Divisional Playoff Picks
Washington at Seattle – Most NFL fans will get to see how good the Seahawks are for the first time, since their games are rarely aired outside Seattle and their opponents’ cities. That’s too bad, because this is a legitimate Super Bowl threat. Beyond having the home field, Seattle is talented on both sides of the ball. The offense stands out. Seattle scored at least 24 points in 10 of its last 12 games (one of those was the season-ending loss to Green Bay, in which the starters came out early). NFL MVP Shaun Alexander runs behind the league’s most unsung offensive line, and quarterback Matt Hasselback had the best completion percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating of his career. The Seahawks’ injuries on defense leave them vulnerable, but not to the Redskins’ offense, which barely gained 100 yards last week. Finally, Seattle has the intangibles in their favor, something to prove with no postseason wins since 1984 and a heavy heart from the death of Dave Brown, one of the greatest Seahawks ever. Seahawks 27, Redskins 10
For the second year in a row, three of the four Wild Card games were won by the road team. But do you remember what happened in the next round in 2005? All four home teams won, three of them barely breaking a sweat. While all the winners did things to impress last week, they take a step up in class against four teams with a combined 30-2 home record this year.
New England at Denver – Saturday night television hasn’t been this good since we were watching the adventures of Captain Stubing and Mr. Roarke. While a lot of people were hoping for Indy-New England in the divisional playoffs, the two AFC matchups bring together the four best AFC franchises over the past 10 years. And this promises to be a rugged battle between two tough teams and two smart coaches. The Patriots are the choice of many writers and broadcasters, and why not? One of my rules is not to pick against a reigning champ until someone beats them. But the matchup here doesn’t favor New England. Forget that the Patriots lost to the Broncos in Week 6 in a game that wasn’t very close. They’re better now. But they still have a tough matchup against Denver’s running game. It’s amazing to see Jake Plummer mature from a talented but erratic passer to a complete quarterback who manages the game extremely well. With Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne, he has three talented running backs, and Rod Smith is the type of receiver who can exploit the Patriots’ young secondary. Brady and Belichick will keep it close, but the bid for three in a row ends here. Broncos 24, Patriots 20Pittsburgh at Indianapolis – Evidently Steelers’ linebacker Joey Porter attempting to talk trash when he said, “They don't want to just call a play, get up there and run a play. They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football game.” This has to go down as one of the more bizarre taunts in sports history. Rather than insulting the Colts’ intelligence, Porter chose to praise it. Well, closed-circuit to him, football is often a thinking man’s sport. It’s players have, on average, more college education than their baseball, basketball or hockey counterparts. And NFL playbooks are thicker than the rear end muscles in which Porter got shot two years ago. The Colts’ are one of the NFL’s smartest teams, and after not playing a meaningful game for more than a month, they have to be ready to unleash their offense on the Steelers. I like Indy’s passing attack against the Pittsburgh cornerbacks, who looked vulnerable against the Bengals last week. The Steelers can run a few trick plays of their own, but it will take all they have to beat the NFL’s best team. Colts 38, Steelers 17Carolina at Chicago – This is the fourth of four rematches from the regular season in the Divisional Playoffs. In contrast to the early game on Sunday, this one will see few points. One stat screams out to me from the teams’ earlier matchup this year, a 13-3 Bears’ victory in Chicago. Steve Smith, Carolina’s best offensive player and probably the best receiver in the NFL this season, caught 14 passes for 169 yards. And Carolina still barely avoided being shut out. Smith had two fewer catches than the Panthers had rushing attempts in that game. After its success running the ball last week, Carolina has to commit to the ground this week. It’s their only chance to beat an aggressive and opportunistic Bears’ defense that sacked Jake Delhomme eight times in their last meeting. Chicago’s defense is the best in the league, vastly superior to what the Panthers’ carved up last week in New York. But I like Carolina for one reason – Rex Grossman’s lack of experience. Not only has Grossman played in just two games this year. He has seven career starts in his three years in the NFL. That’s not going to cut it against what might be the second-best defense left in the playoffs. Panthers 16, Bears 10