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Dec 30, 2003 9:11 AM

The long four month, 256 game NFL regular season finally ended on Sunday and we are left with a dozen teams to contest the "Second Season" in pursuit of pro football’s ultimate prize.

Super Bowl XXXVIII will be played Feb. 1 in Houston. There will be 10 games leading up to the NFL championship, beginning with four this weekend.

With St Louis’ improbable loss at Detroit as a double-digit favorite this past Sunday, Philadelphia secured the top seed in the NFC and will enjoy home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Rams are the second seed and, with the Eagles, will have a bye this week.

In the AFC the New England Patriots, winners of 12 straight games to end the regular season, hold the top seed. KC, at No. 2, joins the Patriots on the sidelines watching action this week.

Historically, bye weeks in the playoffs have been extremely beneficial. Better than 80 percent of home teams in the divisional round (next week’s games) have gone on to victory with the extra seven days rest. The pointspread success of these teams is better than 60 percent.

Road teams have had decent success in the opening round, with generally one of the four road teams winning straight up. This makes sense when you consider that the teams playing this weekend are the weakest and most flawed. Often a wild card team playing on the road may actually be better, and own a superior record, than the division winner.

Last season marked the first time the playoffs were held in the realigned format with eight division winners and four wild cards. Previous to last year the format in place since last revised in 1990 had six division winners and six wild cards.

The home team won three of the four wild card contests but the road team covered in three of the four. Only the Jets 41-0 pasting of the Colts resulted in a home team win and cover. Atlanta’s historic Playoff win in Green Bay was the lone road victory. The other two games saw the home team win on the field but not against the pointspread.

The intensity level rises geometrically in the Playoffs. Over the years we have been treated to many classics that come down to the final moments. Perhaps one of the four games this weekend will take its place in the NFL archives as one of the best games ever.

Here’s a preview of the four wild card games.

Titans (+1) at Ravens (40½): For much of the first half of the season Tennessee looked like the team to beat along with Kansas City in the AFC. Tennessee, at one point, scored 30 or more points in six straight games. The Titans enjoyed a fine season, winning 12 games. But over the second half of the season the Titans again had to contend with injuries, most notably to QB Steve McNair who sat out a couple of games during the final month. He is as tough a competitor as there is but he can’t do it alone and the talent around him is questionable, especially with former all Pro RB Eddie George showing signs of deterioration. The receiving corps is average at best while the defense has been average overall but led the NFL against the run.

Baltimore relies on the Lewis gang ”” Jamal on offense and Ray on defense. Jamal became the second leading single season rusher in NFL history this past weekend. What makes that feat remarkable is the rather ordinary passing attack that complements his running. The Ravens ranked last in the league in pass offense and first in running the ball. But it’s their defense, led by Ray Lewis, that made the difference this season. The offense did improve over the second half of the season with Anthony Wright replacing injured rookie Kyle Boller at QB.

It was just three seasons ago when these Ravens won the Super Bowl while being led by journeyman QB Trent Dilfer. Although the defense is not as dominant this season the experience is there. The intrigue in this matchup is Tennessee’s top ranked rush defense against the Ravens’ top ranked rushing offense. The home field will be an edge for Baltimore, which would be a dangerous opponent on the road the rest of way. The forecast is for Baltimore to win 20-16. RAVENS, UNDER.

Cowboys (+3) at Panthers (34): The Dallas turnaround under first year coach Bill Parcells is complete with the postseason appearance. Parcells becomes the first coach in history to take four different teams to the playoffs. Of course not many coaches have that opportunity but Parcells’ ability to lead is unquestionable. The Cowboys defense ranked as the league’s best since early October while the offense is barely average. Their pass defense was best in the league, which is a strength when protecting leads. The Dallas pass offense, however, was slightly below average and declined during the second half of the season, a problem when playing from behind.

Carolina was a 1-15 team two seasons ago. The Panthers were competitive last season, improving to 7-9 under new coach John Fox and bettering that mark by four games this year. But the Panthers don’t win pretty. Of their 11 wins, nine have been by six points or less and seven have been by a FG or less. There’s a very fine line between winning and losing in the NFL and Carolina has been on the right side of that line all season. Statistically they were not as good defensively as last season when they ranked second behind Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.

In fact, the Panthers are just average on defense, ranking right in the middle of the pack against both the run and the pass. The defense was not especially adept at forcing turnovers and their passing offense was not much better than Dallas. Carolina has been able to run the ball well with RB Stephen Davis having a strong season. The combination of Parcells’ Playoff experience and the league’s top ranked defense suggests Dallas might be capable of winning on the road against a foe that is not explosive. The Cowboys did win four times on the road and beat Carolina at home earlier this season. Dallas had the clear edge in that win although they were far from dominant in the 24-20 victory. The forecast is for Dallas to win 17-13.

Seahawks (+7) at Packers (44½): Seattle won only twice on the road this season but that second win, last Saturday in San Francisco, was the one they needed for a shot to make the playoffs. Despite their inconsistency this season the Seahawks had as many wins, 10, as did Green Bay. The Packers were quite impressive down the stretch, with QB Brett Favre playing well over the last half of the season, finally overcoming a broken thumb that bothered him well into November. Green Bay defeated Seattle in early October at Lambeau Field, 35-13. The stats were pretty even, but Seattle lost a pair of costly turnovers while the Packers played error free football.

Both teams have solid running games with Seattle’s Shaun Alexander and Green Bay’s Ahman Green. The Packers have a decisive edge in QB with Favre over Matt Hasselbeck. The teams were pretty similar defensively. Green Bay is seeking to atone for last season’s first-ever home playoff loss and they have the hot QB. Any bad weather conditions will also favor the host. Four of Seattle’s six road losses were by seven points or less. The Packers did lose three home games during the regular season but all five of their home wins were by double digits.

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren well knows Favre, having coached him and developed him in his years coaching in Green Bay. The Packers are the better team and should win this game but Seattle will be competitive. Green Bay wins 27-24. SEAHAWKS, OVER.

Broncos (+3) at Colts (49): These teams met just two Sunday nights ago on this field and Denver was impressive in a 31-17 win over the Colts. The game carried more significance to the Broncos than the Colts, who were already assured of having made the playoffs. Indianapolis did not respond that well this past Sunday with a sluggish come from behind three-point win at lowly Houston. The victory locked up the AFC South Division title and assured the Colts of a home game this week.

Denver rested its key regulars in a 31-3 loss in Green Bay and should be fresh for this contest. The weather will not be a factor inside the dome so no advantage for either side. The Colts’ only other home loss was to Carolina in overtime in October. Indy is also eager to atone for last season’s blowout loss to the Jets ”” a defeat that added fuel to critics saying QB Peyton Manning and head coach Tony Dungy can’t win big games. Denver has the edge on both sides of the ball. RB Clinton Portis is having a much better season than Edgerrin James. Indy has the better passing offense with Manning tossing for over 4,000 yards and WR Marvin Harrison having yet another outstanding season.

Colts stellar PK Mike VanderJagt had one of the best seasons ever, never missing a FG in setting a new record with 41 straight. Denver kicker Jason Elam was bothered by injuries this season and will not get the usual benefit he enjoys at home with the mile high Denver altitude. The Colts were the more consistent team in the regular season, including a sweep of division rival Tennessee.

The edges in this matchup go to Peyton Manning and the Colts over Denver QB Jake Plummer. Indy wins 27-16. COLTS, UNDER.

Last week: 8-8

Season: 116-112