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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 11:03 AM

Back as promised with Day One of our NFL Playoff stat previews. Today we'll look at Saturday's Wildcard action...with Cincinnati visiting Houston and Detroit on the road at New Orleans. We'll be back bright and early Sunday morning to discuss the last two games of Wildcard Weekend.

We hope you were able to read and study our big picture outlines of both the NFC and AFC brackets. Those ran Wednesday and Thursday respectively here in the NOTEBOOK. If you missed them because you only focus on football on the weekends, please check the archives. We'll be using the same indicator stats we discussed midweek this weekend, but aligning them in a matchup format that will hopefully help you make solid predictions.

Vegas Line: Houston by 3, total of 38.5

A line of "home team by 3" means that the market sees these two teams as dead even on a neutral field. Home field advantage is generally worth three points in the NFL playoffs. Though, you'll see next week that "home field plus a bye week" can be worth more than that in some cases. A total of 38 or 38.5 obviously projects a defensive struggle...though not quite the kind of cold weather war you sometimes see in January where Vegas posts a number at 36 or below.

Cincinnati: 23rd
Houston: 32nd

As always in the postseason, our strength of schedule numbers come from Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA Today. Were you aware that Houston played the easiest schedule in the league! That's one of the main reasons they were able to weather the storm of an injury to their star quarterback. They didn't play many good teams after he got hurt! The AFC South was awful this year, with both Indianapolis and Jacksonville playing expansion caliber football. Tennessee had its moments...but wasn't all that great either.

You could make a case that neither Cincinnati or Houston as the Texans are currently configured are playoff caliber teams. We talked some about this the other day. Stick the 16th ranked schedule in front of these they finish the year 8-8 or better? It's dicey with the Bengals...and it's very hard to see T.J. Yates leading Houston to the playoffs against a real schedule no matter how good the running game and defense are.

In terms of the matchup, Cincinnati played the tougher schedule...and that deserves consideration as we run through the rest of the data.

Cincinnati: 10.1 on offense, 12.4 on defense (-2.3 differential)
Houston: 12.8 on offense, 8.9 on defense (+3.9 differential)

Houston still had a plus differential if you only look at the games that Yates played...but that came against a weak schedule. Cincinnati is a minus team against a soft schedule...which is further confirmation that they're not ap layoff caliber team. You saw these teams play a coin flip game in Cincinnati a few weeks that the Bengals though they had wrapped up. You have to play 60 full minutes in this league, no matter who the quarterback is! We do have a lot of respect for this stat...and this stat by itself would suggest Houston should be a bit more than a three-point favorite on this field with Yates. That's because Cincinnati is likely to have a tough day on the road against that strong Houston defense.

Cincinnati: 37% on offense, 36% on defense (+1 differential)
Houston: 42% on offense, 36% on defense (+6 differential)

Yates is likely to have trouble in this stat...because rookie quarterbacks almost always do in big games vs. quality defenses. Of course, Andy Dalton is a rookie too...but he's much more battle tested this year. We're going to call this stat a wash once you adjust for the presence of Yates...and the Texans playing the 32nd ranked schedule. Both defenses have done a good job, though it's important to remember that 36% was actually the midpoint of the NFL this year because a few teams decided to either emphasize the big play...or emphasize punting rather than risking turnovers.

Cincinnati: even (22 takeaways, 22 giveaways)
Houston: +7 (27 takeaways, 20 giveaways)

Once again we're looking at making mental adjustments for what we expect from an inexperienced rookie like Yates in a big game. This edge is likely to disappear. Do you really think Houston has the turnover edge in a battle of Yates vs. Dalton? The only way to answer yes is to take Yates out of the equation. If Houston can control the game on the ground and with their defense...then it's possible for THAT mixture to have the edge in turnovers. If Cincinnati stuffs the run, forcing Yates to move the ball to win...then Houston becomes more turnover prone.

ADDING IT ALL UP: We may decide that the total makes more sense than the team side given the potential here for a "play it safe" grinder game that sees both teams punting or settling for field goals. Our statheads and computer projection guys have been going over the games Yates played with a fine-toothed comb to find edges. That's why we didn't pin all of that down for you in the numbers above. Those numbers will weigh heavily on our final pick!


Vegas Line: New Orleans by 10.5, total of 59

This is a very high line for a Wildcard game. What we have here is basically a home team that's seen as a "true" #1 or #2 seed in terms of recent caliber, laying points at home against a Wildcard who rarely impressed down the stretch. We'll talk more about that in a moment. Just in terms of Vegas, we're looking at New Orleans by 7.5 on a neutral field. The total of 59 is VERY high for a playoff game. Maybe a Super Bowl would get that high. Driving that line here is the fast break red hot attack of New Orleans facing a Detroit team that's been playing a lot of high scoring shootouts lately thanks to a tiring defense but a dangerous offense.

Detroit: 4th
New Orleans: 31st

Wow...BIG deal here. Perhaps the perceptions of New Orleans as a Super Bowl threat are being driven by their very weak schedule. That has to be taken into consideration going forward. Yes, they've played well vs. good teams too. But, it's easier to do that when you only play 1-2 top opponents per month. As we mentioned the other day, we'd be more optimistic about Detroit as a darkhorse if they had been playing well against their tough schedule. They really haven't been. And, last week's defensive effort vs. Matt Flynn and Green Bay was pretty abysmal. Perhaps this is a case where the tough scheduled wore a team down. Our standard rule in the playoffs is to respect this stat...and honor the teams who made the playoffs vs. tough challenges. And, that's worked very well! This time around, recent form may be hinting to go the other way. Detroit's exhausted from their tough schedule, and the defense just doesn't have any legs left.

Detroit: 16.6 on offense, 11.4 on defense (+5.2 differential)
New Orleans: 22.1 on offense, 14.3 on defense (+7.8 differential)

There's often a good correlation between differential in Drive Points and the Vegas line. The "pointspread" here would only be New Orleans by 5.6 points after home field is factored in. Well, Vegas has DOUBLED that! How much weight do you place on recent form? How much weight do you put on what Detroit's defense has failed to do recently in a series of shootouts? If you drop Detroit down to zero differential, imagining something like 16.5 on offense AND on defense...that would put you on the Vegas spread. New Orleans would be favored by 7.8 on a neutral field, and 10.8 at home. Vegas is basically saying that Detroit's recent form trumps their full season numbers.

Detroit: 36% on offense, 33% on defense (+3 differential)
New Orleans: 57% on offense, 33% on defense (+24 differential)

Wow...+24 in this stat just isn't something you see very often. It's almost impossible to have an offense that's historically great in this stat on the same team as a defense that's better than average. New Orleans has truly mastered the "coin of the realm" as we've been calling it in recent years. They move the chains and put points on the board. They disrupt enough opposing drives that opponents can't keep up.

Detroit: +11 (34 takeaways, 23 giveaways)
New Orleans: -3 (16 takeaways, 19 giveaways)

Big surprise here. New Orleans just isn't forcing turnovers the way you would expect. They owned this stat in their Super Bowl season. It's common for defenses facing "come-from-behind" opponents to get rich in this stat the way Green Bay, San Francisco, and New England have done this year. Instead, New Orleans is just thriving with their third down edge and not getting any bonus kickers in the turnover category. This does provide some hope for the Lions. There's a chance to turn the game into a shootout coin flip if Detroit can avoid turning the ball over. And, maybe Brees will make one or two ill-advised passes that will come back to haunt him.

ADDING IT ALL UP: If you believe that recent form is going to rule the day, then you're going to like New Orleans and probably the Over. Maybe a 45-27 kind of game that has the potential to be even more out of control than that. But, if you respect the full season numbers of Detroit, then a line this high can't really be justified. Something closer to a TD and 54 would make more sense. That would put you on the dog and Under.

JIM HURLEY lives for the NFL playoffs. He'll make sure you get the right play in every game this weekend. We'll have a BONUS play from the college bowls on Saturday and Sunday too. You can purchase NETWORK'S playoff picks right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about basketball when you call. The busiest months of college hoops have arrived...and the NBA's schedule is so jam-packed we're looking at a three-month sprint to the playoffs.

First things starts its championship playoffs TODAY, and college football crowns its national champion Monday. When championships are on the line, YOU NEED WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!

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