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Home teams trend will be put to test

Jan 7, 2003 6:50 AM

Following last week’s wild Wild Card weekend that featured a pair of blowouts on Saturday and a pair of amazing comebacks on Sunday the four top teams in the NFL begin playoff action this weekend.

The quartet that earned first-round byes are clearly the elite teams in the league. The combined regular season record of Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Tennessee was 46-18. The four teams they will face this weekend were a combined 38-24-2.

Historically home teams have done consistently well against the point spread in this round of the playoffs. Since 1990 the host in the Divisional round has gone 29-17-2 ATS, slightly better than 63 percent.

Another factor that has pointed to ATS success in this round has been point differential. The team that has had the greatest net point differential during the regular season has covered better than two of every three games in the divisional round. Usually it’s the home team, but not always. Pittsburgh has a very slight edge over Tennessee this week in that category.

Here’s a look at each of the games this weekend -- considered by many to feature the best NFL action of the season.

Steelers (+4) at Titans (44): Pittsburgh was sloppy in its exciting come from behind win over Cleveland last week. The defense ranked first in the league against the run and was able to shut down Cleveland’s ground game, allowing less than 1.5 yards per carry. But the pass defense was torched for over 400 yards by backup QB Kelly Holcomb. Steve McNair of the Titans is a better QB, but does not have the same quality of receivers as the Browns. But Tennessee does have RB Eddie George. Tennessee won the regular season meeting 31-23 and ran for over 100 yards.

The Steelers did commit two more turnovers than Tennessee. The teams were former division rivals before realignment with Pittsburgh sweeping both games last season. Prior to that, the Titans had defeated the Steelers in seven straight games. Pittsburgh QB Tommy Maddox put up some solid stats in leading the comeback last week but he also tossed two interceptions. Pittsburgh has won five of its last six road games with the only loss being the game here. If the Steelers can avoid turning the ball over, they have an excellent chance to pull the upset. The ground game should be decisive in what should be a low scoring contest. UNDER.

Falcons (+7½) at Eagles (39): Atlanta was very impressive on both sides in totally dominating Green Bay last weekend. The defense forced five Packers turnovers while the offense rushed for nearly 200 yards. But the task gets tougher here against perhaps the NFL’s most balanced team. Philadelphia might get QB Donovan McNabb back after missing most of the second half of the season. Even if McNabb can’t go, or is not 100 percent healthy, the Eagles have shown they can win not only without him but in a dominating fashion.

The problem for Atlanta is a lack of quality receivers. The Philly defense will key on containing Falcons QB Mike Vick. The Eagles secondary is thought of by many to be the league’s best. And it should be the defense that decides this game. PHILADELPHIA.

49ers (+4½) at Bucs (39): San Francisco overcame a 24-point deficit last week to edge the Giants in a game that exposed some significant defensive weaknesses. It also displayed an offensive potential that had been dormant over most of the second half of the season. 49ers QB Jeff Garcia came into his own last week. His heroics should have cemented a place in 49er lore alongside Joe Montana and Steve Young. The Niners might not have much left when they travel across the country to face a rested Tampa Bay defense that led the league in fewest points and fewest yards allowed.

The Bucs led the league in pass defense, which will be a plus provided they can get an early lead. Tampa’s offense was below average largely because of a very weak rushing attack. But Tampa did have its best rushing stats of the season over the final four games. This is Tampa’s fifth playoff appearance in the past six seasons. Tampa won both home playoff games in this stretch but lost all four road tilts. The coaching change from Tony Dungy to Jon Gruden has been a plus with the offense showing modest improvement during the season. TAMPA BAY.

Jets (+5½) at Raiders (47): This is the feature game of the weekend with two of the hottest teams in the league meeting for the second time. Oakland won the earlier meeting by 6 (26-20) just over a month ago, but they dominated the game more than that score suggests. The Raiders outgained the Jets 411-274 with a 25-18 edge in first downs. The Jets were also held to just 32 rushing yards in 14 carries and committed the only two turnovers of the game. QB Chad Pennington has been a pleasant surprise since taking over as starter.

The Raiders defeated the Jets in the playoffs last season, 38-24. Oakland had no turnovers and outgained the Jets by almost 100 yards. The Jets have been a popular Super Bowl play over the past week with odds dropping from 18-1 to a mere 7-2 as of this past Sunday. Oakland is 7-1 SU in the last eight games, covering in six. The Raiders have allowed a mere 75 yards per game rushing over the second half of the season. This tells us the linesmaker is not overreacting to New York scoring 83 points over the last two weeks. OAKLAND.

Last week: 2-2

Playoffs: 2-2.