The Elite Eight. It’s not March Madness, but you can call it “January Jousting.”
The divisional week of the NFL playoffs has always fascinated me, because I know there’s going to be at least one significant upset. It’s just a matter of trying to determine which favorite(s) will walk dejectedly off the field.
In case you didn’t notice, three of the four road teams were victorious last week… which obviously doesn’t bode well for homefield advantage in general in these playoffs.
Indeed, the stage is set for some truly amazing feats performed by underdogs. None of the hosts have walkovers. Not even close. In fact, as you’ll read below, I like two more road ‘dogs to bite their favored hosts this week and only one of the four contests to be decided by more than a touchdown.
OVERALL PREDICTIONS, 2005
Straight-Up: 174-86 (67%) ATS: 140-110-10 (56%) Over/Under: 117-137-6 (46%)
Straight-Up: 3-1 ATS: 3-1 Over/Under: 3-1
Washington (11-6) at Seattle (13-3)
Line: Seahawks favored by 9 (total points line is 41)
Series: Washington edged the visiting Seahawks in overtime in Week 4, 20-17. It was Seattle’s last loss until losing its meaningless finale at Green Bay two weeks ago. The Redskins have won seven of 10 meetings all-time and are 2-1 at Seattle.
Redskins Status Report: Washington’s defense was suffocatingly good in its 17-10 wild-card triumph at Tampa Bay last week, although the Bucs were a Lito Shepherd drop in the endzone from forcing overtime. The Redskins have won six in a row overall.
Seahawks Status Report: Seattle enjoyed its bye last week after dropping a 23-17 decision at Green Bay in its finale on New Year’s Day. That defeat ended a team-record 11-game winning streak.
Postseason History: Washington’s last playoff appearance was in 1999, when it lost to Tampa Bay in the divisional playoffs (ain’t revenge sweet?!). 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… Seattle was ousted by the St. Louis Rams last season, 27-20, and in overtime at Green Bay the year before. Both were in the wild-card round. The Seahawks have never been to a Super Bowl, but ironically would have faced the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII if not for a 30-14 loss to the Raiders at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the 1983 AFC Title Game.
Game Summary: The Seahawks have their share of doubters, primarily because they’ve never been to the Super Bowl and only gotten close once. But coach Mike Holmgren has been there, and won it with the Packers in 1996. This is Seattle’s most complete squad since that AFC finalist unit some 22 years ago. Washington’s defense is playing well enough to give the Skins a legitimate shot, but the Seahawks defense is playing well, too, and the attack has too many weapons to keep under wraps for 60 minutes.
Prediction: SEAHAWKS, 27-16
New England (11-6) at Denver (13-3)
Line: Broncos favored by 3½ (total points line is 43½)
Series: Denver hammered the visiting Patriots, 28-20, back in October. In the last 10 meetings, the road club has prevailed six times.
Patriots Status Report: New England flexed its experienced postseason muscles last weekend against Jacksonville, dominating the Jaguars in the wild-card round game, 28-3. The Patriots have won seven of nine overall.
Broncos Status Report: Denver enjoyed its bye week after posting a surprisingly easy 23-7 victory at San Diego in its regular season finale. The Broncos have won eight of nine and 13 of 15.
Postseason History: The Patriots are the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, and have won three crowns in the last four years. Overall, New England is 3-2 in Super Bowls. QB Tom Brady enters this game with a 10-0 career mark as a playoff starter… Denver has a long and storied tradition in the postseason, but the last two years have ended with similar lopsided losses at Indianapolis. Overall, the Broncos have two Super Bowl crowns – back-to-back, in 1997 and 1998. The Broncos have lost four other Super Bowls – to Dallas, the New York Giants, Washington, and San Francisco. They’re looking for their first return trip since John Elway retired after the 1998 campaign.
Game Summary: There’s no denying the quality of Denver’s season. The Broncos looked horrible in their season-opener, a 34-10 shellacking at the hands of the Dolphins at Miami. But a 13-2 record since – with both losses coming on late touchdowns on the road – is ultra-impressive. Coach Mike Shanahan has endured mixed results in the postseason in his tenure, but he’s a quality coach – no question. Still, I don’t believe the Patriots will be denied. After all of my categorical analysis of each team’s running game, run defense, ability to force turnovers, special teams, etc… it comes down to Tom Brady vs. Jake Plummer. Brady has won 10 of 10 career postseason starts. Ten and oh!
Prediction: PATRIOTS, 24-17
Pittsburgh (12-5) at Indianapolis (14-2)
Line: Colts favored by 9½ (total points line is 47½)
Series: On a Monday night in late November, the then-unbeaten Colts whipped the Steelers at home, 26-7. The game wasn’t even that close. The Steelers had won the seven previous meetings dating back two decades.
Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh’s winning streak is now at five after the Steelers scored the last 24 points of a 31-17 victory at Cincinnati in the wild-card round.
Colts Status Report: Indianapolis was on a well-earned bye last week as the AFC’s top seed. The Colts finished the regular season with a 17-13 home win over Arizona, but lost their previous two games before that.
Postseason History: Pittsburgh is making its fourth playoff appearance in the last five years, advancing as far as the AFC Championship Game twice in that stretch including last season, when the Steelers lost at home to New England, 41-27. 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 Colts have been stymied by New England – at Foxboro – in each of the last two postseasons. Indy hasn’t reached the Super Bowl since the Baltimore Colts beat Dallas in Super Bowl V – 35 years ago.
Game Summary: Despite the result of the first meeting, I stubbornly believe that the Steelers have the type of team that can take the Colts out. And Pittsburgh is playing better now than it was in November. For the Colts, however, there are intangibles that must be considered. How will they respond to the pressure of being the top seed? Will they dial it up a few notches on pure emotion in the wake of the tragic death of head coach Tony Dungy’s son, or will they be flat and perhaps even psychologically spent? Well, if it ends up being the latter, I’d be shocked. We’re talking about the clear, consensus best team in the NFL for the first 13 weeks of the season. The Colts are at home, they’re healthy, and they’re determined. QB Peyton Manning is the smartest QB to come along in a long while. The Colts should get it done before a raucous home crowd, but in a game that is much closer than that Monday Nighter.
Prediction: COLTS, 23-20
Carolina (12-5) at Chicago (12-4)
Line: Bears favored by 3 (total points line is 30½)
Series: Chicago’s top-rated defense stymied the Panthers in a November meeting at Soldier Field, propelling the Bears to a 13-3 victory. These teams have met thrice all-time, with the home team winning all three.
Panthers Status Report: Carolina totally dominated the New York Giants on their home field last weekend, winning 23-0 while picking off Giants QB Eli Manning three times. It was the first shutout registered by a road team since the L.A. Rams won the 1979 NFC Championship Game at Tampa Bay, 9-0.
Bears Status Report: The Bears were idle last week, and lost their finale at Minnesota while resting numerous regulars, but have won their last nine games with actual meaning.
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. Sunday’s win over the Giants improved the Panthers’ all-time postseason record to 5-2, a .714 winning percentage that is tied for the top mark with the Baltimore Ravens… Chicago is making only its second postseason appearance in the last eight years, bowing out in the divisional round in 2002 with a 33-19 home loss to Philadelphia. The Bears won the only Super Bowl they made it to, routing New England in Super Bowl XX.
Game Summary: With all due respect to talented QB Rex Grossman and much-improved running back Thomas Jones, the Bears don’t strike me as being a complete enough team to go deep into the playoffs. Carolina is more dynamic, and yet sports a defense that is almost as good as Da Bears’ D. The Panthers offense is playing a lot better than the one that managed just three points in that first encounter. Carolina is opportunistic on both sides of the ball, and is my pick here for their playoff experience as much as anything.
Prediction: PANTHERS, 17-13