This is as an intriguing a wild-card slate as I have ever handicapped. Consider:
• The Texans and Broncos carry three-game losing streaks into Round One.
• The Saints, who have the best point-differential (plus-208) of any club since the 2007 Patriots, didn't earn a bye.
• The Lions, the Saints' Round One opponent, have scored 34 points or more in seven games and have shown a knack for making big second-half comebacks.
• The Falcons and Giants, in my view, are two very compelling playoff sleepers.
• The Steelers, a heavy favorite at Denver, look to have oh-so-many edges over the Broncos but have oh-so-many injuries to key players.
I enjoy the challenge of this round. It's always a puzzler. While I've done well picking wild-card games in recent years — since 2005, I am 22-2 ATS on the opening weekend of the playoffs — it's never an easy card to handicap.
On to the picks:
Cincinnati (+3) at Houston
When these teams met four weeks ago in Cincinnati, the Texans earned a thrilling 20-19 comeback victory to win the AFC South title.
Since then, Houston's wheels have fallen off. The Texans lost consecutive games to the Panthers, Colts (!) and Titans to end the season. Their late-season woes explain the field-goal spread. Sportsbooks clearly don't want to move this up half a point; with Houston struggling of late, the 3½ could attract underdogs in droves.
And were this line higher, I might view this game a little less enthusiastically from a handicapping perspective. But at this number, the Texans look like the clear play for the following reasons:
• They outgained the Bengals 412-285 in the first meeting, and the Texans didn't have star WR Andre Johnson in that game. Johnson will start on Saturday, bolstering Houston's pass-catching corps.
• The Bengals surrendered 191 yards to Ravens RB Ray Rice in Week 17 and gave up a pair of long TD runs (70, 51 yards). There are similarities between the Ravens' and Texans' running schemes, and Cincinnati, which allowed 144 yards and 5.1 yards per carry in the first meeting with Houston, is going to need to step up its run defense to have a chance.
• The Texans have the better running game. Also, they are stronger vs. the pass.
• I don't believe the Bengals have an overwhelming advantage in the passing game. On balance, rookie QB Andy Dalton had a solid first season, but he has completed less than 60 percent of his passes in his last five starts.
• The Texans don't have a Saints-like home-field edge, but Reliant Stadium should be very loud.
Yes, the Texans' recent form isn't very good. But the Bengals haven't defeated a team in the playoff field (0-7). They have lost to Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (twice), San Francisco, Denver .… and Houston, of course.
Wilkening's pick: Houston
Atlanta (+3, O/U 47½) at N.Y. Giants
I like the favorite.
I like the Over.
I am going to parlay them for purposes of this column.
A sharp play? Some might argue otherwise. But whatever. The Giants' edges in the trenches could be the difference in this game. The Falcons could have real problems with the Giants' pass rush, and I wonder if they can consistently pressure Giants QB Eli Manning. The Giants' pass blocking has been very good for the majority of the season.
These are two potent offenses, but I prefer New York's matchups a little more. I look for the Giants to prevail in a high-scoring opening to the Sunday slate.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a giant basket of apples to eat.
Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Giants and Over 47½
Pittsburgh (-8½) at Denver
The Steelers do not look like a bargain at this price. Half of their 12 victories were by eight points or less, and only one of their road wins — a 32-20 triumph at Arizona in October — exceeds this pointspread.
Even considering all of their injuries, the Steelers are the better club, and they are likely to win this game. But can they score enough to win comfortably? I'm dubious. QB Ben Roethlisberger is battling a high ankle sprain, as is the Steelers' best offensive lineman, C Maurkice Pouncey. Also, losing RB Rashard Mendenhall to a season-ending knee injury hurts Pittsburgh's running game.
All season, the Steelers have been unable to pull away from opponents they clearly outclassed on paper. They defeated the Colts by three. They have four-point wins vs. Jacksonville, at Cleveland and at Kansas City to their credit.
Am I thrilled to be taking the points here? Not really, even though I've had success picking Denver games this season. However, the Broncos really have struggled lately, and if the Steelers play their best game, I could end up like the guy Ogre dropped from the roof of the Alpha Beta house in "Revenge of the Nerds."
Nevertheless, this is the right move. The Broncos are a flawed underdog, yes, but they are well-coached, and some of their best efforts since Tim Tebow entered the starting lineup could keep them competitive here. Of note: the Broncos' defense allowed just 4.7 yards per play last week.
Wilkening's pick: Denver