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AFC wild-card playoffs: Deja vu for Bengals?

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports
Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts
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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 30: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts passes the ball against the Houston Texans during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Before we look too far ahead to a possible Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup in the AFC championship game, it's worth examining how bad the Texans have looked over the past seven games. Between scratching out two overtime victories against inferior teams (Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions) and then losing three of their final four games, Houston looks like anything but the team that was 11-1 at one point.

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Put that together with the inconsistencies of the Ravens and you have two interesting games where a good argument can be made for a pair of upsets in the first round of the AFC playoffs. The flipside is that quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton don't have the experience you'd like to see on this kind of stage.

Here's a quick breakdown of next week's AFC wild-card contests:

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

Keys for the Colts: They have excelled this season with a combination of tenacity and good fortune, traits that have defined the recovery of head coach Chuck Pagano in his battle with leukemia. Nine of Indy's 11 wins have been by seven points or less. Obviously, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck will have to come up with three or four key plays, avoid Ravens free safety Ed Reed and hope for enough help.

Keys for the Ravens: This one is all about which Joe Flacco shows up. If it's the one who played great in a key home win over the Giants and very well in the loss to Washington, the Ravens have a chance to win and perhaps even get to the Super Bowl out of the AFC (the conference is that weak). If not, the Ravens could be one and done. The Ravens' defense is but a mere shell of its past greatness, but it could have linebacker Ray Lewis back for inspiration.

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Bottom line: This is a wonderfully intriguing game because the Colts are an incredibly unpredictable team. They are fully capable of playing awful football for three quarters and still doing enough to win. The funny part is that the Ravens aren't much different because of the inconsistency of their defense

Prediction:Ravens 23, Colts 17

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)

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Andy Dalton is sacked during last year's playoff game against the Texans. (AP)

Keys for the Bengals: They return to where their 2011 season ended, getting thrashed 31-10 by the Texans in the first round of the playoffs. Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton was clearly in over his head in this game as a rookie and the Houston defense was playing extremely well. This time around, with further developed wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals should have a chance to expose the Texans' porous secondary.

Keys for the Texans: They are a mess right now, having lost three of their final four to drop from the No. 1 seed to the No. 3. Houston's secondary has more leaks than the Jets' organization right now between injuries and missed assignments. Beyond that, quarterback Matt Schaub has been decidedly mediocre at a time when he needs to prove that he's truly great (as his Pro Bowl berth would indicate).

Bottom line: Houston should have enough on offense to win this game between the running/receiving of Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson. Playing at home, you can expect some type of bounce from the Texans. But there is no question that Houston is vulnerable in a very big way right now.

Prediction: Bengals 23, Texans 20

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