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NFL playoffs turn a new page

Dec 30, 2008 5:01 PM

Pigskin Picks by Andy Iskoe |

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The long grind that is the NFL regular season has come to an end and for 20 of the league’s 32 teams thoughts turn to personnel evaluation, possible coaching changes and preparations for next April’s draft of collegiate talent.

For the dozen teams that have made it to the playoffs the road to the Super Bowl is about to begin. As is the case every year, this season’s playoff field is significantly different from last season.

Seven teams that were on the sidelines last season are in this season. Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota and Philadelphia are back in the playoffs after more than a year’s absence.

Not reprising their playoff appearances of a season ago are Dallas, Green Bay, Jacksonville, New England, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington. New England’s absence is especially frustrating as the Patriots’ 11-5 record was better than four teams that made the playoffs and equaled that of three other teams. But tie breakers gave Miami the AFC East Title and Baltimore the second AFC Wild Card berth.

The five teams returning to the playoffs from last season are Indianapolis, The New York Giants, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Tennessee. On the flip side, the Detroit Lions became the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 regular season games. (pictured right - Detroit Lions' Fans)

The Wild Card games will be played this weekend with the Giants, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Tennessee having Byes after earning their conference’s top two seeds.

This promises to be a very interesting playoff season for several reasons. A pair of AFC teams considered to be solid Super Bowl favorites, San Diego and Indianapolis, must play in the Wild Card round as neither was able to earn a bye. And, in fact, only one will advance to the Divisional round as the Colts and Chargers meet in San Diego this Saturday night.

The Wild Card round features a situation not seen before – all four home teams are underdogs. Since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been only 7 home underdogs in 72 Wild Card games.

Interestingly, back in 2000, the Wild Card round featured three home underdogs and all won straight up as Miami (+1½) upset Indianapolis 23-17, New Orleans (+7) upset defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis 31-28, and Philadelphia (+3) upset Tampa Bay 21-3.

Unlike 2000, when two of the home dogs had better records than the road favorite and the other home dog had the same mark, both of Saturday’s road favorites have better records by at least two games.

Sunday’s games feature a pair of teams (Miami and Baltimore) with identical records and a game that pits 9-6-1 Philadelphia at 10-6 Minnesota. And in that game the road Eagles did not get to feast twice on the winless Lions, a team Minnesota barely edged twice, winning by 2 and 4 points.

Will we see similar ‘upsets’ this season? That’s why they play the games and we watch them. Here in Nevada we watch with both financial and rooting interest.

Here’s a look at each of the four games.

SATURDAY

Falcons -2 at Cards (50½): Atlanta’s 11-5 record was third best in the NFC playing in the NFC South, where the division finished 16 games above .500. Arizona finally achieved success by winning the NFC West, but was just 9-7 with six of the wins coming against its NFC West rivals.

Arizona does have a pair of outstanding receivers and QB Kurt Warner enjoyed an MVP-type season. But playing in such a weak division masked some major deficiencies, especially on defense. Atlanta is well coached and has shown over the second half of the season an ability to play on the road. At under a FG, the Falcons should prevent this home underdog from advancing. FALCONS / OVER.

Colts -1 at Chargers (51): These teams met in San Diego in November with the Colts winning 23-20. San Diego held a slight statistical edge in that game but the game was close throughout. Indy seeks to reverse last season’s playoff meeting when the Chargers eliminated the Colts 28-2. Colts QB Peyton Manning had a solid though unspectacular season and over the past few weeks appears fully healed from the injury that hindered his start to the season.

San Diego QB Philip Rivers has also had a strong season and based on this season you’d have to call the QB position even. Indy has not had a running game to speak of all season but San Diego’s ground game was far less productive all season. Both defenses played much better over the second half of the season. San Diego is certainly the oddity in the playoffs as despite an 8-8 record the Chargers have scored 92 more points than they allowed. Better coaching might well have turned those close losses into wins. COLTS / UNDER.

SUNDAY

Ravens -3 at Dolphins (37): Both teams were hot down the stretch. Miami won 5 in a row and 9 of 10. Baltimore won 5 of 6 and 9 of 11 to finish the season. Miami’s offense is marked by steady play and they rarely turn the ball over, losing just 13 all season. The Ravens defense led the league with 34 takeaways and statistically their defense has a solid edge over Miami’s. Baltimore also had the better rushing offense, 149 ypg, 31 ypg better than Miami.

This is another rematch of a game played earlier this season. In mid October Baltimore won 27-13 in Miami in a game that was virtually even yardage-wise. Each team committed just one turnover with Miami’s turnover an interception that the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs returned for a TD. Both teams have progressed since then. Baltimore’s five losses were to teams that made the playoffs. Miami’s only victory over a winning team in their 9-1 stretch was the season ender at the Jets. Baltimore has some solid fundamental edges, especially on defense. RAVENS/UNDER.

Eagles -3 at Vikings (42): The Philly defense has been outstanding all season and especially the past several games. The Eagles have not allowed more than 14 points in any of their last four games and have held each of their last seven opponents to under 300 yards of offense. Minnesota has also played well down the stretch, winning five of its last six to win the NFC North, a much weaker Division than Philly’s NFC East. Minnesota also has a top notch defense but its edge over Philly is not that great.

Minnesota does have the better rushing offense with RB Adrian Peterson, although his recent penchant for fumbling could be costly. But that edge is not that great with Philly having its own stud in the oft injured Brian Westbrook. Philly does have a decided edge at QB with Donovan McNabb over Tarvaris Jackson. Aside from their last game over the starter-resting Giants, the only quality win the Vikings had this season was back in week three over Carolina. This figures to be a game marked by physical defense and the Vikings’ offense has been more prone to mistakes. EAGLES/UNDER.