All the home teams are favored to win the next round of NFL playoff games. Yet there's plenty of drama before us, and each game is a rematch between teams that played during the regular season. The #6-seeded Redskins travel to top-seeded Seattle, a team they defeated in Washington on Oct. 2, 20-17. The rejuvenated Patriots head into Denver for a huge Saturday night matchup against a Broncos team that defeated them 28-20 on the same field on Oct. 16. On Sunday, the #6-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, also having gotten their second wind, go into Indianapolis for a showdown with the top-seeded Colts, who beat them at home on Nov. 28, 26-7. Carolina ventures into Chicago's Soldier Field, where the Bears beat them 13-3 back on Nov. 20.
Only the Seattle-Washington game looks like a done deal. While Pittsburgh certainly has its work cut out for themselves, the Steelers are on a five-game winning streak, and are healthier than they were when the Colts humbled them on a Monday night. The deck looks stacked against the visitors this time around, but don't be surprised if there's an upset or two. Especially with Carolina and New England getting a second look at their tough opponents.
The spreads are listed for entertainment value only. Bet against them if you dare.
Washington (11-6) @ Seattle (13-3)—The Redskins are hurting physically, and their offense looks drained. A gut-checking defensive effort last week against the Buccaneers won them an improbable first-round victory, plus the chance to see what they're really made of against a seemingly dominant Seahawks squad. The 'Hawks' defense doesn't get much respect, but in fact only two other NFC teams—Bears, Panthers—allowed fewer points this year. League MVP Shaun Alexander leads the Seattle offensive attack, and he's a savage, earth-stomping, yardage-eating, touchdown-scoring machine. Seattle QB Matt Hasselback is also pretty darn good. His receivers aren't elite, but they're good enough to balance Alexander the Great's running. These teams met in Week 4 in Washington, and, like many before and after them, the Seahawks bested the Redskins in statistics but lost the game. That was a long time ago. And even though the Redskins have obviously improved, and are on a six-game winning streak, taking their beat-up squad on the road once more against a rested opponent like Seattle has to be a losing proposition. If 'Skins coach Joe Gibbs can work another miracle, then we might start to believe that he's dabbling in witchcraft instead of putting his vaunted faith in the Lord.
Spread: Seattle by 9
Prediction: Seattle 24, Washington 17
New England (11-6) @ Denver (13-3)—The Patriots look ready to defend their Super Bowl crown.
The Broncos have been consistently good all year, surprisingly so on defense, with only the Colts yielding fewer points in the AFC. Plus, the Broncos have a balanced offense that both runs and passes with efficiency. They're led by QB Jake Plummer, whose 90.2 quarterback rating includes a 60.7% completion rate, 18 TDs and only 7 INTs. The 1-2-3 punch of Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne gained well over 2,000 yards on the ground, and receivers Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie can go get 'em long and short. With the home field advantage, a Super Bowl-winning coach in Mike Shanahan, and plenty of rest, the Broncos are logically a slight favorite. If anyone has a chance to end the Patriots' 10-game playoff winning streak, it might be the Broncos. But it's gonna take a lot to break down Tom Brady and that New England mental toughness. Plummer is 1-3 lifetime in the playoffs.
Spread: Denver by 3.5
Prediction: New England 24, Denver 23
Pittsburgh (12-5) @ Indianapolis (14-2)—The Steelers are playing dominant football.
They've won their last five games by a combined 146-50 score. QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, as is his supporting cast, and the D is hitting hard. It's been a while since we've had a look at the Colts' "A" game, and in fact nine of their victories this season came against some very bad teams (Titans, Texans, Ravens, Browns, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals). Still, they beat better teams as well (Patriots, Bengals, Steelers, Jaguars twice), and they'll be awfully tough at home. Is there any possibility the Colts could choke? Believe it or not, their defense might have more to say about the outcome than their high-profile offense. Keep an eye on this one.
Spread: Indianapolis by 9.5
Prediction: Indianapolis 24, Pittsburgh 20
Carolina (12-5) @ Chicago (11-5)—Fresh off a decisive trouncing of the Giants in the Meadowlands,
the Panthers take their show on the road once more, into a hostile environment where rabid Bears fans are ga-ga over their young, defensively savvy football team. But the Bears don't have much of an offense, no matter what they say about the re-emergence of Rex Grossman at quarterback. He's still wet behind the ears where the playoffs are concerned, and one or two defensive breakdowns by Chicago could spell the end of their magical year. The Panthers' offense is efficient, but that's about all you can say about them. It's their defense that has buoyed them up in recent times, and this team is only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. If the Bears make some big plays and get turnovers, momentum could carry them into the conference championship game. They've been kicking ass defensively all season long, but will they succumb to playoff pressure?
Spread: Chicago by 3
Prediction: Carolina 15, Chicago 10