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NFL Weekly Picks - Wildcard Week
By Bob Cunningham
December 31, 2003
 

STRAIGHT-UP
Last Week -- 9-7
Overall -- 150-106 (59%)

AGAINST THE SPREAD
Last Week -- 10-6
Overall -- 131-115-10 (53%)

PREMIUM PICKS*
Last Week -- 0-1
Overall -- 16-11-2 (59%)

Okay, so now the real season begins. Ninety percent of fantasy leagues are over with for the year, although a few diehard stragglers out there hold postseason pools... so I'll continue to contribute some fantasy opinions as well.

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

TENNESSEE at BALTIMORE - Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST

Records: Titans 12-4, Wild-card, No. 5 seed; Ravens 10-6, North Division champs, No. 4 seed

Line: Ravens favored by 1 1/2 points

Key Injuries: Titans: WR Tyrone Calico (ques). Ravens: LB Peter Boulware (prob).

Fantasy Take: QB Steve McNair will be ready to go for the Titans after sitting out the regular season finale, a 33-13 romp over Tampa Bay. The running game, anchored by Eddie George, isn't likely to have much success. McNair will throw early and often to WRs Derrick Mason and Justin McCareins, but don't expect any lofty numbers from anyone on either side. For Baltimore, RB Jamal Lewis will get plenty of work, of course, but the Titans' run defense is fairly stingy. The Ravens' passing attack is average at best. Both defenses will stand out.

Summary: If both teams play good defense, who might the difference be? McNair? Absolutely. I don't know about y'all, but I like McNair versus Anthony Wright... not just because of talent but, more importantly, postseason experience. The Ravens will enjoy modest success running the ball - they always do - but the Titans won't be blown off the line of scrimmage. On the flipside, Baltimore has won three straight over the Titans including a 13-12 decision at home in November of 2002. Still, in a battle of defenses, I like the team that's better on offense.

Prediction: TITANS, 16-13

DENVER at INDIANAPOLIS - Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST

Records: Broncos 10-6, Wild-card, No. 6 seed; Colts 13-3, South Division champs, No. 3 seed

Line: Colts favored by 3

Key Injuries: Broncos: QB Jake Plummer (prob), RB Clinton Portis (prob). Colts: None.

Fantasy Take: In the first meeting two weeks ago, Denver's defense was amazing and their rushing game didn't miss a beat even with RB Clinton Portis sidelined. This time around, I envision both defenses stepping up... and the Denver ground game will remain effective with Portis returning and getting most of the work. There are many who believe Colts QB Peyton Manning is destined for a career of near-misses, but I simply believe he is due. I like Manning to put up decent numbers, which will also be reflected by WR Marvin Harrison and TE Marcus Pollard, and RB Edgerrin James is finally all the way back from his knee surgery. He's again a force, potentially on every down. The Broncos passing game will be adequate - QB Jake Plummer has three legit targets in TE Shannon Sharpe and WRs Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie. But I still like the defenses, especially Indy's, to keep things mostly in check.

Summary: It is very difficult to beat a team twice in the same season, let alone accomplish it twice in a three-week period on the road. Colts coach Tony Dungy is among the best in the business - no way he goes into this one unprepared. So the question is whether Denver coach Mike Shanahan can successfully counter Dungy's counter. On second thought, that won't really matter. The Colts' defense keeps it close, and Manning and company make some big plays late to get it done... at last.

Prediction: COLTS, 27-20

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

DALLAS at CAROLINA - Saturday, 8 p.m. EST

Records: Cowboys 10-6, Wild-card, No. 6 seed; Panthers, 11-5, South Division champs, No. 3 seed

Line: Panthers favored by 3

Key Injuries: Cowboys: None. Panthers: None.

Fantasy Take: Defense, defense. Both teams have it, and both D's are certainly worthwhile plays. On offense, there are no definite plays because of the matchups, but certainly there are some reasonable options. For Dallas, WR Joey Galloway is a big-play guy. He might get only two or three receptions and still put up worthy numbers. The Panthers have RB Stephen Davis, who is reportedly relatively rested and ready. The passing game will find the going rough against Dallas' excellent group of defensive backs.

Summary: The consensus is that the Cowboys did themselves a favor by losing at New Orleans last week because it saved them a trip to Lambeau Field and having to mess with the charmed Green Bay Packers. And I concur. At this point, in my opinion, winning at Carolina is much more feasible. The defense is excellent... almost as good as the coaching. Hey, I realize there are many who are guilty of gushing about the prowess of Bill Parcells, but look at the results. Truth is, I can see either team winning this one. It will be close. And by a nose, I'll take the host Panthers.

Prediction: PANTHERS, 17-10

SEATTLE at GREEN BAY - Sunday, 1 p.m. EST

Records: Seahawks 10-6, Wild-card, No. 5 seed; Packers 10-6, North Division champs, No. 4 seed

Line: Packers favored by 7

Key Injuries: Seahawks: None. Packers: None.

Fantasy Take: The Packers are on such a roll, you have to bank on QB Brett Favre and RB Ahman Green before so much as inhaling before talking about anyone else. Of the receivers, wideout Javon Walker seems to be the best option but Favre simply uses too many to rely on anyone fantasy-wise. Green Bay's defense is playing much better of late - in the cold at Lambeau, that unit is a decent play. For the Seahawks, good players like QB Matt Hasselbeck and their receivers are unlikely to put up big numbers. RB Shaun Alexander is a must-play, but anyone else wearing a white jersey is risky at best.

Summary: Seattle obviously would love to go into coach Mike Holmgren's former haunts and win one for their gipper, but I suspect the Seahawks really are just thankful to be in the playoffs. Favre is on a different level right now, with everything he touches turning to gold (or, at least, Packer Yellow), as if the fates have decided that losing your father is reason enough to tilt the scales. The Pack defeated Seattle during the regular season at home, 35-13, and that's when the team wasn't playing all that well. Seattle might keep it close, but an outright upset? Nah.

Prediction: PACKERS, 34-24