Sunday, January 08, 2006

'Skins Upset Buccaneers in Biggest Surprise of Wild-Card Round; Home-Field Advantage Helps Only Patriots

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Just ask the Washington Redskins. Their 17-10 victory Saturday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs defied all logic. Joe Gibbs & Co. took a page from the book of the 1983 Chicago White Sox, whose artless approach to baseball evoked the phrase "winning ugly." Now the 'Skins are on their way to Seattle for a divisional round contest.

The big "W" aside, here's what's wrong with the Redskins:

1. QB Mark Brunell has had two consecutive bad games. He was flat-out terrible against the Bucs, completing 7 out of 15 passes for 41 yards (0 TDs, 1 INT). (Yes, those numbers are correct. Yes, he played all four quarters.)

2. RB Clinton Portis, courageous as ever, is getting the living daylights pounded out of him. His shoulders and back are killing him. He had to be spelled by Ladell Betts in the Bucs game, in which Portis gained 53 yards on 16 carries. Is there any gas left in his tank?

3. Three weeks ago against the Cowboys, the Redskins' excellent offensive guard Randy Thomas (left) broke his leg and was lost for the season. His replacement is the remarkable Ray Brown (right), who, at 43, is quite an NFL story. Brown is to be admired for sure, but his presence has to signal a drop-off for the 'Skins' OL.

4. DE Renaldo Wynn, having a solid if unspectacular year, broke his left arm in the Bucs game. He's out for the rest of the playoffs.

5. The 'Skins best cornerback, Shawn Springs, had to sit out the Bucs game with a severe groin injury. The team hopes he can return for the Seattle game, except when he returned for the Philly game last week, after nursing the same injury, he aggravated it more. He'll be tough to count on.

6. Rookie safety Carlos Rogers is hurting also, but he toughed it out against Tampa Bay.

7. Safety Sean Taylor is really gifted, but also really out of touch with reality and decency, as expressed when he spat on Bucs RB Michael Pittman, earning himself an ejection from the game and a probable fine from the league. If the league wants to really slap his hand, they could suspend him for the rest of the season. Smart thinking there, Sean.

Yet with all this downside, the 'Skins outlasted the Buccaneers. Their defense played grittily, to be sure, but they were also helped by playoff first-timer Chris Simms, the Bucs' talented young quarterback. Simms played a very good game, in fact, especially for a guy seeing his first postseason action. Despite early mistakes, Simms got the Tampa Bay offense in gear, and his late-4th-quarter pass to Edell Shepherd should have gained the home team a tie. In an officiating controversy that turned Bucs fans' hopes into tears, Shepherd couldn't control the ball enough to get credit for the score. TD denied, whereupon Simms ended up tanking his final two plays, the last resulting in his second critical interception.

So the Redskins will plug the holes caused by injury and try to suck it up one more time in Seattle, against a Seahawks team that is 13-3 and seeking its first playoff victory since 1984. Believe it or not, Washington's defense looks to have the ability to shut down Shaun Alexander, Seattle's one-man wrecking-crew RB. If they focus solely on Alexander, contain him well, and force Seattle QB Matt Hasselback to beat them through the air, the Redskins stand a chance. But only if they find their offense. Brunell & Co. looked downright woeful in Round 1. The Seahawks led the league this year with 452 points. They don't usually get involved in low-scoring defensive games. The Redskins' D can bring it for sure, but you still gotta score points to defeat your opponent.


New England 28, Jacksonville 3—The Patriots only led by 7-3 at the half. Then Tom Brady got the offense in gear and LB Willie McGinest terrorized Jaguars QBs Byron Leftwich and David Garrard for 4 1/2 sacks. It's no mirage: New England looks to be playing as well as ever. Now, as the only first-round home team to come out a winner, they head to Denver for a real test.

Carolina 23, NY Giants 0—Maybe the only surprise here was the totality of the Panthers' dominance. Giants had been struggling defensively, but their offense went south too, with Eli Manning throwing three costly interceptions and Tiki Barber never getting untracked. Now the Panthers make a return trip to Chicago for a second-round game against the Bears, who defeated them convincingly earlier in the regular season.

Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 17—The MVP of this game was Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, whose unpenalized, cheap-shot (and arguably late) hit on Bengals' QB Carson Palmer resulted in a torn knee ligament that knocked the Pro Bowler out of the game and into an appointment with off-season surgery. Even with sub Jon Kitna at the helm, the Bengals held on for a 17-14 halftime lead. Then the Steelers' defense started to intimidate, and a trick play by Pittsburgh's offense sealed the Bengals' fate. This WAS a game, and would've remained so if Palmer was there to run his exciting offense. Now the Steelers head to Indianapolis to face the best team in the league.

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