Monday, December 31, 2007

Postseason Preview: Wild-Card Weekend.

Now that the playoff matchups are set, here’s a quick preview of next weekend’s wild-card action.

On Saturday, the Redskins (9-7) will take on the NFC West champion Seahawks (10-6) in Seattle, and the AFC North champion Steelers (10-6) will host the Jaguars (11-5). On Sunday, the NFC South champion Buccaneers (9-7) will host the Giants (10-6), with the AFC West champion Chargers (11-5) and the Titans (9-7) rounding out the quartet of first-round games.


Washington at Seattle: Both of these teams bumbled along for a part of the season before getting their heads on at just the right time.

As for the Seahawks, they had the habit of looking good one week and bad the next, as they started the season 4-4. Then, after a 33-30 loss to Cleveland in Week 9, the Seahawks won five in a row to make themselves look pretty formidable heading into the home stretch, in which they lost two of their last three, at Carolina (13-10) and Atlanta (44-41).

What to make of this Seattle team? Matt Hasselbeck has had a career year, but Shaun Alexander is a shell of his former self. Given their schedule, they should have done better, considering they played only three teams with winning records (lost to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, beat Tampa Bay).

Thankfully, they’re playing at home, so we should see their best on Saturday (7-1 at home). And they’re going to need it against a Washington team that’s going into the playoffs with a ton of momentum.

The Redskins started 5-3, but lost four in a row, including a 17-16 loss to Buffalo in their first game after star safety Sean Taylor was murdered.

But, something clicked, and the ‘Skins won their last four, beating the Bears, Giants, Vikings, and Cowboys to get into the postseason.

Todd Collins has done a great job guiding the Redskins down the stretch, and it looks like it’ll be up to him and Hasselbeck to lead their teams, since both teams have pretty respectable run defenses.

New York at Tampa Bay: Which Eli Manning will show up? If it’s mistake-prone Eli, the Giants are going to be undone against one of the best pass defenses in the league.

But, if it’s good Eli, the one that threw four touchdowns against the Cowboys and Patriots, then the Giants have a good chance to move on to face Dallas in the divisional round.

Playing away from home might be just down the Giants’ alley, as they went 7-1 away from home in the regular season and only 3-5 at home.

Tampa Bay scored 24 points or more only five times during the season, with all of those coming against Atlanta, St. Louis, and New Orleans, none of whom are formidable defensively (and aided Tampa by making mistakes). So, if it becomes a high-scoring game, the Bucs might not be able to keep it up, especially considering that the Giants have played their best defense on the road (besides the Dallas game), allowing 21 points or more on the road only twice (45 vs. Dallas in Week 1, 21 vs. Buffalo in Week 16).

But, the Bucs have an experienced QB in Jeff Garcia, a great defense, and home-field advantage, which have all been big factors in their success this season.


Tennessee at San Diego: Hooray for recycled matchups!

Fortunately, this one could actually be entertaining, given that their first meeting, in Week 14 in Nashville, was decided in overtime.

In that one, Tennessee led 17-3 in the fourth quarter, but the Chargers forced overtime on a touchdown run by LaDainian Tomlinson and a game-tying two-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Gates with nine seconds left in regulation.

In OT, the two teams traded punts, with Tennessee’s punt giving San Diego the ball at the Titans’ 48. L.T. and Philip Rivers made them pay, driving 48 yards in six plays, with L.T. going 16 yards for the game-winning score in a 23-17 Chargers win.

That loss put a dent into Tennessee’s playoff hopes, but they won three in a row to finish out the season and edge Cleveland out for the #6 seed in the AFC.

But, in order to knock off the Chargers, they’re going to have to stop one of the league’s hottest teams, as San Diego will enter the playoffs on a six-game win streak and having won 10 of their last 12 after starting 1-3.

San Diego was 7-1 at home in the regular season, with their only home loss coming in Week 4 to Kansas City, so you’ve got to favor them, especially with the way that their offense (more than 30 points per game in their six-game win streak) and defense (12.5 points per game in the streak) have been playing.

But, the Titans were a good road team (5-3), and if they can slow down the Bolts’ offense, and produce a little something of their own on O, they’ll have a chance.

Jaguars at Steelers: We've got another repeat matchup in the other AFC wild-card game, as these two teams met up in Week 15. Given the way that the Jaguars handled the Steelers in their own house then, Pittsburgh might be wishing that they could have gotten the #3 seed, but alas, that wasn’t to be the case, as they lost three of their last four games to finish a game behind San Diego for the #3.

In Week 15, Jacksonville ran for 224 yards in a 29-22 victory in Pittsburgh, in the snow, wind, and cold, nonetheless.

Pittsburgh will be going into the playoffs with a banged up Ben Roethlisberger, with Willie Parker already out for the rest of the season due to a broken leg suffered in Week 16 against St. Louis. Najeh Davenport is going to have to get something going against a tough run defense, and he could, given that Parker went for 100 on only 14 carries against them in the first meeting.

As for Roethlisberger, he doesn’t necessarily need to throw for 300 yards and three scores, but has to be efficient as he has most of the season, and from there, the defense is going to have to step up in order to lighten the load on the offense.

It’s not easy to go into someone’s backyard and beat them twice, so it’ll be up to the Steelers to prove that the Week 15 loss was just an aberration and that it‘s them that‘s the cold-weather team and not the Jaguars.

I won’t make any set predictions just yet, but I’m sure at least one of the higher seeds will fall, with the likeliest possibility being in the #4 vs. #5 games, but it won‘t be a surprise if Washington goes into Seattle and wins.

No comments: