Updated Jan. 12, 2012 @ 5:12 p.m. ET
In his divisional round handicapping column, PFW's Mike Wilkening sides with a pair of underdogs, including one led by a rookie quarterback.
New Orleans (-3½) at San Francisco (47½)
Do you remember those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books? Well, this is that sort of game. Either you believe the 49ers' offense is capable of trading punches with the Saints' attack or you don't. The Saints, who are averaging 34.8 points, are not going to be held scoreless.
Me? I believe in the 49ers' ability to score enough to be competitive. San Francisco averaged 23.8 points in the regular season, a figure that would have been higher had it been a little stronger in the red zone. Only 22 of the Niners' 54 trips inside the opposition 20 resulted in TDs (30th in NFL).
However, the Saints have struggled keeping opponents out of the endzone when they enter the red zone. Including the postseason win vs. Detroit, when the Lions scored touchdowns on all four trips inside the 20, New Orleans has allowed 27 TDs in 43 opponent red-zone trips.
I believe there's a solid case for the Over, and that's my play in this matchup. That said, if this becomes a field-goal fest — which is quite possible — I could end up on the wrong side. The 49ers have a wonderful defense, one quite strong as opponents approach their goal line. San Francisco allowed just 14 TDs in 34 opponent red-zone possessions.
If this game lands on 19-16 or some other FG-loaded score .... well, I always knew it was possible. Nevertheless, the Over is the side to take here.
Wilkening's pick: Over 47½
Houston (+7½) at Baltimore (35½)
When these teams met in Week Six, I took the points, and I ended up on the wrong side of a 29-14 Ravens win. That Texans club had Matt Schaub at quarterback.
Three months later, the Texans are starting a rookie, T.J. Yates, at quarterback. Yates will be playing in just his fourth NFL regular-season road game. The Ravens are lights-out at home, winning all eight regular-season games at M&T Bank Stadium.
So why am I taking the points?
As in Saints-49ers, it comes down to confidence in an offense not without its shortcomings. Yates' inexperience is a real concern for me, certainly.
However, he's surrounded by excellent talent. RB Arian Foster has exceeded 100 rushing-receiving yards in each of his two lifetime starts vs. Baltimore. WR Andre Johnson, who caught Yates' lone TD pass in the wild-card win vs. Cincinnati, racked up 140 yards and two TDs in his last game against Baltimore in 2010.
In addition to the underdog, I like the Over. This total looks a touch short. These teams combined for 62 points in a regular-season meeting in 2010 and 43 points in October. While each club has a strong defense, I anticipate both offenses having some success. My belief in the Texans' ability to compete makes this pairing of picks a natural.
Wilkening's pick: Houston
Wilkening's pick: Over 35½
N.Y. Giants (+7½) at Green Bay (53)
This may sound odd ... but I don't want to lay more than a touchdown with the Packers right now. Yes, yes, I know — that résumé! They have lost one game! They covered in 11-of-16 regular-season games, a spectacular record for a club this popular. They were even a perfectly acceptable 5-4 ATS as a favorite of more than a touchdown.
So what am I afraid of?
For starters, the Giants played the Packers to within three points at the beginning of December — and the Giants are in better form now than they were then. They have won their last three games by an average of 18 points, allowing just four TDs in this span.
The Packers are going to get their points on Sunday. There's nothing any Giants backers or the Giants themselves can do about that if the Green Bay offense plays to form. However, by extension, if the Packers' defense continues to play like one of the NFL's worst, the Giants can hang around and keep this close.
The Giants are a solid road team (5-3 ATS) and a very good underdog (5-2 ATS). Look for a competitive effort Sunday afternoon.
Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Giants
Last week: 3-1
Season to date: 37-35