This is the weekend we find out how wide open the NFC really is and whether the Colts can ever beat the Patriots.
The Philadelphia Eagles host the Minnesota Vikings while the St. Louis Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC divisional round. In the AFC it's Indianapolis at New England and the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the best team in the league during the regular season -- hosting the New York Jets.
The NFC looked like the Eagles' conference to lose for most of this season, with everybody else given roughly the same chances of knocking them off: slim and slimmer. But the Eagles lost their best offensive weapon, Terrell Owens, to an ankle injury in Week 15, making them look a lot like the bunch that's lost the last three conference title games, a very good team with a critical lack of talent at receiver.
Then, their playoff spot secure with a 13-1 record, they rested their starters and lost their last two games before taking their earned week off during the first round.
Those old enough to remember the last good thing that happened to the Philadelphia 11 are nearing retirement age, and there's some feeling among the chatterati that the Eagles won't be able to turn the switch back on and swat aside the deeply flawed but unpredictable teams that stand between them and that elusive Super Bowl bid, the Vikings on Sunday and the Rams-Falcons winner next week.
That feeling doesn't seem to be shared by the punters: Philly is favored by eight and a half.
The Patriots are favored over the Colts by only one and a half, and that's a line that's dropping by the minute. Even though the Pats have the better record -- 14-2 to the Colts' 12-4 -- they're probably only favored because they're at home and they have the reputation, well-earned, of having a hex over Peyton Manning and his mates. This is usually expressed as Pats coach Bill Belichick, a defensive whiz, being "in Manning's head."
The two teams have played each other three times in the last year-and-change, with New England winning all three, first on that famous goal-line stand in Indy last November, then the pummeling in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro a year ago, and then the opening game this year, also in Foxboro, when the Colts outplayed the Pats but kicked the game away with turnovers and red-zone failure. Call an exorcist!
New England has beaten Indianapolis five straight overall, with the Colts' last win coming in 2000, a whole different era. Back then the two teams were in the same division, Colts coach Tony Dungy was in Tampa and the Patriots were on their way to a 5-11 record in Belichick's first season.
But if the Colts are ever going to have their day in Foxboro, Sunday would appear to be that day. Indy's offense is clicking like few offenses ever click, and while the Patriots have a well-earned reputation as being the one team that can stop Manning, they've never had to do it with such an injury-depleted secondary. Even the weather seems to be cooperating, the forecast calling for sunny skies and temps in the 30s. Not the climate-controlled fast track of the Colts' domed home, but better than the snow flurries and mud that seemed to bother them so last January.
Last week, without being conscious of it, I picked the favorite in all four games and was wrong three times, the Colts' rout of the Broncos being the exception. I looked at Vikings-Packers and Rams-Seahawks as tossups, but the home team was favored in each. This week I'm conscious of who's favored, and I'm leaning mostly the same way.
N.Y. Jets (10-6) at Pittsburgh (15-1), 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS: These are interesting times. The Steelers had the best record in football this year. They've won 14 straight. They have a rookie quarterback who has won all 13 of his starts.
They ended the defending champion Patriots' NFL-record 21-game winning streak, and then the next week routed the best team in the other conference, the Eagles, who lost no other games this year that they tried to win. This incredible monster of a team is opening its playoff run against something of a Cinderella team -- from New York.
And it's the other game in the AFC!
The Jets struggled for most of the year after a 5-0 start, then pulled off a big upset of the Chargers in overtime on the road last week. It would be an even bigger upset if they can knock off Pittsburgh.
Rookie Ben Roethlisberger gets the headlines, and he's played very well, but while the quarterback is never unimportant, the key to this team is its running game and defense. Roethlisberger and Jets quarterback Chad Pennington both had horrible games when the teams met during the regular year. The Steelers won, 17-6.
The Jets did a great job at shutting down the Chargers' passing attack, mostly by shutting down tight end Antonio Gates and daring San Diego to win with someone else. They didn't. The Steelers will be a tougher assignment because they have more talented receivers. Shut down Hines Ward and you get Plaxico Burress or Antwaan Randle-El.
And have I mentioned the running game? Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley combined for over 1,700 yards despite missing seven games between them. They averaged 4.0 yards per carry, and Bettis scored 13 touchdowns.
On the other side, Pennington, who doesn't have the strongest arm in the first place and has been bothered by a rotator cuff problem, is going to have to be better than he's been all year. He looked better than he'd been in some time in last week's win, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfectly thrown 47-yard touchdown to Santana Moss, his longest TD strike of the year.
The Jets rely on their running game, led by Curtis Martin, the league rushing champion. But Martin was held to 72 yards on 24 carries by the Steelers' top-rated run defense a month ago, and to 66 yards on 18 carries by the Chargers' almost-as-good run defense a week ago. I wouldn't bet on a big game for Martin. On the other hand, I wouldn't have bet on a good season for the 31-year-old and all he did was lead the league.
St. Louis (8-8) at Atlanta (11-5), 8 p.m. EST, Fox: What to make of these two? The Falcons raced out to 9-2 and wrapped up the NFC South before losing three of five as they coasted through December. They won big at Denver and beat the Chargers and then-hot Panthers at home. But they also lost 27-0 to the Bucs and 56-10 to the Chiefs, both non-playoff teams, and that Chiefs game happened before the Falcons went into cruise control.
The Rams got blown out by more than two touchdowns six times this year, including once by the Falcons, a 34-17 loss on the road in Week 2. They also got pounded by the Patriots and Packers, both playoff teams. The Dolphins, Bills and Cardinals also handed them their hats. The Bills were starting to play well when they beat the Rams. The Dolphins and Cardinals were awful teams.
The Falcons have the great wild card of Michael Vick, who is devastating as a runner and only so-so as a passer -- though I suspect that's because of a lack of quality receivers. This sort of shouldn't be true but it is: Over the last two years, the Falcons are 14-4 when Vick plays, 2-12 when he sits or makes only a token appearance.
The Rams are hot now, having won three straight. But I think it's fool's gold. Three weeks ago at home they beat the Eagles, who were playing the junior varsity. Two weeks ago they won another home game, against the Jets. But the Jets, who had been struggling, didn't play nearly as well in that one as they did a week later in San Diego. Last week the Rams opened the playoffs on the road by beating the Seahawks for the third time this year, which only happened because Seattle's receivers are curiously unable to catch thrown footballs while wide open.
The Rams' defense was so bad this year that it's still bad even though it's made great strides in the last month. There's no real reason to believe they have the ability to contain Vick or running back Warrick Dunn. The Falcons also have a fierce pass rush, which could throw off the timing of St. Louis' best hope, its passing game.
Atlanta is a strange team. Because of those blowout losses, they finished 11-5 despite outscoring their opponents by a mere three points over the course of the year. On the other hand, no team that's given up more points than it's scored has ever sniffed the Super Bowl. The Rams were outscored by 73 points this year. They'll go no further.
Minnesota (8-8) at Philadelphia (13-3), 1 p.m. EST, Fox: You have to go all the way back to Dec. 12 to find the last non-Pyrrhic victory for the Eagles. And even that was kind of dismal, a slugged-out 17-14 win in Washington. You have to go back another week to find the last real happy day, a 47-17 rout of the Packers.
The big question for the Eagles is whether they can get back to midseason form after two close wins over bad teams, Washington and the Cowboys -- the latter costing them Terrell Owens -- then two losses to mediocrities, the Rams and Bengals, with the first string on vacation, and then a bye week.
I think they can. And if they can't, the good news for them is that they're playing the Vikings, so they have about a 50-50 chance of facing a lousy opponent.
The Vikes played an inspired ballgame last week in Green Bay, now forgotten in all the Randy Moss meshugas. But to count on Minnesota to string together two great games in a row is to ignore what this team is all about, especially since its four-game winning streak -- all against bad teams -- ended against the Giants on Halloween. Starting with that shellacking, the Vikings went 3-7 before last week's win, their first in six tries against teams that went to the playoffs.
Minnesota has the best offense in the league that doesn't play in Indianapolis and the best quarterback who isn't named Peyton Manning -- he's named Daunte Culpepper -- and it won't be nearly enough. The knock on the Eagles is that without Owens they're the same team that lost the last three NFC Championship Games, but that's hardly an insult, especially when you consider that winning this week would fit the pattern by sending the Eagles to the title game.
But the Eagles are better than they were a year ago. They've added dangerous pass rusher Jevon Kearse and improved the already very good defense, and running back Brian Westbrook, who missed last year's playoffs, is in the lineup this time. And don't forget: They lost those title games, but they were still damn good in each of the last three seasons.
The Vikings have to hope the Eagles won't be able to shake off the rust.
Indianapolis (12-4) at New England (14-2), 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS: The marquee game of the weekend.
The Patriots indulged in some gamesmanship this week when they left the field at Gillette Stadium uncovered in a rainstorm, meaning it might be muddy and frozen Sunday afternoon even though the weather is likely to be fairly mild. The Colts, of course, do best on a fast, dry field like the one they play on indoors at home.
As much fun as that is, it probably won't matter much. The Patriots will either be able to get pressure on Manning and cover his collection of talented receivers -- and stop Edgerrin James from running too much -- or they won't. A slip or slide here or there probably won't make much difference.
New England has beaten Manning time and again because it's been able to get a pass rush on him without blitzing -- Manning preys on the holes left by blitzes -- and because cornerback Ty Law's rare ability to cover brilliant wide receiver Marvin Harrison one-on-one has freed up an extra defender to cover other people or rush the quarterback, a luxury most teams don't have.
Also, as you may have heard, the Pats treated Colts receivers so roughly in last year's title game that the Colts petitioned the league, successfully, to enforce more vigorously the rule that prohibits defensive players from touching receivers more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. Officials have complied, and that's been a big help to the Colts, who rely so much on timing and touch and need to get off the line cleanly.
Perhaps even more important than that: Law's out with a broken foot, and Tyrone Poole, the other starting corner, is also hurt. The Pats are so banged up in the backfield that wide receiver Troy Brown has been recruited to play there, and undrafted free agents named after '70s R&B bands have gotten far more playing time than is customary on Super Bowl contenders. To make matters worse, Richard Seymour, the Pats' best defensive lineman, is also hurt, with a bad knee, though he's listed as questionable for Sunday, which at playoff time usually means he'll give it a shot.
Manning, the best quarterback in football, has been not just ordinary but notably bad when playing against defenses coached by Belichick. There's no telling what kind of looks New England's super genius and his coordinator sidekick, Romeo Crennel, will dream up to throw at Manning. In a recent game, the Patriots lined up a few times with no down lineman.
And I haven't even talked about when the Patriots have the ball. New England's poster boy is quarterback Tom Brady, but its most important player is Corey Dillon, who has given the Patriots the running game they lacked during last year's championship season. The Colts are not a great defensive team, but they're probably a little better than you think, and they're good enough to keep the Pats close enough to give Manning the chance to beat them.
Hexes and voodoo and being in Manning's head aside, not to mention a 14-2 record, I think the Patriots won't quite have enough this time. It's always a bad bet to write off the Pats. They find a way. Injuries have been coming in bunches for two solid years now, and all they've been able to do is go 31-4 and win a Super Bowl. They say defense wins championships, and that's true. Then again, so does offense. I'll take the offense in this one.
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