Bengals-Colts Wild Card Preview

BOTH QUARTERBACKS FACE GUT-CHECK CHALLENGES WHEN CINCINNATI VISITS INDIANAPOLIS SUNDAY

Andy Dalton's collapse in last year's AFC Playoffs had many questioning his mettle all through the 2014 season that followed. The Cincinnati Bengals spent a fortune on a guy who can't handle the pressure! That same kind of skepticism started to surround Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts in the second half of this season, as his team continued to lay eggs vs. top competition.

Are Dalton and Luck the quarterbacks of the future...both headed to Hall-of-Fame careers? Or, are they just the next Jay Cutler? Big contract guys who can only take you so far?

Well...we know for sure that one of them will be considered a disappointment after losing in Sunday's early Wildcard game. One is guaranteed of advancing to the next round for a big road game against an AFC power. Who's going to save their reputation and lead their teams to victory? More importantly for handicappers, who's going to get the money in Las Vegas sportsbooks? Let's look for some hints in JIM HURLEY'S key indicator stats...

Won-Lost Records (Strength of Schedule)
Cincinnati: 10-5-1 (#18 schedule in USA Today)
Indianapolis: 11-5 (#24 schedule in USA Today)

Those records suggest "playoff caliber" but not championship caliber. Cincinnati at least faced something approximating a league average schedule. Ten wins is meaningful in that context. The Colts had it much easier (like usual in the AFC South). They may have only been a nine win team in a tougher division. In terms of head-to-head, a virtual wash with what might be a small edge to the road dog.

Yards-Per-Play
Cincinnati: 5.5 on offense, 5.4 on defense
Indianapolis: 5.9 on offense, 5.4 on defense

That gets taken away quickly because Indianapolis has the much better yards-per-play differential. That's +0.5 for the Colts, just +0.1 vs. the Bengals. When you factor in strength of schedule, we're very clearly looking at Wildcard caliber at the very best. We have to note here though that both defenses looked MUCH worse than that at times this season vs. offenses that knew what they were doing. The Colts in particular where humiliated by a few good offenses. That creates the potential for a higher scoring game than the "numbers" guys are expecting off their raw seasonal data. Don't forget that KC/Indy was a shootout last year on this same weekend.

Turnover Differential
Cincinnati: even
Indianapolis: -5

This is why skepticism is growing for Luck, and holding steady for Dalton. Neither quarterback is mastering the risk/reward area as quickly as is needed for true greatness. Luck, in particularly, is making way too many bad throws. He's not the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady if he keeps that up! Edge here to the Bengals because they're getting points as the better fundamental team that played the slightly tougher schedule. Very poor number for the Colts considering their slate this season.

Market Performance
Cincinnati: 8-7-1
Indianapolis: 10-5-1

With everything we've looked at, the Colts still covered 67% of the time! That means many of their bad performances were "really" bad in a way that dragged down what happened against the likes of Jacksonville or Tennessee. Handicappers will have to determine if that 10-5-1 ATS mark means the Colts are underrated overall...or just underrated in terms of blowout potential vs. patsies. Are they ready to lay a field goal or more in a playoff game?

Current Line: Indianapolis by 3.5, total of 49

Home field advantage is worth three points in the NFL generally speaking. Oddsmakers and sharps see the Colts as fractionally superior in the big picture...though Wise Guy money has been coming in on the Bengals at +3.5 or better (the game opened at +4). Fine line with teams this close when a big game pointspread is near a field goal.

JIM HURLEY learned a lot about these teams last year in the playoffs, and has been studying their losses last January to get the best sense of expectations for Sunday. You'll be able to purchase the final word for this game plus Detroit/Dallas on game day right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office Saturday or Sunday morning at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about combination packages that include the rest of football and January basketball. (What a month this is going to be!)

We'll preview that Lions/Cowboys game for you tomorrow in the NOTEBOOK. Then, it's three straight days of marquee college basketball matchups before returning to the NFL Playoffs. Here's what's ahead this week...

Sunday: NFL Wildcard Preview...Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys
Monday: College Hoops Preview...Notre Dame at North Carolina
Tuesday: College Hoops Preview...Villanova at St. John's
Wednesday: College Hoops Preview...Kansas at Baylor
Thursday-Sunday: NFL Divisional Round Previews

As we write this, all three of those basketball games will be pairing ranked teams. So...a true string of blockbusters! Then, the NFL playoffs get kicked up another notch when New England, Denver, Seattle, and Green Bay take the field for the first time.

Be sure you're with us every day this week for important preview information in the games you'll be watching on TV. Then, link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK for BIG, JUICY WINNERS!

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