BASN NFL Playoff Preview

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 10, 2008

NFLPHILADELPHIA — An NFL record 226 million Americans (up from 222 million in 2006 and 195.8 million in 2005) watched NFL games in 2007 according to the Nielsen Ratings and who could blame them. The NFL is by far the best game going and that is why this time of the year on the league’s calendar is one to savor.

Sadly we all know the season will be over soon, but to me the next two weeks are the best. The splendor of the divisional and championship rounds of the playoffs usually brings out the best in teams before the hype and “big stage” mentality of the Super Bowl just always seems to unfortunately cause boring blowouts.

The playoffs are so intriguing that presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama (D-Ill.) said “I was going back and forth between the Republicans and football,” meaning the Washington Redskins’ Wild Card game against Seattle on television was just as important to him as were his potential foes.

The final eight in the playoffs starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned. The strongest teams from the regular season have been sitting on the sidelines with byes and they are now ready to enter the fracas.

The best part of this week is that the regular season does not matter anymore with every team having to earn their way into the next round with the contenders move on and the pretenders go home. Most wildcard teams are given little to no chance to go on the road and win, but I caution everyone to remember that each game is one battle where anything can happen and favorites can easily be sent packing (turnovers being the key) — Remember the Super XL Champion Pittsburgh Steelers miraculous run in the 2005 playoffs where they won three straight road games on the way to Detroit.

Many people also think that the rode to Super Bowl XLII is paved in gold for the two number one seeds the undefeated New England Patriots and America’s “supposed” Team the Dallas Cowboys.

But don’t just punch these two super powers tickets yet as home field advantage is nice, however thankfully games are played on the field and not on paper – In fact since 1990 only 17 of 34 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all.

This year’s group in the elite eight is truly the “cream of the crop” as for only the sixth time in the past 38 seasons (since 1970) that the Divisional Playoff teams have a winning percentage of 75% or better in the regular-season record (.758).

All of the match-ups feature marquee Pro Bowl players and coaching staffs that know how to prepare a team. A big factor in the games will be familiarity as two of the games — both on Sunday — are regular season rematches (San Diego-Indianapolis and New York Giants-Dallas) and another match-up (Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers) features two teams that have several relational ties. I truly believe that having familiarity with your opponent helps in game planning and dissecting tendencies, which is a breeding ground for some good games.

Remember the key area to watch in all of the games is turnovers. Nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house — just ask the Redskins (turned the ball over two times with one going back for a score in their loss to the Seahawks last week).

Now on to the my game capsules:

Saturday’s Games

SEAHAWKS (11-6) at PACKERS (13-3), 4:30 PM ET, FOX

Announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa

The storyline for this game is the return of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (3,996 yards passing with 28 TDs and 12 Ints in 2007) to the place where he should have stuck his foot in his mouth. In a 2003 wildcard playoff game at Lambeau, Hasselbeck proclaimed after winning the overtime coin-flip “We want the ball and we’re going to score.”

The boast backfired as the cocky quarterback threw a game losing interception to Al Harris that was returned 52 yards for a touchdown on the first series of overtime. The former Packers back-up quarterback wants to forge the moment, but no one will let him. Remember though that Hasselbeck is now a veteran top 10 quarterback, who knows how to win in the NFL — Led Seattle to five playoffs in a row, the last four as NFC West champions.

Other than the return of the boaster, this game is all about two teams that are very similar and closely matched. The Packers hold a slight 6-5 advantage in the all-time series and have won two out of the last three. But the last time these two met on November of 2006, it was the Seahawks winning 34-24 as running back Shaun Alexander ran for 201 yards. Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren led the Packers to a win in Super Bowl XXXI and now several of his players are still with the Pack as coaches and one big player.

The main leftover is 38-year old quarterback Brett Favre (356-535, 4,155 yards with 28 TDs and 15 Ints), who is having one of his best seasons ever after leading the Packers back to the playoffs and breaking several all-time NFL records including regular season wins, touchdowns, and attempts. Favre will have to show the young Packers the way to the Promised Land as only 17 players have playoff experience.

Number #4 and his O-Line (third-fewest sacks allowed in ’07 (19) will have his hands full as Seattle’s speedy defense has the ability to rush the passer (45 sacks, fourth-most in the NFL this season). Watch for both team’s ability to run the football (Seahawks: Shaun Alexander 716 yards, 3.5, and 4 TDs, but only 46 yards in the win over the ‘ Skins — Packers: Ryan Grant 956 yards, 5.1 ypc, and 8 TDs) as I expect it to be a cold snowy day.

LV’s Pick: Playing and winning at Lambeau in the playoffs is extremely difficult and don’t give me Vick’s Falcons win in 2001. Green Bay should be hungry after not making it past the divisional round since 1997 (2-5 during this stretch). Favre is playing a lot like John Elway at the end of his career, leaning on younger legs especially his defense and running game. Another key factor are the Seahawks are better at home than on the road (3-5 this season). Expect Lambeau to be rocking as Favre and his young’ins get past the Seahawks 24-20.

JAGUARS (12-5) at PATRIOTS (16-0), 8:00 PM ET, CBS

Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

This is the marquee match-up that I have been waiting all week for as the NFL’s top passing offense (New England) and the league’s No. 2 rushing offense (Jacksonville) take center stage. It is no secret that the Patriots are the biggest story so far this season going 16-0 in the regular season (The NFL’s fourth unbeaten/untied season in history and set a league scoring record with 589 points). But Jaguars are also a dangerous dominating bunch as through the Wild Card, they own an active streak of scoring at least 24 points in 11 consecutive games.

The tough physical Jags have shown that they can go on the road and win in front of a hostile crowd (won twice in the last couple of weeks in Pittsburgh including their come-from-behind 31-29 win last week). They have now won 12 games so they are not sneaking up on anyone especially the Patriots.

“People think of Jacksonville as a conservative, run-the-ball, tough defense kind of team”, “They’re way past that, way past it” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Indeed, the Jaguars piled up 400 yards in five of their last six regular-season games, missing by 19 yards in Week 17 of making it six straight.

The key in this game will be the Jaguars ability to stick to their game plan of efficient passing, no turnovers, keep the chains moving, and pounding the run behind their two-headed monster of Maurice Jones-Drew (168 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in his first-ever playoff appearance) and Fred Taylor (Pro Bowl bound for the first time). Jaguars quarterback David Garrard now has some playoff experience after overcoming two interceptions last week and he better understand that the Patriots are not the Steelers — mistakes kill against the Patriots.

All Garrard needs to do is ask Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller and New York Giants triggerman Eli Manning about how the Patriots capitalize on turnovers. Garrard rightfully said after the Jags’ wildcard win over Pittsburgh about facing the Patriots, “I have to do a better job of protecting the football, making my reads and taking my check-downs. If I don’t, then we’ll have problems.”

On defense they must funnel everything through huge defensive tackle John Henderson, corner Rashean Mathis will need to follow the Eagles/Ravens lead by being physical with Randy Moss and the other receivers, and they need to make the Pats aging linebackers cover using play-action.

The Patriots of course will counter with their roster of future hall of famers led by Associated Press’ 2007 NFL MVP quarterback Tom Brady (NFL season-record 50 TD passes) and Moss (NFL season-record 23 touchdowns). But the Patriots must find a way to have balance in their offense by leaning on inexperienced running back Laurence Maroney (835 yards) — player that I am not sold on — and getting pressure from DE Richard Seymour and LB Mike Vrabel.

LV’s Pick: Everyone is talking about this could be the stumbling block that the ’72 Dolphins are looking for against everyone’s arch-enemy. As much as I think the physical Jaguars can cut down on mistakes and run the ball. But hold up — wait a minute — these are the undefeated 16-0 Patriots we are talking about (bow your head when talking about the Evil Empire) !!! The Patriots are at home where we know they are 8-0 this season and by the way did I mention that they have won nine playoff games in a row at Foxboro. Also keep in mind Belichick/Brady’s scary playoff record of 12-2. All that being said I see another close win for the ice water Patriots 38-28 over the game Jaguars as history keeps rolling for another week. I think it is going to take a monumental effort to stop the Brady Bunch and the Jags don’t seem to be ready to take the next step though they are very good team.

Sunday’s Games

CHARGERS (12-5) at COLTS (13-3), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Announcers: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

Though the Chargers beat the Colts 23-21 in November of this season, this is an entirely different Colts squad. Everyone wants to talk about the Patriots, but most people are sleeping on the 13-win Colts in my opinion. Let’s not forget that this team allowed the fewest points in the league this year on defense (262) and they sport this year’s defensive player of the year safety Bob Sanders.

And who wants to debate me that the Chargers are just glad to have finally won a playoff game after squeaking past the beat up Titans 17-6 after trailing 6-0 at the half.

The Colts will be looking for redemption from the aforementioned close loss and the December 2005 home loss to the same Chargers – ended the Colts perfect season. I sure know quarterback Peyton Manning (4,040 yards passing with 31 TDs and 14 Ints) got excited at the opportunity to face the Bolts again after throwing a team-record six interceptions in the November loss with three going to NFL interception king Antonio Cromartie.

The loss also featured the crazy miss of a potential 29-yard game-winner by Colts sure-legged kicker Adam Vinatieri with 1:31 left. Colts leader on defense linebacker Gary Brackett said of the loss, “We played poorly in all phases the last game.”

I have been told that the Colts will have their full compliment of players — had several players injured down the stretch including Tackle Tony Ugoh — after sitting most of their players in week 17 and then having a bye week.

Though Indy has learned to succeeded with players like rookie receiver Anthony Gonzales, it will be a welcome sight to see all of their veterans back including receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne (NFL receiving yardage king with1,510) teamed up again.

The Chargers will counter with their plethora of talent in their offensive attack led by quarterback Philip Rivers (3,152 yards passing with 21 TDs and 15 Ints), 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (1,474 yards rushing), and new weapon acquired at the trade deadline receiver Chris Chambers.

One player on offense that is much needed is TE Antonio Gates (75 receptions for 984 yards and 9 TDs), but he may not play due to a bad toe injury. Defensively the name of the game for the Chargers is to put pressure on Manning especially LB Shawn Merriman (12.5 sacks)

LV’s Pick: Of all the games from this week’s slate I believe this may be the greatest mismatch. As stated before the Chargers breathed a huge sigh of relief last week, but is not V.Y and the Titans that they are playing this week. Expect the Colts when they are in the redzone to score touchdowns and Colts running back extraordinaire Joseph Addai is rested. Expect the Colts to score early forcing the Chargers to pass playing right into the hands of the Colts underrated defense. I see Tony Dungy getting his light saber ready as the Colts move on to face Belichick (Darth Vader) and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Colts 34, Chargers 17

GIANTS (11-6) at COWBOYS (13-3), 4:30 PM ET, FOX

Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Pam Oliver

The division rivals have played each other 91 times with the Cowboys holding a 54-35-2 edge against the G-Men, but surprisingly this will be the first playoff game between the two. This will be second of the two rematches on Sunday and this one will make a trilogy. The storyline of the game will be familiarity as these hated NFC division rivals will see each other for the third time.

It will be the 54th time since 1970 that teams have met three times in a season. And Dallas better take note, because only 11 times has a club swept all three games. So far the Cowboys have come out on top of the Giants this season to scores of 45-35 in week 1 (shootout that featured over 900 combine yards) and 31-20 in November. But this game should prove to be tough as this is like when you fought your brother – both know strengths and weaknesses with neither backing down.

This is a new tougher version Giants team since week 17 when they gave the Patriots more than they could ask for. The Giants love the road as they proved last week in Tampa Bay winning over the Bucs 24-14 driving there record 8-1 away from the Meadowlands and they have played the Cowboys on equal footing in Texas Stadium (split last 8 games in Dallas).

Giants quarterback Eli Manning said of the opportunity to face the Cowboys, “We love playing there, we love going to Dallas”. The recently revitalized and error-free quarterback added “There are no secrets between the teams. It’s a tough challenge against Dallas, we know that. We played them two times. Maybe the third will be a charm.”

The keys for the Giants will be getting pressure from their NFL leading sack attack (53) led by veteran defensive end Michael Strahan, running the ball with their thunder and lightning combo of surprise rookie Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, and continued heady play by Manning (only 1 interception in last two games) with timely throws to big play receiver Plaxico Burress (70 receptions 1,025 yards and 12 TDs).

Conversely Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (4,211 yards with 36 TDs and 19 Ints) will be watching the whirl pool as it is unknown if Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens (high ankle) will be available for the game (game time decision). If Owens cannot play it will be up to TE Jason Witten (96 catches for 1,145 yards and 7 TDs) and the Cowboys stout O-Line (allowed only 25 sacks, 10th fewest in NFL) to carry the load on offense. Dallas will also need to lean on DE DeMarcus Ware (14 sacks) as they try to improve on their defense that allowed over 307 yards per game.

LV’s Pick: This is my upset special of the week as I believe that the Cowboys are ripe for the picking, because they are complacent when it comes to the Giants. Romo was spotted studying Jessica Simpson this week in Mexico rather than his playbook and we all know Dallas head coach Wade Phillips is 0-3 lifetime in the playoffs. As stated earlier it is extremely hard to beat a familiar foe three times in a row and the Giants look like a new team since putting up a huge fight against the Patriots. I believe Eli Manning will continue doing his Peyton impersonation and Romo will have difficulty again dealing with the pressure that Giants D-Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will throw at him. And I won’t mention his butterfingers routine from last year. The Giants are 8-1 on the road as road warrior Tom Coughlin loves the “us against the world” mentality and players especially Strahan are buying into it. Expect for a tight game where former University of Texas defensive back Aaron Ross makes a big play for the G-Men and Eli continues to silence his detractors by winning 24-21.