Free NFL Divisional Playoffs Picks: Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens NFL Playoffs Vegas Odds, Free Picks, and Expert Predictions on CBS 1/15/12: It has been a season of firsts for the Houston Texans. They won the AFC South for the first time, securing the franchise’s first-ever playoff appearance. Houston kept the memorable moments coming with a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals to set up a matchup with the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Ravens have been a staple of the postseason the last several years, but getting over the hump and making a Super Bowl run has proved difficult. With Baltimore’s Achilles heel the Pittsburgh Steelers already eliminated, the path to a championship may never be better for the AFC North champs. However, they will have to first get past a resilient Texans’ group that has overcome injuries all season. Armed with home-field advantage and more playoff experience, the Ravens are 7 ½-point favorites in this game.

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When breaking down the matchup, starting with the regular season meeting between the two teams only makes sense. Houston visited Baltimore in October, and the Ravens used a strong fourth quarter to come away with a 29-14 victory. In that game, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw for more than 300 yards, and running back Ray Rice went for more than 100. The good news for the Texans is that star running back Arian Foster is healthier than he was in the first meeting and receiver Andre Johnson will be on the field. The bad news is that third-string QB T.J. Yates is now running the offense.

While the game in October is a good starting point, a playoff matchup in January is a completely different animal. The intensity and the strategy will be different for both sides, and with two of the top defenses in the NFL going toe to toe, the rematch could easily come down to the wire. After all, both Houston and Baltimore rank in the top four against the run and the pass. The impressive numbers continue, and both units rank in the top four in terms of points allowed and in the top six in terms of sacks. Overall, the Ravens have a slight edge in the battle of stingy defenses. Baltimore’s defense has been a little more opportunistic this year, forcing an NFL-best 21 fumbles and scoring four defensive touchdowns. With playmakers like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed roaming the field, Baltimore’s defense could easily put points on the board.

There is a very good chance that Sunday’s game could take on a physical, nasty tone. Even though the defenses could dictate the tempo, the offenses are going to have to contribute if either side hopes to move on to the AFC Championship Game. Both sides are going to lean heavily on their running game, and why not? Rice and Foster finished first and second in the AFC in rushing this season. Rice had the better individual numbers this year and had the far better game in the regular season meeting, but the Houston running game has a secret weapon. Backup Ben Tate ran for nearly 1,000 yards as well, and in a game that will likely be hard hitting, keeping Foster fresh for the fourth quarter could help reverse the collapse the Texans suffered in the earlier matchup.

Although the running backs are the stars of their respective offenses, Flacco and Yates could end up deciding the outcome. In what should be a defensive battle, both quarterbacks are going to have to make some clutch throws. Yates has the added advantage of having Johnson to throw to, who is by far the best receiver on either side. However, he is a rookie that wasn’t expected to see the field this season, while Flacco has won three road playoff games in his career. Granted, he also has a reputation for struggling in the big spots, but Flacco’s experience has to count for something.

Playing at home should help the Ravens. Baltimore has won 10 straight at M&T Bank Stadium and 18 of its last 19 games. That being said, the Texans’ defense is good enough to hold the Ravens’ offense in check and prevent a blowout. In the end, Baltimore’s defense should be able to rattle Yates and force the rookie into a few mistakes that will ultimately seal the deal for the Ravens. Still, a calculated, conservative game dominated by the defenses should keep things nice and close.

 Prediction: Houston Texans (+7 ½) Cover the Spread

Free NFL Football Picks and Predictions: Houston Texans +7.5

NFL Playoff Football: Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens
Date: 1/15/2012
Time: 1 PM EST on CBS
Vegas Odds Favorite: Baltimore -7.5 | Total: Over/Under 36.5

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