. The public are split at 52-48 and sharps are waiting to pounce on a move off the 3.
PITTSBURGH @ DENVER: If you've followed this blog over the last couple months you'll know my thoughts on Tim Tebow. It's not that I'm a hater, but I call it like I see it and this guy just can't play QB in the NFL. Hitching your wagon to a college option-style running QB isn't going to get you very far in the playoffs--especially against a defense like PIT. Sure losing Mendenhall hurts--especially when you're thin at the position--but this game will be won and lost by what is done in the air. The saving grace for DEN backers is the ankle of Big Ben. High ankle sprains don't go away anytime soon and he'll undoubtedly be dealing with more mobility problems in this game. If you want a recent case of reference look no further than Sam Bradford. This could make +9 appealing to some.
I much prefer to shop around for a -8.5 or -8 and tease PIT down under a field goal. Playoff football is a lot about who can sustain drives in critical situations. PIT is +90 in points from long drives this year while DEN is -34. If Ben is healthy enough to stand up, deliver a ball from the pocket, and not turn the ball over this game could be a blowout. The only reason why I'm not taking them straight on the spread is due to the DEN pass rush. This is going to be the Broncos biggest edge in the game and could give their putrid offense a chance if they can harass Ben out of the pocket (or even out of the game). Spotting this many points on the road is a lot, but then again it's Tebow. His bubble burst over a month ago. 64% of the public is on PIT, and early money came in on PIT as well. Though we don't know how much of that was positioning from the sharps and how much of it was true steam (probably both). I expect teasers to be the heaviest play here from the sharps.
DETROIT @ NEW ORLEANS: I am a little bummed out that DET had to travel to NO for the first week of the wild card round. I was hoping to get some value on them after the rest of the betting universe jumped ship on them over a month ago. But no matter how much I try to twist the numbers, I can't justify a play on DET in the Superdome. NO should be able to have their way on offense whether it is on the ground or in the air. When you give Payton and Brees that much flexibility then you know you're in for a long day. Suh hasn't been the unstoppable force that he was last year, but some of that also has to do with extra attention going his way.
NO also have the advantage with special teams. Don't be surprised if Sproles has a big impact in this game and his returns could be a devastating blow to DET morale. They won't admit they are "just happy to be here", but they are. The only chance they have is if they can keep up with Brees in a shootout. It's not entirely out of the question because NO give up a ton of yards in the air and don't keep many teams out of the end zone once they get inside the 20 either. If DET can get some breaks early on and establish a lead--we could have a ball game. This is the playoffs and anything can happen. For this reason I prefer to tease down NO to under a touchdown. A double digit spread for NO is scary when you consider how easily Stafford and company can move the ball. That has backdoor cover written all over it. Realistically though, no team has been able to go into NO and come away with a win this year. When you combine NO's 8-0 record at home and DET's 0-5 record against tough teams then this play becomes a no-brainer. 59% of the public are on NO and some early sharp money came in on the opening line of -10.
ATLANTA @ NEW YORK: This is the one game where I feel good about taking a side straight up. I'll take the +3 from the books in case it's a close game, but I think ATL win this game and advance. I will say up front that handicap either of these teams has been a nightmare this season thanks to incredible inconsistency, but when push comes to shove I like how ATL matchup in this situation.
Both Ryan and Manning will have plenty of opportunities in the air to get some points on the board, but NY haven't been able to find their running game all season long. Advantage Turner and the Falcons. ATL is also 4-4 on the road in 2011 while NY is 4-4 at home. Granted, the fans are always crazy in NY come playoff time, but it's not the slam-dunk home field advantage that one would expect come January. Both teams matchup pretty evenly in most other areas, but ATL's O-line does have it's work cut out for them with that NY pass rush. As long as ATL sticks with a balanced attack and doesn't revert to their early season philosophy they should be fine. Overall, ATL's defense has been the more efficient unit of the two over the course of the season. Both teams have losing records against tough teams this year. Right now 60% of the public disagree with me and are riding the home team, but late money from the sharps has come in on ATL. I also like ATL in a teaser option just in case this comes down to who has the better kicker.