Last Week: 11-5
Regular Season: 171-83
Jacksonville at New England
The Jaguars are probably the most lightly regarded 12-4 team in NFL history. Most lines I have seen for this game have them as a 7 to 7.5 point underdog to the defending champs. Although Jacksonville benefited from an easy schedule that included the 49ers, Browns, Cardinals, Jets, Ravens, Texans (*2), and Titans (*2), they also own victories over the NFC's top team (Seattle), the AFC North champs (Cincinnati), their fellow AFC Wildcard brethren (Pittsburgh), and close losses to Indianapolis. However, that won't be enough. Byron Leftwich will be starting for the first time in almost 2 months and the New England front seven will harrass him all night and prevent him from exploiting their weak secondary. Plus the game is in Foxboro. If it was in sunny, mild Jacksonville they may have a shot. Some analysts will make the claim after the game that inexperience doomed the Jaguars. That won't be true. The cold Massachusetts winter will doom the Jags. Although most conventional wisdom is wrong, the fact that dome and warm weather teams struggle outdoors in northern cities in the winter is absolutely true. Read this.
Winner: New England
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Bengals are limping into the playoffs for the first time since the elder Bush was in office. They have lost 2 straight including an embarrassing home loss to the Buffalo Bills (their only road win of the year). The Bengals defense is predicated on getting turnovers; they lead the league with 31 interceptions. However, since the midpoint of the season, the defense has been steadily declining. Over their first 8 games the Bengals allowed 15.6 points per game. Over their final 8 games the Bengals have allowed 28.1 points per game. Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and TJ Houshmandzadeh will score some points on the Pittsburgh defense, but unless the Bengals emphatically win the turnover battle, their playoff trip will be a short one. Again some analysts will claim that lack of experience doomed the Bengals. That won't be true. Lack of a defense will prevent the Bengals from advancing.
Washington at Tampa Bay
This is how small the margin of error for NFL teams is. If Mike Alstott had been stopped on Tampa's 2 point try in Week 10 (or correctly ruled not to have gotten in), the Redskins would be the number 2 seed and resting at home this weekend. Tampa would have been the 6th seed and likely traveled to do battle with Chicago. As it stands now, Washington is hotter than a $2 pistol heading into the playoffs and the Bucs are NFC South champs. Don't let last weeks showing against New Orleans fool you. These aren't the 2002 Bucs. Their defense is good, but it is not in the same stratosphere as the 2002 version. Remember, they were blanked 28-0 by New England just 3 short weeks ago. Washington on the other hand, went a remarkable 10-2 against NFC teams this season and 0-4 against the AFC West. The 'Skins get a little revenge for earlier contest and Joe Gibbs wins his firt playoff game since 1992.
Carolina at New York Giants
As much as I want to go with my boys this weekend, I just can't rationalize them leaving the Meadowlands with a win. The Panthers did go 6-2 on the road, but the only team with a winning record they defeated was Tampa Bay. Since the Falcons defense isn't suiting up for New York, the running game will not be able to muster much running room. On the flip side, I also don't see Tiki Barber lighting up our defense for huge gains. This game will be low scoring and the outcome will hinge on whichever team makes a mistake. Considering erratic passers Jake Delhomme and Eli Manning are starting, I should say whichever team makes fewer mistakes. The Giants are 8-1 at home this season. The only game they lost occurred beacuse the Vikings returned a kickoff, punt, and an interception for a touchdown. If the Panthers get that hat trick, they will win.
Winner: New York Giants