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New year, same Pats?

Dec 31, 2007 7:06 AM
6-5  119-126-5 48.6

 Happy and Healthy New Year’s greetings to one and all.

And as a new year begins around the world a new season begins for the NFL.

An entirely new season.

The New England Patriots completed their historic 16-0 regular season last Saturday night with their entertaining and record-setting 38-35 come-from-behind win over the New York Giants. But as is the case with the other 11 teams to have made the playoffs, the Pats are simply 0-0 with a bye this week.

New England needs to win three more games to cement its place in the history books and present a cogent argument for being the best NFL team of all time, should the 19-0 mark be achieved.

Joining the Patriots on the sidelines this week are the Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. The Pats and Cowboys earned the top seeds in the AFC and NFL. The Colts and Packers are seeded second. All four teams will host a Wild Card winner from this weekend’s games next weekend in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

Due to the New Year’s holiday our publishing schedule prevents all four Wild Card matchups from being known. The key Sunday games determined the final two Wild Cards after this column was written. As such, the following thoughts are preliminary and conditional based upon the possible matchups that may take place.

Only one of the four matchups is certain. The fifth seeded New York Giants will travel to No. 4 Tampa Bay in one of the NFC Wild Card games. Second-seeded Seattle will host Washington, Minnesota or New Orleans depending upon this past Sunday’s results.

In the AFC both San Diego and Pittsburgh will host Wild Card games. One of these fortunate teams will host red hot Jacksonville, while the other will be visited by either Cleveland or Tennessee. Cleveland’s result against San Francisco, win or lose or by how much, was totally irrelevant. It all came down to the Titans-Colts game in Indianapolis.

Home teams have historically done well in the Wild Card round. Since 1990, when the NFL adopted its present format, home teams have won the game 69 percent of the time, although they have covered just 54 percent of these games. The average margin in the Wild Card round is 12½ points, the narrowest of any of the four playoff rounds.

Here’s a look at this week’s Wild Card games, beginning with the one known matchup and then the three potential pairings.

Giants at Bucs: Tampa Bay led the NFL in allowing the fewest points during the regular season and overcame the loss of its top running backs early on to win the NFC South. The Giants used a strong start and late finish to earn the Wild Card and nearly ended New England’s perfect season last Saturday night. The Giants have the edges at key offensive positions although the loss of TE Jeremy Shockey to injury is a huge loss. QB Eli Manning had his typical inconsistent season and will face defensive pressure much of the day.

The Giants’ defense also features a ferocious pass rush and we could see both teams commit turnovers as a result. Look for this to be a low-scoring game with both defenses outplaying the offenses. The Giants hail from what was a much stronger NFC East, but they only defeated one team (Washington) with a winning record all season, And, that was back in Week 3! These teams have not met often despite being in the same conference. In fact, they have met only 10 times since 1982. Every meeting has gone UNDER the total. More of the same here. UNDER.

Redskins vs Vikings/Seahawks: Seattle easily won the weak NFC West once again and many observers consider the Seahawks to have a real shot at surprising in the playoffs. Others feel they are a fraudulent playoff team, benefiting from that weak division and an otherwise fairly easy schedule. The truth lies somewhere in the middle as the Hawks have an experienced team and are in the playoffs for a fifth straight season. Of the two visitors, Minnesota would bring the more legitimate credentials and present the bigger threat to Seattle. The Vikings have the league’s top rushing offense and also the league’s top rush defense. Their weakness is at QB with young Tarvaris Jackson lightly tested.

Jackson could be forced into mistakes by an improved Seahawks defense. Washington is playing with great emotion for former teammate Sean Taylor who was tragically murdered in midseason. Emotion can take a team only so far — there still have to have playmakers. Seattle has the edge over the ”˜Skins in this regard. QB Todd Collins, pressed into the starting role when Jason Campbell was injured, lacks playoff experience although he did shine down the stretch. Minnesota is more capable of pulling an upset because of their strong running game on both sides of the ball that could allow them to dictate tempo

In a Minnesota at Seattle matchup the play would be VIKINGS. For a Washington at Seattle matchup the preferred play would be with the SEAHAWKS.

Chargers at Browns/Titans: San Diego overcame a shaky start to its season under new coach Norv Turner to play their best football over the final two months of the season. RB Ladainian Tomlinson has had another All-Pro season and QB Philip Rivers overcame early season turnover woes to have a decent year. The defense is solid though, not overpowering. San Diego should get by either the Browns or Titans even if they are heavily favored over both. A matchup against Tennessee is likely to be more of a defensive struggle whereas playing the Browns would more likely involve an offensive shootout.

Tennessee is more capable of upsetting the Chargers than is Cleveland because the Titans do have a strong defense. Although the Browns have played better defensively of late, they still figure to have problems trying to stop the San Diego ground game. And QB Vince Young has yet to show he can be the playmaker on a consistent basis in the pros that he was back at the U of Texas. Regardless of the opponent, look for the Chargers to advance rather easily with their defense that led the NFL in takeaways, giving Norv Turner a playoff victory. SAN DIEGO.

Steelers at Browns/Titans: Pittsburgh enters this game with QB Ben Roethlisberger banged up and without star RB Willie Parker. Backup Najeh Davenport filled in well late in the season, but does not possess the breakaway speed of Parker. The Steelers are still known for the defense and that will be the key to them advancing against either the Browns or Titans. Pittsburgh opened the season with a blowout win at Cleveland, but the rematch in midseason was much closer, with the Steelers coming from behind to win 31-28.

The Steelers and Titans have not met since the opening game of 2005. Tennessee is a well coached team with a fundamentally solid defense. But the Titans are a suspect team. Heading into Sunday night’s game at Indianapolis, Tennessee had been outscored over the course of the season despite a 9-6 record. They have a decent rushing offense and now that they are again healthy defend the run very well. The best way to approach this game would be in playing the total. In a Pittsburgh/Tennessee matchup the play is on the UNDER. If it’s Cleveland at Pittsburgh look to playing the OVER.