Ass-tounding wild cards

Jan 11, 2005 6:40 AM

The overture to the NFL playoffs has been completed with eight teams remain in the race to Jacksonville. The winners of this weekend’s four games advance to next week’s conference championships and then to Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6.

The four wild card survivors (three of which were road teams for the first time ever) take a major leap in class this week. The two top seeds in each conference not only are well rested following a week off, but bring a collective record of 53-11 into this weekend.

By comparison, the four road teams this week were a collective 38-26 during the regular season. Of the four, only Indianapolis is at the level of the top seeds. That recognition is reflected in the short pointspread for the game at New England.

A team with a non-winning record had never won a playoff game. This past weekend saw both NFC wild card road teams (St Louis and Minnesota) accomplish the feat after 8-8 regular seasons. One can only imagine the surprises still in store over the next month.

Historically the divisional round has held truest to form. Since the NFL adopted a 12 team format in 1990, the home team has won slightly more than 80 percent of the time and has usually been favored. Favorites win about 75 percent. Last season was an anomaly, with all four road teams covering.

Even with those results, the favorites have covered nearly 56 percent of the divisional games, the best of any previous round. The average margin of victory is a lopsided 15.3 points per game.

The results make sense given that the four host teams are rested and have proven over the course of the season to be the league’s best.

Here’s a look at all four games to be played in what has often been referred to as the best weekend of the pro football season.

Jets +9 at Steelers (34½): This was a defensive struggle in their first meeting in which Pittsburgh used a gimmick Jerome Bettis TD pass to cement a 17-6 win. The Jets actually outgained Pittsburgh by 34 yards, but neither team managed 300 yards of offense. Both teams excel at protecting the football and avoiding turnovers. Each defense also fared well in forcing opposition turnovers, so in many cases we have strength versus strength matchups.

The first meeting was close throughout with the game tied 3-3 early in the fourth quarter and the Steelers leading just 10-6 until they got the covering TD with three minutes remaining. This game should unfold in a similar manner. Both teams ranked in the top five in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Pittsburgh had the more consistent offense throughout the season with rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger enjoying a better year than Chad Pennington, who had to battle through injuries. Given the style of play and mindset of the coaches, the points are worth taking. NYJ, UNDER.

Rams +7 at Falcons (48): The Rams benefited from numerous dropped passes at Seattle, including a potential game tying pass in the waning moments. Atlanta’s rise in the NFC this season was due perhaps more to the play of their defense. QB Michael Vick does put up rather ordinary passing stats, but his running ability and knack for making things happen are the key to the offensive success. But new coach Jim Mora Jr. changed the culture of the Falcons and made some defensive changes that worked immediately. The Falcons had a superb rush defense and forced two turnovers per game. Contrast that to the Rams defense that forced fewer than one turnover per game.

Atlanta won the earlier meeting 34-17, but the game was tied 17-17 entering the fourth quarter. The Falcons were 1½-point favorites in that game. Vick accounted for 288 of Atlanta’s 416 total offense (179 passing, 109 rushing). WRs Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce had huge days for the Rams, each with more than 100 yards receiving and combining for 17 receptions. And that may be the key here for the Rams who will benefit from the fast indoor track. In contrast to the day’s earlier game, this one should be wide open and very entertaining. ST. LOUIS, OVER.

Vikings +9½ at Eagles: Terrell Owens is clearly the difference between this Philly team and the team that has lost three straight NFC title games. The Eagles still have an offense with QB Donovan McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook, who is a threat in several areas. The defense performed better than expected following some offseason departures. Only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points in the regular season. Minnesota answered its many critics with a convincing 31-17 win at Green Bay last week.

The defense played better than it had all season in forcing four Brett Favre interceptions and the offense showed nice balance in both running and passing the ball. An early 17-0 lead helped and the Vikings actually scored only twice following the game’s first nine minutes. When these teams met on the second Monday night of the season the Eagles were favored by three points. Minnesota moved the ball up and down the field on the Eagles, amassing 410 yards of total offense. But turnovers and failures inside the red zone forced the Vikes to settle for four FG attempts and just one touchdown. With Owens out, expect the Philadelphia defense to key this victory as Minnesota again must contend with the outdoor elements. PHILLY, UNDER.

Colts +2½) at Patriots (51): Last Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts looked unbeatable in a 49-24 rout of Denver. But Indy also looked unbeatable in last season’s playoffs following impressive wins the first two rounds. New England has suffered significant defensive injuries, yet managed to go 14-2 SU and 11-3-2 ATS.

QB Peyton Manning has long struggled against the New England defense regardless of the personnel. This comes from the coaching of Patriots head man Bill Belichick who disguises coverages and creates looks that are designed to trick Manning.

The Colts and Steelers have been receiving all the hype over the past month, but New England is still a fundamentally sound team with good character and chemistry. They find a way to make the big plays at the critical moments and will find a way here as well. Look for the New England offense to succeed where Denver’s did not.

A solid ground game and short passes to keep the clock running and the Colts offense on the sidelines will be the MO. New England has a stronger running game this season than they did a season ago with RB Corey Dillon.

The price looks cheap, but given the current form of Indianapolis and the New England injuries, the line makes sense. New England is still the team to beat and worth backing at a field goal or less in chilly Foxboro. NEW ENGLAND, UNDER.

Playoffs: 1-3

Season: 136-119-5huge days for the Rams, each with more than 100 yards receiving and combining for 17 receptions. And that may be the key here for the Rams who will benefit from the fast indoor track. In contrast to the day’s earlier game, this one should be wide open and very entertaining. ST. LOUIS, OVER.

Vikings +9½ at Eagles: Terrell Owens is clearly the difference between this Philly team and the team that has lost three straight NFC Title games. The Eagles still have an offense with QB Donovan McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook, who is a threat in several areas. The defense performed better than expected following some offseason departures. In fact, only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points in the regular season. Minnesota answered many critics with its 31-17 convincing win in Green Bay last week.

The defense played better than it had all season in forcing four Brett Favre interceptions and the offense showed nice balance in both running and passing the ball. An early 17-0 lead helped and the Vikings actually scored only twice following the game’s first nine minutes. When these teams met on the second Monday night of the season the Eagles were favored by three points. Minnesota moved the ball up and down the field on the Eagles, amassing 410 yards of total offense. But turnovers and failures inside the red zone forced the Vikes to settle for four FG attempts and just one touchdown. With Owens out, expect the Philadelphia defense to key this victory as Minnesota again must contend with the outdoor elements. PHILLY, UNDER.

Colts +2½) at Patriots (51): Indianapolis looked unbeatable last Sunday in routing Denver 49-24 in a game not that close. But Indy also looked unbeatable in last season’s Playoffs following impressive wins the first two rounds. New England has suffered significant defensive injuries all season, yet managed to go 14-2 SU and 11-3-2 ATS. Indy QB Peyton Manning has long struggled against the New England defense regardless of the personnel. This comes from the coaching of Patriots head man Bill Belichick who disguises coverages and creates looks that are designed to trick Manning.

The Colts and Steelers have been receiving all the hype over the past month, but New England is still a fundamentally sound team with good character and chemistry. They find a way to make the big plays at the critical moments and will find a way here as well. Look for the New England offense to succeed where Denver’s did not. A solid ground game and short passes to keep the clock running and the Colts offense on the sidelines will be the MO. New England has a stronger running game this season than they did a season ago with RB Corey Dillon. The price looks cheap, but given the current form of Indianapolis and the New England injuries, the line makes sense. New England is still the team to beat worth backing at a FG or less. NEW ENGLAND, UNDER.

Playoffs: 1-3

Season: 136-119-5