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Friday, January 06, 2006

2005/06 NFL Wildcard Weekend

NFL Wild Card Weekend

Now the REAL NFL football season begins with the Wild Card Weekend, the first of four wonderful weeks of grid iron action.

While the top four seeded teams (Seahawks, Bears, Colts and Broncos) earn a well-deserved bye, the other eight playoff teams square off in what usually is the wackiest weekend of football for the entire season. Can you spell upsets!!!

Over in the NFC, the New York Giants face a tough D in Carolina, while the Washington Redskins travel down south to tackle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the AFC first round playoffs, the boys from Steel Town travel cross-state to take on the Cincinnati Bengals, while the defending Super Bowl champs New England Patriots find themselves playing a first round playoff game for the first time this Century when they play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Here’s a look at the four Wild Card games, going off this Saturday and Sunday.

NFC Wild Card
Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5)TIME: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST
LINE: Tampa Bay - 2 ½. Total 37

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Washington Redskins in the first Wild Card Playoff action of the weekend.

These teams back in November, with the Bucs pulling away with a late, come-from-behind 36-35 victory. The Buccaneers captured that game when fullback Mike Alstott rumbled into the end zone on a 2-point conversion with just seconds to play.

Don’t expect this game to be so high scoring, as Tampa Bay finished with the league’s best defense, holding opponents to just 277.8 total ypg. But Tampa’s offense remains a question mark, as QB Chris Simms will be appearing in his first career playoff game.Washington won their final five games to sneak into the postseason, and seem to be peaking at the right time, both offensively and defensively.

Key to the offense is RB RB Clinton Portis, and if he can gain yardage on the ground it will force the Bucs to place seven and eight men in the box, which will then open up the game for QB Mark Brunell.

The Bucs were led offensively by WR Joey Galloway, sidelined with injuries part of last season, who posted career highs of 83 receptions and 1,287 yards, and a franchise single-season record of 10 touchdowns. Rookie RB Cadillac Williams rushed for 1,178 yards, six touchdowns and a team-record six 100-yard games, but only had 20 yards on 10 carries against the Redskins.

Tampa Bay`s defense finished the regular season No. 1 in the league, allowing 277.8 yards per game, but its worst defensive performance at Raymond James Stadium came against the Redskins when they gave up 389 yards and 35 points.

AFC Wild Card

Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6)TIME: Saturday, 8pm ET
LINE: New England -8 ½. Total 37.

The New England Patriots square off for the first time this decade in Wild Card Weekend action when they square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars, looking to win an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl in five years.

The Patriots host this AFC wild-card matchup against the Jags, the last team to beat New England in the postseason. Since that 1998 wild-card defeat in Jacksonville, New England has won nine straight playoff games.

But not one of those wins during this Super Bowl streak came in the opening round of the playoffs. However, after a truly dismal start to the season, the Patriots turned things around and were one of the hottest teams in the NFL down the stretch.

Both teams have tough defenses against the run, so this means the quarterbacks and the passing games will be integral to winning. New England is led by a passing attack that has averaged 257.5 yards per game this season.

We all know Tom Brady will be starting for the Pats. Brady finished the regular season with 4,110 yards passing, becoming the first Patriot to lead the league in that category. He set a career mark for attempts (530) and fell percentage points shy of a new high in passer rating (92.3). He also enters Saturday`s game with a 9-0 record in the postseason, but doesn`t feel his team is getting the credit it deserves.

But the Jags have a big decision: go with the man who has started the past six games in David Garrard, or go with the original number one, that being Byron Leftwich. Right now, the Jaguars are playing some of their best ball, winning eight of their last nine. Garrard was 5-1, while Jacksonville won eight of Leftwich`s 11 starts this season, including four straight before he went down.

The Jaguars haven’t been in a playoff game since 1999. Jacksonville is 6-2 SU/ATS on the road.The Patriots started the season very slow due mainly to a rash of injuries, which directly affected their running attack and secondary. In the second half of the season, the defending champs have seen a resurgence, largely due to several players regaining their health: LB Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Corey Dillon, and WR David Givens. Still, New England ranks 31st in pass defense and 26th overall. And the injuries along the offensive line have placed the Patriots with the third-worst yards-per-carry average in the NFL.

NFC Wild Card

Carolina (11-5) at New York Giants (11-5)TIME: Sunday, 1pm EST
LINE: Giants -2 ½. Total 43 ½

The Carolina Panthers look to extend its run of three straight road wins as they face the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. This game features one of the leagues best young QBs and top offenses in the Giants going head-to-head against the NFL’s 3rd best D.

The Panthers struggled down the stretch, winning just two of their final four games. However last week against Atlanta, DeShaun Foster led the Panthers in rambling for 165 yards while the Panthers’ powerful D contained Michael Vick and the Falcons’ top-rated running game. Jake Delhomme also tossed a pair of touchdowns to help Carolina earn one of the two remaining NFC playoff spots.

The Panthers’ 3rd-ranked defense, along with playmakers such as Foster, Smith and Delhomme, give the team a chance to duplicate its 2004 playoff run, when it came within a late field goal of capturing its first-ever Super Bowl.

Carolina is 6-1 in its last seven road contests.

The Giants on the other hand finished fourth in the league at 361.7 yards per game and scored the third-most points with 422. New York is led by RB Tiki Barber, who had a career season with 1,860 rushing yards, second-most in the NFL. Manning had a solid second half to the season, helped along by receivers Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. The Giants scored 30 or more points four times and topped the 40-point mark twice.

But the strong second half was led by an ever-improving D, led by Osi Umenyira’s 14.5 sacks and Michael Strahan’s 11.5.

While the Giants’ offense has been running on high octane the whole season, its D has been forced to make do without several key components. The Giants are relying on second-year QB Eli Manning, who is playing in his first playoff game. He will be facing one of the best, if not the best front-seven in football.

On the defensive side of the ball, the key for the Giants’ success this week will be whether Umenyiora and Strahan can pressure Delhomme before he can find Smith.

The Giants also hope their injury-depleted secondary can provide enough coverage to hold up for a few seconds.

The last time the Giants appeared in the postseason was back in 2003 when they blew a 38-14 lead and went on to lose 39-38 in San Francisco. The Panthers last playoff appearance was in the 2004 Super Bowl versus New England. They lost that game by a 32-29 score.

AFC Wild Card

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5)TIME: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST
LINE: Pittsburgh -3. Total 44

For the third time this year, division and State rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh meet, this time in the opening round of the playoffs, each having won on the road during the regular season.

This game once again features strong Bengals’ offense vs the stingy Steelers D. Cincy is 3rd in the NFL in scoring, with a 26.3 PPG average, while the Steelers defense ranked 4th overall in the league. And this game will also feature contrasting styles in terms of trying to move the ball: the Steelers try to grind it out on the ground while the Bengals look to the strong arm of QB Carson Palmer.

The Bengals will be playing their first playoff game since 1990, while the Steelers of course lost in last year’s AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh has been victorious in each of their last four trips to Cincinnati.

The Steelers finished the regular season with four straight wins, all in dominant fashion. The Bengals on the other hand stumbled, losing their final two games versus Buffalo and Kansas City.
Pittsburgh is on a roll right now, going 4-0 SU and 3-1 ATS and are playing well in all facets of the game: offence, defence and special teams. The running attack had ground out a total of 740 yards while the D has allowed a paltry 8 points per game during that four game winning streak.

Overall the Steelers allow 16 ppg, and will begin the playoffs on the road, where they are 7-1 under the total. Pittsburgh is also 6-2 SU/ATS on the road.The Bengals, on the other hand, enter the playoffs off their worst two games of the season, losing 37-27 at home to the Bills, and 37-3 at Kansas City.

While the offence continues to get the job done, the D has struggled during the past seven games, holding opponents under 28 points but twice. However, the two teams did just meet four weeks ago in Cincinnait with the Bengals winning that one 38-31. In that game, Cincy stacked the line to stop the Pittsburgh run and Ben Roethlisberger had 379 passing yards. But in the first game, won 27-13 by Pittsburgh, the Steelers had 221 rushing yards.

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