Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Wild Card Weekend: Sentimental Favorites Have Their Work Cut Out for Them

I grew up in Washington, D.C.—a rabid Redskins fan. Now I hang my hat in Nashville—a rabid Titans fan. Both teams made it into the NFL playoffs as #6-seed wild cards in their respective conferences, and there’s the temptation to place heart before head when evaluating their prospects. But a prognosticator cannot enter the process as a partisan fan. It’s a clear-cut conflict of interest. So now, after savoring the past weekend’s heart-thumping results for the personal faves, we wade in with eyes wide open, the rose-colored glasses safely ensconced in the dresser drawer. If the Titans pull off a surprise victory, I won’t mind having been wrong. If the Redskins lose, I lose double.

NFC Matchups

Washington (9-7) @ Seattle (10-6)/Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST, NBC-TV

The Seahawks both scored more points and allowed fewer points than the Redskins. They were also 7-1 at home, while the Skins were 4-4 on the road. Those are the hard facts that make this seemingly a slam-dunk for Seattle. Yet the Redskins are playing, if not actually dominant football, then certainly inspired football, and sometimes a team like that can will its way to victory. Will Skins QB Todd Collins continue to play practically to perfection? He needs to continue his error-free ways (zero interceptions in four games since replacing Jason Campbell), mainly because he doesn’t have the quick-strike, long-ball capabilities of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. The Skins need to stay in this game from the beginning, continue their aggressive, run-to-the-ball team defense, and hope for another big effort from RB Clinton Portis. Collins has receivers, too, in Moss, Randle El and Cooley. If his offensive line can hold Patrick Kerney and the rest of the Seattle D at bay, he might find some success. Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ running game has been only so-so most of the season, finishing 20th in the league, leaving the offense to ride on the arm of QB Matt Hasselbeck (3,966 yards, 28 TDs). The receiver-vs.-secondary matchups seem to favor Washington, actually, though Seattle’s Engram and Burleson are certainly reliable pros. The Seahawks were rather a mystery team all year, playing in a weak division and quietly going about winning 10 games, but facing only two teams that ended up in the playoffs. (They beat Tampa Bay and lost to Pittsburgh.) Their secret has been home-field advantage and a weak-sister schedule. If anyone’s ripe for the plucking, it’s them.

Prediction: Redskins 24, Seahawks 17

New York (10-6) @ Tampa Bay (9-7)/Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, FOX-TV

The problem with Eli Manning’s good performance against the Patriots in the season-ender is that now he has to go do it again. Consistency is not his forte, and he’s facing a Tampa defense that yielded the fewest points of any team in the NFC. But what if Giants behemoth RB Brandon Jacobs rumbles his way to 100 yards or more? What if receivers Toomer, Burress and Boss come up big for Eli? The talent is definitely there, but you never know with these Giants. On the other side, the Buccaneers lost three of their last four games, and QB Jeff Garcia (a noted Giant-killer with both Philly and the 49ers) is rebounding from injury, leading an offense that has its moments but statistically is unimpressive. Plus, the Bucs won a meager division and posted their barely respectable 9-7 record playing a last-place schedule after finishing 4-12 in ‘06. The Giants clearly have the ability to pull off the road win, and they were 7-1 away from the Meadowlands this season. If their scary-good defensive line can get after (and thwart) Garcia—never an easy task—their chances improve dramatically. If a computer were asked to pick this game, it’d be Giants all the way. But then there’s the human factor. Let’s hope the computer’s right.

Prediction: Giants 19, Buccaneers 16

AFC Matchups

Jacksonville (11-5) @ Pittsburgh (10-6)/Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, NBC-TV

The Jaguars already beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh once this year. They did it in convincing fashion, too. In yet another game where the visiting wild-card entry has a better record than the division-winner host, the Jags appear to be the superior team. Seems crazy to bet against the Steelers on their home turf, but you can’t ignore the Jags’ strengths: a confident, talented QB in David Garrard, an inside-outside running game with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and a hard-hitting defense. Even their passing game has picked up lately. The Steelers, on the other hand, are without RB Willie Parker, and it’ll be up to Ben Roethlisberger to withstand Jacksonville’s rush and somehow connect with receivers. The only things in the way of automatically picking the Jags are the Steelers’ general mystique and the fact that the odds are against anyone beating them twice in one year at their own stadium. A very tough pick, and one we may end up regretting.

Prediction: Jaguars 24, Steelers 16

Tennessee (10-6) @ San Diego (11-5)/Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS-TV

Laden with injuries, the Titans must make a cross-country trip to visit a team on a six-game winning streak, who also dealt them a serious emotional blow only four games ago back in Tennessee. Somehow the Titans rebounded from that 23-17 overtime loss to capture their final three games, but the victories were ugly and included a mere 10-6 home win over the lowly Jets. If the Titans were healthy, their defense would match up well against the Chargers’ offense, led by an up-and-down QB Philip Rivers. It took LaDainian Tomlinson three quarters to get untracked against the Titans in the previous game, but he should have smoother sailing here. If Rivers can make some decent throws into the bargain, LT could have a field day and it might be over early. Titans QB Vince Young’s health status is day-to-day, but even if he were 100%, he’d still have to contend with the Chargers’ athletic and hard-hitting defense. It’s tough to admit, but it’s true: Young’s been carried this year by an occasionally productive running attack and a stalwart Titans defense that’s been asked to do way too much. If he can’t play, that means 35-year-old Kerry Collins gets the nod, which might not be so bad where the passing game is concerned. Yet that would leave the immobile Collins at the mercy of the Chargers’ front seven, a prospect no Titans fan wants to think about for more than a millisecond. Yep, the Titans finally got back to the playoffs. They’ll soon be one and done.

Prediction: Chargers 28, Titans 9

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