Playoff picks: Find the right road team
After a strong finish to the regular season, Pro Picks hopes to peak in the postseason. So the search begins for Best Bets and Upset Specials.
We can't see all four home teams defending their turf this weekend, so which of the visitors will sneak away with a victory and head to the divisional round?
Actually, with the exception of the Lions, we could see any of the underdogs coming through.
Our focus, though, turns to a team with an awful recent playoff record. Yes, the Bengals (10-5-1, No. 9 AP Pro32) are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year. And, no, they didn't win any postseason matches in those three previous trips.
Indeed, they have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season. Yet ...
Cincinnati is a 3 1-2-point underdog at AFC South winner Indianapolis (11-5, No. 8 AP Pro32) on Sunday. For the Bengals to defy history, they'll need to pressure Andrew Luck, who led the league with 40 touchdown passes. Luck torched the Bengals for 344 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-0 romp in October.
Plus, the Bengals don't have much of a pass rush, ranking 20th against the pass and managing a league-low 20 sacks. Indy is solid at protecting Luck.
''Suppressing Andrew Luck is going to be kind of hard,'' safety Reggie Nelson said. ''He always starts off kind of slow and the scary thing is, he can always get his team going. The key for us as a secondary is not giving up deep balls, and we've given up a couple of those the last couple of games.''
And yet ...
The Colts have not shown much down the stretch. Their running game ranges from stagnant to nonexistent, which will allow Cincy to gear up for the air game. Their defense is inconsistent and they're not a great home team.
Besides, we need to pick a road team, so ...
UPSET SPECIAL: BENGALS, 27-23
No. 7 Detroit (plus 7) at No. 4 Dallas, Sunday
Neither side inspires much confidence when it comes to the postseason. The Lions (11-5) rarely make it, and then go out right away. Dallas (12-4) has been a shell of the franchise that Tom Landry and then Jimmy Johnson coached.
History won't matter in this one. Even with Ndamukong Suh cleared to play after his one-game suspension was changed to a $70,000 fine, Detroit's defense will get burned by Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. No contest.
BEST BET: COWBOYS 33-17
No. 10 (tie) Arizona (plus 6) at No. 13 Carolina, Saturday
It's a shame the Cardinals (11-5) have been so damaged by injuries because they have been among the feel-good stories of 2014. But with Ryan Lindley at quarterback if Drew Stanton can't get back from his knee surgery, and with so many backups playing elsewhere, it's difficult to envision them getting past the Panthers (7-8-1).
Yes, Carolina is only the second division winner in NFL history with a losing record, but it won its final four games and has shown some nice balance on offense and defense.
A team hosting the Super Bowl in its own stadium won't happen this season.
No. 10 (tie) Baltimore (plus 3) at No. 6 Pittsburgh, Saturday
Nasty. Vicious. Brutal.
And highly entertaining.
This might be the best rivalry in the NFL, and when these teams collide in the playoffs, well, the intensity is ratcheted up. Simply, these AFC North teams don't like one another. Never have, never will.
Pittsburgh (11-5) won the division, but one of its key performers, RB Le'Veon Bell, is battling a knee injury. That places more emphasis on QB Ben Roethlisberger throwing to the sensational Antonio Brown. And against the week secondary of the Ravens (10-6), that could be decisive.
2014 RECORD: Against spread: This week (11-4); Season (128-116-5). Straight up: This week (11-4); Season (169-85-1)
Best Bet: 7-10 against spread, 10-7 straight up.
Upset special: 9-8 against spread, 7-10 straight up.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL