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Weekly Game Breakdowns - Wildcard Week
Bob Cunningham
January 3, 2008

The postseason has arrived.  New England is still undefeated, the NFC seems wide open, and odds are that at least one lower seed will prevail this weekend.  But which one?  Or could there be more than one?

Forgive me for not having the exact numbers immediately in front of me, but it’s been a long time since both conference top seeds advanced to a Super Bowl.  If form holds, then, either the Patriots or Dallas – this year’s two No. 1’s – is going down to defeat (if not both).

This year’s playoff layout offers yet more evidence for what I’ve been calling for the last several years – for the NFL to eliminate the conferences and engage the playoffs based on a single-seeding system.  It matters because the AFC sports the vast majority of the NFL’s top teams.  The Patriots, defending champion Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and even the Jacksonville Jaguars would appear to possess the tools for very deep postseason runs.  In the NFC, only the Cowboys and Green Bay come off as having what it takes.

Imagine, then, a 12-team playoff system in which the eight division champions were ranked with the absence of conference affiliations.  It might look like this: 1. Patriots, 2. Colts, 3. Cowboys, 4. Packers, 5. Chargers, 6. Seahawks, 7. Steelers, 8. Buccaneers.  The wild-card teams would then be the four best non-division winners.  In our example, we’d have the Jaguars, Giants, Titans and Browns – all at least 10-6.  Washington, at 9-7, would be on the outside looking in.

The major advantage, in addition to better assuring the 12 best teams qualify for the playoffs, is that any two teams can meet in the Super Bowl.  I don’t know about you, but I think it’d be cool to see Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, on a neutral field, with the world championship on the line.

Just something to think about.

2007 Picks Record Straight-up:  168-88 (66 percent)
2007 Picks Record Against-The-Spread:  131-116-9 (53 percent)
Last Week:  13-3 SU, 12-4 ATS

Here’s how I see the wild-card playoffs: 

WASHINGTON (9-7) at SEATTLE (10-6)
Saturday, Jan. 5, 1:30 p.m. PT

Line:  Seahawks favored by 3    

Strongest Trends:  Seattle is 6-2 ATS at home this season.  Washington is 4-1 ATS in the last five meetings.  The home team is 5-1 ATS in the last six meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Seahawks prevailed at home, 20-10, in the 2005 NFC Divisional Playoffs.

Redskins Status Report:  Washington finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak, overtaking Minnesota for the last wild-card berth and ending the regular season with a 27-6 home romp over an unmotivated Dallas team on Sunday.

Seahawks Status Report:  Resting many regulars for at least half the game, Seattle lost its finale at Atlanta, 44-41, but long ago clinched the NFC West Division crown and is the No. 3 seed.

Recent Playoff History:  Washington coach Joe Gibbs has guided the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles, but not since 1992.  The Redskins’ last appearance in the postseason was two years ago, when they lost at Seattle in the divisional round after upsetting Tampa Bay on the road in the wild-card round.  The Seahawks lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL and last year won their opening round game over Dallas when Cowboys QB Tony Romo fumbled the snap on what seemed to be an easy game-winning field goal attempt.  The Seahawks then nearly knocked off Chicago on the road but succumbed in OT, 27-24, in the divisional playoffs.

Game Summary:  Seattle has been its usual potent self at home, its only loss coming to New Orleans in Week 5.  The Seahawks are averaging a winning margin of nearly two touchdowns on their home field and bested the Redskins there in the playoffs less than two years ago.  Washington has been on a great roll, and though admittedly not fair to injured Jason Campbell, the offense appears a lot steadier with veteran Todd Collins under center.  Still, this game would seem to be a product of the home field advantage more than any other.  Seahawks prevail because of their opportunistic defense in friendly surroundings, and gain a divisional round trip to Wisconsin.

Prediction:  SEAHAWKS, 27-17

Saturday, Jan. 5, 5 p.m. PT

Line:  Even    

Strongest Trends:  The Jaguars have won the last three meetings straight-up, and are 7-1 ATS in the last eight meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Jaguars triumphed at Pittsburgh, 29-22, just three weeks ago.

Jaguars Status Report:  Jacksonville opted to rest virtually every key player, especially on offense, and was whipped at Houston Sunday, 42-28.  The Jaguars are the fifth seeds in the AFC.

Steelers Status Report:  Pittsburgh rested most of its key regulars Sunday and was beaten at Baltimore, 27-21, to finish the regular season with three losses in four weeks.  The Steelers, champions of the AFC North over Cleveland by virtue of their season sweep of the Browns, are the fourth seeds.

Recent Playoff History:  The Steelers are two years removed from winning the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title.  Last season, they missed the playoffs.  Jacksonville has advanced as far as the AFC Championship Game (1996), but seeks its first Super Bowl berth.  The Jaguars’ last postseason appearance was two seasons ago, when they were drilled at New England, 28-3, in the opening round.

Game Summary:  There seems to be a consensus that the Jaguars are the better team, and that is evidenced by the pick ‘em line despite the game being played at Pittsburgh.  But the Steelers’ defense, while not as nasty lately, remains first rate especially at home, and going into Pittsburgh to beat the Steelers twice in less than a month figures, logically, to be about twice as difficult as doing it once.  The loss of RB Willie Parker for the Steelers is big, but even if Parker were healthy, the Steelers figured to put their hopes on the broad shoulders of QB Ben Roethlisberger anyway, and Big Ben clearly is up to the task.  He’s a big game performer, and a proven winner.  The host Steelers simply won’t lose to the same team at home twice in such a short span, even to a club as quality as Jacksonville.

Prediction:  STEELERS, 20-13

Sunday, Jan. 6, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Buccaneers favored by 2½    

Strongest Trend:  The Giants have covered ATS in each of the last three meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Giants rolled at home, 17-3, in October of 2006.

Giants Status Report:  Despite having nothing to gain from a victory other than pride, the Giants went all out against New England Saturday, but came up shy in their bid to prevent the Patriots from achieving a 16-0 regular season, losing to the visitors, 38-35.  New York is the fifth seed after finishing second to Dallas in the NFC East.

Buccaneers Status Report:  Tampa Bay rested most of its regulars Sunday and lost at home to Carolina, 31-23.  The Bucs, champions of the NFC South, are the fourth seeds.

Recent Playoff History:  Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl five years ago, while the Giants last played in one in 2001, losing to Baltimore.  The Bucs missed the playoffs last season, while the Giants were beaten at Philadelphia in the opening round, 23-20.

Game Summary:  It’s pretty much my standard practice to select at least one of the four underdogs, and this is the matchup which most likely will result in an upset – and a mild upset at that.  The Giants pass rush can cause match-up problems for Tampa’s passing game, even though veteran QB Jeff Garcia is elusive and able to minimize sacks.  Bucs WR Joey Galloway is ailing, and he’s easily the team’s best weapon.  New York’s passing game flourished against a very good Patriots pass defense last week and seems up to the challenge again against a quality Bucs secondary.  One big edge in this matchup, however, is turnovers – Tampa Bay is well on the plus side, the Giants are not – and if that form holds, the Bucs will be in good shape.  But ultimately, I like the G-Men to carry the momentum they established with their gutty effort against the Patriots into this one, and ride their superior postseason experience to a close victory.

Prediction:  GIANTS, 23-20

TENNESSEE (10-6) at SAN DIEGO (11-5)
Sunday, Jan. 6, 1:30 p.m. PT

Line:  Chargers favored by 9½    

Strongest Trends:  San Diego has won its last six games overall, is 7-1 at home this season, and has won the last six meetings between these teams.

Last Meeting:  The Chargers came from behind to gain an OT win at Tennessee early last month, 23-17.

Titans Status Report:  Tennessee won its way into the playoffs by outlasting an Indianapolis Colts club going through the motions, 16-10, Sunday night.  The Titans, which beat out Cleveland based on a better record among common opponents, are the sixth seeds.

Chargers Status Report:  San Diego pulled away Sunday to a 30-17 win at Oakland to secure the third seeding out of the AFC.  The West champs won their final six regular season games.

Recent Playoff History:  The Titans are making their first postseason appearance since 2003, and have advanced to one Super Bowl, losing to the St. Louis Rams after the 1999 season.  San Diego has won three of the last four AFC West titles, but hasn’t won a playoff game since reaching the Super Bowl after the 1994 campaign, when the Chargers lost to San Francisco.  Last year, the Chargers lost at home to New England, 24-21, in the AFC Divisional playoffs.

Game Summary:  This game is even bigger than a playoff game normally is for San Diego.  A team that has asserted itself as being among the game’s elite, the Chargers can’t rightfully make that claim until they go deep into the playoffs and/or reach the Super Bowl.  The first step is a home game they should win against a Titans club whose QB, Vince Young, won’t be at 100 percent if he plays.  Tennessee had to work hard just to get into this game – the Chargers should be able to exorcise a few demons as they move on to a date at Indianapolis next week.  But it will only happen if RB LaDainian Tomlinson finds some running room against a solid Titans run defense, or if QB Philip Rivers plays at his steady best, rather than his erratic worst – the latter of which seems to show up far too often in important games against quality foes.

Prediction:  CHARGERS, 31-20

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