NFL Wild Card Preview (plus picks)
Happy New Year. You know what that means. The NFL Playoffs are upon us. The first four of 11 games are set to kick off this weekend, and should mark the beginning of a January for the books. After playing wild card weekend last year, both the Patriots and Colts have reclaimed first round byes and restored balance in the AFC. The pigskin universe awaits another imminent rematch between the arch rivals in the AFC Championship, which will be their fourth playoff joust in the last five years. The NFC has turned back the clock even further. The Cowboys and Packers are the top two seeds again. Combined, the teams went more than two decades without a bye.
It must be noted that if there were ever a downside to the start of postseason football, it’s this year. And it has nothing to do with the game of football. I’m talking about 24. Jack Bauer. The post-playoff power hours. Because of the writers’ strike in Hollywood, 24 was forced to scrap production less than halfway through the season. For the first time in three years there will be no two-hour season premier of 24 coming directly on the heels of a Sunday playoff double header. No Bauer kill counts. No PDA-communiques between Jack and Chloe. No unexpected Tony Almeida returns (if he’s even still alive). What a pity. For the time being we’ll just have to monitor the illicit activity of Jack’s alter ego, Kiefer Sutherland.
(One quick tangent while we’re here. FOX has clearly tried to dupe us all into thinking they still have a killer winter lineup, in spite of the writers’ work stoppage. In lieu of the annual conspicuous 24 plugs and previews–which usually start around Thanksgiving–FOX has substituted Prison Break. I swear, I watched the first season of that show like three years ago and they were one night away from breaking out of prison. It couldn’t even hold my interest then. Now we’re supposed to believe that the fifth half of the first season of Prison Break is really going to quench that singular Jack-thirst? Come on. I’m just waiting for someone with more Hollywood knowledge to expand on the potential consequences of this atrocity. I’ll nominate the Sports Guy. Considering that his wife–in addition to weaning his infant son–is now the proprietor of his weekly NFL picks column, it’s time he gives ESPN a reason not to rename his site, the “Sports Gal’s World”.)
Onto the games this weekend.
Washington at Seattle I won’t deny that two weeks ago I didn’t even see the Redskins making the playoffs. Now they’re riding a surreal wave of momentum (four consecutive wins against the Bears, Giants, Vikings and Cowboys to close out the season) and are certainly not fazed by going into Seattle for a playoff game. Todd Collins (yes the same Todd Collins who hasn’t been heard from since the late ’90s) has been the catalyst (5 TD/0 INT/106.4 rating) of Washington’s run and will have to remain as he has been over the last month: flawless. He’ll also have to lead a team that has been playing emotion-driven football into the toughest road environment for an opposing team, Qwest Field. Given everything that’s transpired with the Skins this year and the stadium they’ll have to conquer in order to advance, I can’t see it happening. The Redskins will make a few vital mental mistakes, mistakes that a playoff hardened quarterback like Matt Hasselbeck will capitalize on.
Seahawks 23 Redskins 17
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh The Jaguars have become the super-trendy pick to not just win a playoff game, not just go into New England in round two and knock off the 16-0 Patriots, but possibly duplicate the 2005 Steelers by winning three road games en route to Super Bowl XLII. Hyping a good, not great team rarely pays off. This is the game I am most torn on, only because of Pittsburgh’s myriad injuries. No Willie Parker. No Max Starks. No Aaron Smith. That’s a Pro Bowl running back and his right tackle as well as the Steelers’ rock on the defensive line, if you’re scoring at home. The Steelers also haven’t looked the same since going up to Foxborough and getting stomped by the Patriots in early December. Since that game they’ve lost two of three, including one against Jacksonville at Heinz Field. What has been forgotten from that game, largely in part because the Jags racked up 224 yards on the ground, is that the Steelers were also able to run the ball (111 yards on only 17 attempts) and that Jacksonville too is without their playmaker up front (Marcus Stroud). Pittsburgh will be able to run the ball with Najeh Davenport. I believe this rematch is going to come down to quarterback play. David Garrard has shown himself to be the ultimate game-manager but Ben Roethlisberger has won a Super Bowl.
Steelers 30 Jaguars 27
New York at Tampa Bay Two teams that entered the final week of the season with nothing to play for. The Bucs used the time to rest key players while the Giants went for broke in a valiant attempt to derail a perfect season. Now the G-Men are a little banged up and the Bucs are healthy. Don’t be deceived though. The Giants are entering this game on an extreme high, a high that is probably unmatched in history by a team having lost its previous game. Tampa, on the other hand, has not looked good of late, losers of three of their last four. So much of the Giants success relies on confidence, specifically the confidence of quarterback Eli Manning. Eli played out of his mind against the Patriots last weekend, tossing four touchdowns and almost leading an upset of the greatest (regular season) team of all time. The Giants defense also feeds off the state of mind of the unpredictable-Manning. They are a tenacious and skilled group, but tend to lose focus when Eli is tossing ducks to the opposing defense and putting them in tough spots. The Giants are a week removed from the first-ever moral victory in the NFL. The odd feeling stemming from that battle left them ultimately unsatisfied, but also hungry for their first playoff win under Tom Coughlin.
Giants 23 Buccaneers 14
Tennessee at San Diego The only game that was in question for the Chargers in their current-six game winning streak was at Tennessee a month ago. The Titans had the Bolts on the ropes, leading 17-3 in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t seal the deal. LaDainian Tomlinson capped off the comeback with a 16-yard touchdown run midway through overtime to lead San Diego to a 23-17 win. To add insult to injury (actually the other way around), Vince Young strained a quad in the Titans’ season finale last week against the Colts. Now there’s a quarterback controversy in Tennessee. Kerry Collins is a better fit for attacking the Chargers defense through the air. Young is obviously the better option on the ground. It won’t really matter. LT has finally been running with the sense of fury and purpose I expected from Week 1. His play of late (602 rushing yards and six touchdowns over the last five games) has proven he’s still stewing over what went down in his house against the Patriots last year. He’s still the best player in the league, and come Sunday evening you’ll know why.
Chargers 34 Titans 20
Here are the rest of my playoff picks.
NFC Divisional Round
Packers over Seahawks
Cowboys over Giants
AFC Divisional Round
Patriots over Steelers
Colts over Chargers
Packers over Cowboys
Patriots over Colts
Super Bowl XLII
Patriots over Packers