Playoff fever grips the nation. We start the wonderful stretch of playoffs in sports with the start of the NFL playoffs, then the Olympic hockey tourney, then move into March Madness, and conclude with the NBA & NHL playoffs in the Spring. The dead month of february is filled by the ever extending NFL season and the Olympics. Woohoo!
This opening weekend of the NFL playoffs has no glamour matchups. The only good subplots going are Eli Manning's playoff debut, the Bengals hosting a playoff game for the first time since the last century, and the battle of disrespect in New England (surprise, surprise). The lines on these games have not really moved this week, and the teams in the playoffs truly deserve to be there. The skins and jags have played a whole lot better than anyone gives them credit for, and teams like the Steelers and Pats have paid their dues week in week out. I feel a whole lot better about the AFC picks than I do about the NFC. There is always one upset in the first round, and my gut tells me that the topsy turvy NFC is where it will happen.
Steelers (-2.5) over Bengals
I hate road favorites in the playoffs, but the Bengals have stumbled in recent weeks. The INTs are not coming as frequently as they did at the beginning of the year, and their defense is still weak versus the run. Big Ben is back in good form, and hitting his spots. A lot of people knock Ben for who he plays with but look at how the Steelers did without Ben playing. They played bad on the offensive side of the ball. The secret to his success is that sure he doesn't throw often, but he hits his throws. He has to throw it deep to make sure defenses are honest and give their running game some breathing room. He opens up the field for them. If he wasn't capable of hitting his throws on a consistent basis, they'd stack the line like they do versus the ravens.
New England (-7.5) over Jacksonville
I want to give Jacksonville props for winning 12 games, for playing to a 4-1 record without their QB, for playing Indy tough two times this year, for having a good defense and developing receivers to help Leftwich. That's it though. They are going into the cold, in a hostile environment, on a cr@ppy field to play the defending champs. I'll have a whole other entry soon on "Patriots Fans", but I do want to point out that I was dead on with my analysis after the Colts game about their D and how they could finish 11-5 when guys came back. They foiled my plans by throwing the last game and going 10-6. The only way I can see why they did that was that they knew no matter what the wild card team will beat Cincy and they'd still draw the Broncos in the 2nd round. If it all proves true, then Belicheck is smarter than even David Halberstam thinks he is (I'm currently reading the book; Halberstam is marvelous as usual). If this game were on a neutral field, I would take the Jags and the points. Unfortunately, it's not.
Giants (-2.5) over Panthers
I just don't see it for the Panthers. No real running game. Nothing but Steve Smith in the passing game, and I don't trust Delhomme on the road. The Giants are shaky defensively themselves, but they are playing at home where they are smoking hot. Giants stadium is going to be electric, and with the acoustics there, an early 7-0 or 10-0 lead can feel like 20-0. Think about the 2000 NFC championship game versus the Vikings.
Washington (+3) over Bucs
I can't believe I am picking the Skins on the road, but they are on an absolute roll after losing in OT to the Chargers. The Skins had a problem closing teams out midway through the season and they have found a way to correct that. Don't swallow the playbook with a 10 point lead at halftime. I also trust Mark Brunell more than I trust Chris Simms. I know Simms has progressed, but this is the same Simms who couldn't win a bowl game to save his life. Major Applewhite is not on the bench to save his butt now. I also believe in the Skins defense and their ability to shut down the Bucs O. Greg Williams has proven that he is a great defensive coordinator, and should stay that way. His gameplan against Bledsoe and Manning in back to back weeks was really special. He is the 2000s Buddy Ryan: great defensive mind, bad head coach. Some people are just made to think on one side of the ball. Good luck.