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Bob's Breakdown - Wildcard Weekend
Bob Cunningham
January 5, 2006

If you’re the champion of your fantasy league, congratulations on a job well done. If you came up short, my condolences… and remember that there’s always next season.

If your season is still going, you really need to consider acquiring a life. Nah, just kidding.

It’s playoff time in the NFL, and that means we have strictly the cream of the crop in action. Plenty of storylines, a two-time defending champion trying for the always-coveted “three-peat,” and a consensus favorite looking to break through. Perhaps this is the year for the Colts, or do the Patriots keep their stranglehold on things?

I don’t want to make a bunch of predictions here, because they might steal any potential thunder from my selections below. Suffice it write, however, that my preseason pick of the Colts to win the AFC is still valid, and that I truly believe the NFC is wide-open.

Let’s take an advanced look… at what might happen.

Straight-Up: 171-85 (67%) ATS: 137-109-10 (56%) Over/Under: 114-136-6 (46%)

Straight-Up: 10-6 ATS: 7-7-2 Over/Under: 5-11

Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5)

Line: Buccaneers favored by 2½ (total points line is 37)

Series: In one of the most dramatic endings of 2005, the Bucs edged the Redskins at home on Nov. 13, 36-35. After scoring the potential game-tying touchdown, an offside penalty against Washington (on a blocked PAT attempt) put the ball on the 1-yard-line. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden chose to go for two points and the win, and RB Mike Alstott plunged in for the winning tally although replays seemed to indicate that Alstott’s knee may have been down before the ball ever reached the plain of the goal line. Overall, the Bucs have won five of the last six meetings including a 14-13 victory over the Redskins in the 1999 NFC playoffs.

Redskins Status Report: Washington enters the postseason on a five-game winning streak. The Redskins prevailed at Philadelphia on Sunday in their regular season finale, 31-20, to finish second in the NFC East and claim the sixth and final playoff berth.

Buccaneers Status Report: Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans at home in Week 17, 27-13, to capture the NFC South Division title over Carolina in a tiebreaker. The Bucs, who have won four of their last five, are seeded third.

Postseason History: Washington’s last playoff appearance was in 1999, when it lost to the Bucs in the divisional playoffs. The Redskins have won three Super Bowls under coach Joe Gibbs, defeating Miami in Super Bowl XVII, Denver in Super Bowl XXII, and Buffalo in XXVI. Washington has also lost a Super Bowl under Gibbs, falling to the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, and was beaten in the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance, by Miami’s unbeaten Dolphins in Super Bowl VII… Tampa Bay is just three years removed from its one and only Super Bowl title, when it routed Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII. This is the Bucs’ first playoff appearance since that victory.

Game Summary: Washington is on a roll, perpetuated mostly by its opportunistic defense. It was a defense that struggled in its first trip to Tampa this season, however. Any potential advantage the Bucs might have in terms of postseason experience is trumped by two factors – Joe Gibbs being the coach on the opposing sideline, and Chris Simms being the Bucs’ starting QB. This game appears to be just as close on paper as it was the first time around when the Bucs won by a point, and the homefield edge combined with its championship experience on defense is enough to push me toward Tampa Bay again, but in a lower-scoring game more like what a playoff game should be.

Prediction: BUCCANEERS, 20-13

Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6)

Line: Patriots favored by 7½ (total points line is 37½)

Series: The Patriots whipped the Jaguars at Foxboro in December of 2003, 27-13, and has won all three previous meetings played in New England. Overall, the Patriots own a 4-1 edge. Also, when the Jaguars advanced to the AFC Title Game in 1996 (January of 1997, actually), it was New England which beat them, 20-7, to advance to Super Bowl XXXI against Green Bay.

Jaguars Status Report: Jacksonville finished 8-1 over its last nine games including a 40-13 romp over visiting Tennessee in the regular season finale. The Jaguars are the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs after finishing second to Indianapolis in the South Division.

Patriots Status Report: New England’s four-game winning streak was snapped in a 28-26 home loss to Miami Sunday. The Patriots are the fourth seed after capturing the AFC East title.

Postseason History: Jacksonville is making the fifth postseason appearance in franchise history and first since it lost the 1999 AFC Title Game to Tennessee. This will be its third postseason clash with New England. In addition to that ’96 conference title game, the Jaguars defeated the Patriots at home in the 1998 AFC wild-card playoffs, 25-10…The Patriots are the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, and have won three crowns in the last four years. Overall, New England is 3-1 in Super Bowls. QB Tom Brady enters this postseason with a 9-0 career mark as a playoff starter.

Game Summary: Not much should be read into the Patriots’ loss to Miami – Brady was out by halftime and the team clearly wasn’t motivated enough by the chance to be the No. 3 seed to risk injury to key players. New England is as healthy as it has been all season and seems primed to go after a third straight championship, but it’s unlikely to come easy against a Jacksonville club that is 12-4 good. Still, if you’re deciding a battle between Brady and either unheralded David Garrard or unhealthy Byron Leftwich, who would you take? Jacksonville’s defense will probably keep the Jaguars in the game, but this is not the time or place for Brady to suffer his first postseason defeat.

Prediction: PATRIOTS, 23-10

Carolina (11-5) at New York Giants (11-5)

Line: Giants favored by 2½ (total points line is 43½)

Series: Carolina won the last meeting, 37-24 at The Meadowlands in December of 2003. The two teams have faced off only other time, and that was Panthers home victory.

Panthers Status Report: Carolina finished the regular season with a bang, routing the host Atlanta Falcons, 44-11, to claim the fifth seeding in the NFC. It was an impressive rebound from the previous week’s bitterly disappointing home loss to Dallas. The Panthers lost the division record tiebreaker to Tampa Bay for the South crown.

Giants Status Report: The Giants cruised at Oakland Saturday, 30-21, to secure the NFC East crown and No. 4 seeding.

Postseason History: Carolina advanced to its first Super Bowl two years ago, losing to the Patriots, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Its only other postseason success came in its second year of existence, 1996, when the Panthers advanced to the NFC Championship game before losing at Green Bay… The Giants have twice won the Super Bowl – following the 1986 and 1990 seasons – and advanced to the Big Game again in 2000 but were routed by the Baltimore Ravens. This is their first playoff appearance since 2002.

Game Summary: The Giants are 8-1 at home this season and have outscored their opponents by an average of more than 13 points in those contests. RB Tiki Barber has been on a roll, and the Carolina run defense had struggled in recent weeks before shutting down the Falcons’ league-best rushing attack last week. All that makes for the Giants being the logical choice, but the Panthers are my pick here because of QB Jake Delhomme. I have more confidence in the veteran in a big game – and he’s been in this position before – than I do in Eli Manning. I also like coach John Fox’s demeanor over Tom Coughlin, who seems to be wound too tightly for big games. If Carolina’s run defense can muster up an effort justifying its season-long residence among the league’s best, the Panthers get the upset victory.

Prediction: PANTHERS, 27-21

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5)

Line: Steelers favored by 3 (total points line is 46)

Series: The teams split road victories this season, Pittsburgh prevailing at Cincinnati in October, 27-13 and the Bengals returning the favor in early December at Pittsburgh, 38-31. Interestingly, the visiting team has won five of the last six meetings.

Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh won its last four games to earn a playoff berth. Included was a 35-21 home triumph over Detroit Sunday. The Steelers lost the AFC North tiebreaker to Cincinnati based on division record, and are the sixth and final seed.

Bengals Status Report: Cincinnati limped home with two straight losses to end the regular season, a including a 37-3 shellacking at Kansas City Sunday. The Bengals are the No. 3 seed.

Postseason History: Pittsburgh is making its fourth straight playoff appearance, advancing as far as the AFC Championship Game twice in that stretch including last year, when the Steelers lost to New England. The Steelers franchise owns four Super Bowl titles – the most recent won 26 years ago. Pittsburgh made one other Super Bowl appearance, losing to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX… The Bengals haven’t been to the playoffs since 1990. Twice, Cincinnati has reached the Super Bowl, losing both times to San Francisco.

Game Summary: It’s a real concern for the Bengals that they enter this game having lost two straight… and not just that they’re losing, but that the team yielded 37 points in each defeat. Pittsburgh has won four in a row, is playoff-tested, and has enjoyed significant success on the road in this series. The Steelers’ ability to run the ball is probably more than Cincinnati’s defense can handle, and it’s quite likely that the Pittsburgh defense will be a lot better than it was in the most recent meeting between these two. As fun as it would be to take the home ‘dogs, the numbers and the circumstances dictate otherwise.

Prediction: STEELERS, 30-17