Everyone on target to reach the NFL playoffs did so, with every wild-card candidate coming through with a timely clinching victory in last weekend's games. Very good football teams like the Cowboys, Chiefs and Chargers were sent home ruing critical missteps that doomed their postseason chances. That's too bad for their fans, but to the objective league observer it only reaffirms the NFL's thoughtfully effective playoff system: No Dogs Allowed. Teams with 9-7 and 8-8 records might have a Cinderella charm, but they usually die early playoff deaths. There are no mediocre records this year, and in one first-round matchup, the wild-card (Jacksonville, 12-4) has a superior record to the home-team divisional winner (New England, 10-6). In fact, this year's wild-card teams have a better combined record than their division-winning first-round foes. There are also some pretty green QBs getting their first playoff experience, and without question that could influence first-round results, even if they're playing for game-hosting favorites. How, for example, young Eli Manning fares against the Panthers' tough D-line will go a long way to determining which team advances to face either Seattle or Chicago in NFC Round 2. Young Carson Palmer has had a sensational year leading the Bengals to their AFC North divisional title, but seeing the Steelers' aggressive D in a playoff situation could present a different psychic challenge. Even being at home is little comfort, since Pittsburgh beat Cincy on their home field earlier this year. And whoever quarterbacks the Jaguars—David Garrard or Byron Leftwich—will have his hands full facing the Patriots in potentially chilly New England. Then there's the Tampa Bay-Washington tilt, where Redskins veteran Mark Brunell returns to the playoffs, where his opposite Buccaneers number is youthful Chris Simms. There could be some serious surprises on wild-card weekend, and that's what general parity and tough-minded natural selection are all about. To the moaners who say their 10-6 team got gypped in missing the playoffs, we can only cite Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves..."
Rather than making picks simply against the spread this week, we've made our selections based on projected final score. The spreads are noted for reference and your own spurious use.
Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5)—The Redskins are a nice story this year, but they're pretty banged up heading into the playoffs. Their defensive secondary has serious MIA problems that aren't going to go away. And as courageous as RB Clinton Portis is, he's taken a beating on the team's journey to a wild-card slot, in which they've won five straight. Brunell to Santana Moss is a great combo, though Brunell is still limping from a knee strain and he didn't look sharp in the season finale versus Philly. Meanwhile, the Bucs grabbed a divisional crown and have displayed a knack all year for winning close, tough games, including a miraculous 36-35 defeat of the Redskins in Tampa earlier this season. QB Chris Simms has surprised a lot of people, performing like a steady vet for the Bucs; rookie Cadillac Williams is a strong young runner; and the team's D is physical (even if it sometimes bends). On a purely entertainment level, the coaching matchup—Joe Gibbs versus Jon Gruden—should make for interesting viewing. (Factoid: Gibbs has a 5-0 career record in wild-card games.)
The Spread: Buccaneers favored by 2.5
Prediction: Tampa Bay 26, Washington 17
Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6)—The Jaguars are young and aggressive, and, sporting the best record in this first round of games, their season bears closer scrutiny. They defeated Seattle, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and they played the Colts competitively twice (but lost). They were beaten by Denver, 20-7. The only other blot on their record is a mid-season three-point loss in St. Louis. Six of their victories came against the lowly Titans, Texans, Jets and 49ers. So they can reasonably be said to play up to their competition. They better hope so where this game is concerned, because going into Foxboro is gonna be a bitch. David Garrard has filled in admirably for injured Byron Leftwich at QB during the latter part of the season. There are rumors that Leftwich could start this game, but what's to say that Garrard might not better confound a defense that knows little about him? Jags marquee RB, oft-injured Fred Taylor, should show up, with gutty sub LaBrandon Toefield ready just in case. The Jags are plenty spunky, but it's hard to imagine them executing on all cylinders in foreign territory against the improving and healthier Patriots. It could be that the Jags are better than any of us know, since they've quietly gone about amassing a serious record. This just doesn't seem like a mountain they'll climb. And by the way, did anyone notice that, by losing their final game against the Dolphins, the Patriots assured themselves of this date versus the Jaguars? If the Pats had won their finale, they would have had an identical 11-5 record with the Bengals, and, by virtue of a better intraconference mark, would have hosted lower-seeded Pittsburgh. (If you were Pats coach Bill Belichick, who would YOU rather face?) Instead, the Patriots were having fun letting Doug Flutie drop-kick an extra point, and then blew a last-second two-point conversion attempt that would have thrown the game into overtime. Makes ya wonder.
The Spread: Patriots favored by 7.5
Prediction: New England 20, Jacksonville 16
Carolina (11-5) at NY Giants (11-5)—The Giants are a good team, but they seem poised to be upset. They gave up 56 points in their final two games. Their linebacking corps is missing the players that made them a first-rate unit earlier in the season. They have a gifted, courageous young QB in Eli Manning who's, alas, still learning the ropes. On the plus side, they have some talented receivers in Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, and RB Tiki Barber has looked like a man on a mission. What happens when all of this comes up against a balanced Carolina team should make for a robust matchup. Some observers are still puzzling why the Panthers lost their last home game to the Cowboys when the NFC South divisional crown was on the line. Well, they sorta got robbed in that game. Otherwise, the Panthers have a tendency to show up. Their defense is still a force to be reckoned with. If they can shut down Barber, their controlled offense—which gets flashes of brilliance from receiver Steve Smith—has the capability of putting enough points on the board. I doubt the Panthers will be cowed by the Meadowlands environment, though this is sure to be a raucous affair.
The Spread: Giants favored by 3
Prediction: Carolina 20, New York 17
Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5)—A lot depends here on the Bengals' defense. They've had plenty of takeaways this season, mostly from the secondary. But can they stop Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis? The Steelers' running game both slashes (Parker) and burns (Bettis), and when it's working right, it chews up the clock and punishes opponents. The Bengals' offense, on the other hand, has been a serious aerial show—Palmer to Chad Johnson, etc.—bulwarked by the stout running of Rudi Johnson. The Bengals looked like an elite team at one point this season, then they kind of coasted in to their 11-5 mark instead of staying hot and grabbing a first-round bye. Truth is, their only quality wins were over the Steelers (in Pittsburgh) and an early-season road defeat of the Bears. They lost their final two games by a combined score of 74-30, which, even if they were playing possum, is not a happy trend. Presuming the Bengals are ready to return to form, this should be a close, scrappy affair, especially since the Steelers determinedly righted a sinking ship and finished the season with four straight wins by a combined score of 115-33 (only the Redskins enter the playoffs with a hotter streak). Maybe it all comes down to the fact that Pittsburgh already has one road victory this year against Cincy. Seems like too much for them to do it twice, unless the Bengals' postseason inexperience undermines the home team. The spread looks right-on here, based on recent performance.
The Spread: Steelers favored by 3
Prediction: Cincinnati 26, Pittsburgh 24