WASHINGTON AT TAMPA BAY
CREDENTIALS: Tampa Bay [11-5] surprisingly surpased Carolina and Atlanta for the NFC South crown. The Redskins won their final 5 games, three of which were on the road, to end the season 10-6.
ODDS: Buccaneers by 2.5
WTF??? The Redskins played the SECOND toughest schedule [only San Diego's was tougher]...in which the Skins played 10 games against teams who finished the season with a winning record. By contrast, the Buccaneers played the SECOND EASIEST schedule [only the Seahawks sked was easier].
OUTLOOK: These two teams are very similar. Lefthanded QBs who weren't opening day starters? Check. Top notch running backs? Check [Clinton and Cadillac]. Big play receiver? Check [Moss and Galloway]. Bruising defenses? Check. Super Bowl winning coaches? Check. History? Check. The last time these two played....the game was decided when Jon Gruden went for a 2-pt conversion to win the game by one point. The last time these two played in the postseason [the Skins last playoff game]...the game was decided by one point. In that game, a potential game winning FG was foiled when Redskins' QB Brad Johnson [who later won a Super Bowl as the QB for the Bucs] mishandled the snap.
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be the QBs. Chris Simms has played well...but he still can make mistakes. Under pressure. The Redskins put pressure on all game long...as Gregg Williams loves to mess with a QB's timing. This could really play into the Skins' advantage...especially since they've improved their takeaway numbers over the last month. On the other side, Mark Brunell is a bit banged up...but he's been here before. As the Jags' QB in the 1990s, Brunell has seen his fair share of playoff games. He throws it away when there's nothing....he goes thru his progressions nicely....and he'll even tuck it in and run for a few yards here and there. I think in a defensive struggle....this is somewhere the Redskins could find an advantage.
SPORTZ PICK: I don't think this game will look anything like the 36-35 shootout it was earlier in the year. Marty Kifkin and Gregg Williams are two of the best defensive coordinators around...and both have seen the other offense recently. But, with all the similarities these teams has....ah, screw it. I'm bucking the trends. Sure, Tampa beat them earlier this year. Sure, Tampa has won 5 of 6 at home against the Skins. But Portis had his best game [144 yards] in Tampa earlier this year...and they are my team...lol. Redskins 24-21
JACKSONVILLE AT NEW ENGLAND
CREDENTIALS: New England won the weak AFC East with a 10-6 record. Jacksonville finished with a 12-4 record....the fourth best record in the NFL. Too bad the #1 record [Colts] played in their same division.
ODDS: Patriots by 8
WTF??? Best stat. Tom Brady is 9-0 in the playoffs. Nuff said.
OUTLOOK: Is there any team who gets less respect than Jacksonville?? As I stated, only the Broncos, Colts and Seahawks [the two #1 seeds and a #2] finished with more wins than the Jags....but no one gives them any love. There are underdogs by over a TD.....the buzz surrounds the other three matchups....and just being viewed as a pest before a possible Colts-Pats playoff game. But the Jags are tough. They have a very solid defense...a pretty good stable of backs...and a nice set of receivers. They also have a QB controversy...somthing that really isn't nice to have at this point of the season. David Garrard will sit as Byron Leftwich comes back with his gimpy leg. As for New England....sure, they've won their last 9 postseason games...but this is the first time in that stretch that they've played in the wildcard round.
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be the Patriots secondary against the Jags offense. It is no secret that the Pats defensive backfield is shaky at best....which is evident by the 2nd worst pass defense ranking. It will be interesting to see how this young group plays against a guy like Jimmy Smith and upcomer Ernest Wilford.
SPORTZ PICK: It is hard to go against the champ....even if they are banged up. Tom Brady led the NFL in passing yards...so expect to see him sling it around a bit on Saturday. All I know is that the Pats are in Foxboro on a January night. Smells like a win to me. Patriots 26-14CAROLINA AT NEW YORK
CREDENTIALS: The Giants surprised many by winning the NFC East with a 11-5 mark. Carolina surprised many by NOT winning the NFC South...but still ended up with an 11-5 season.
ODDS: Giants by 3
WTF??? The Giants have never beaten the Panthers [0-2]
OUTLOOK: Both teams think of themselves as defensively strong teams...but this could turn into a shootout. Both teams have a bevy of weapons....whether it is Delhomme, Manning, DeShaun, Tiki, Smith, Plaxico or Shockey. A great matchup will be the NFL's #2 rusher, Tiki Barber, going against the NFL's #3 defense [which is #4 against the rush]. If Tiki is effective, it makes life so much easier for Eli Manning...who'll be making his first playoff start.
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be the defensive lines. Both lines are filled with stars....but it will be the ones that show up that should be the biggest factor in this game. New York's D-line has improved greatly with emerging star Osi Umenyiora helping to revamp Michael Strahan. But Carolina's line is no joke. Julius Peppers [from UNC] is a freak of nature. Michael Rucker is one of the most underrated players in the league. Both defenses are good against the run and both can get to the QB. But both defenses have been lit up of late, especially on the ground. Which one holds up will most likely be playing next week.
SPORTZ PICK: You never know with Carolina. They could stink up the swamp or jump all over New York. I think the Giants ability to run the ball more effectively than the Panthers will net them this win. These teams are amazingly close on both sides of the ball. That's why I think special teams will be important. In the swirling winds of Giants Stadium, having a guy like Jay Feely kicking for you is a big advantage [though John Kasay is no slouch either]. In a close game, Feely may become the hero. Giants 16-13
PITTSBURGH AT CINCINNATI
CREDENTIALS: Both teams finished the season 11-5 and tied for the AFC North lead. Both won on each other's field. However, Cincinnati's better division record gave them the division title.
ODDS: Steelers by 3
WTF??? This is the Bengals first playoff game since 1990. By contrast, the Steelers have been in the playoffs 10 times in the last 14 years.
OUTLOOK: To me, this is the best game of the Wildcard round. There are so many storylines woven into this game. There are many players and coaches with ties to each other...not to mention these two teams have banged heads twice this year, with the road team winning each time. In the first game, Pittsburgh took Cincinnati's manhood and knocked the hot Bengals down a peg at Paul Brown Stadium. In game two, the Bengals exacted revenge, winning a high scoring game at Heinz Field. However, four turnovers and a gimpy Big Ben didn't exactly bode well for the Steelers....yet they were still right there until the finish.
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be the Bengals defense against the Steelers rush attack. The Steelers are one the best running teams...and Cincinnati struggles in that regard [just ask Larry Johnson]. If the Bengals can put a muzzle on Parker and Bettis...it forces Big Ben to pass more, which plays right into the Cincy defensive strengths [the seconday picking off passes]. On the other side, Pittsurgh won't be able to stop the Bengals offense, but they will be able to contain their effectiveness...especially in the redzone.
SPORTZ PICK: I am going with the Steelers. Why? Well, they've won 11 of their last 14 games in Cincinnati....including earlier this year. And, well, they've been here before. This is all knew to Cincy...while the Steelers have been here and done thate. Not to mention that Pittsburgh is the hottest team in the AFC right now, while Cincinnati is limping in. Steelers 34-30