King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL playoffs: Always pick the home teams in the divisional round. Except this time.


Salon Staff
January 13, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

The divisional round of the NFL playoffs is the province of the home team. In the 15 years since the league introduced the current format of six clubs making the postseason in each conference, home teams have gone 48-12 in the second round.

Going back to 1979, the first year the divisional round was not the opening round, home teams have gone 81-27, winning three out of every four games. In two of the last three years and three of the last seven, home teams have swept this round.

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Which is why it's with trembling fingers that I'm picking two road teams to win this weekend. That actually happened in 2003, and also in 1995. And four times from 1979 to '87. Talking about 1979 to '87 in the NFL is like talking about 1919 to '27 in aviation. In those days, 300-pounders were considered big. Can you imagine?

Last week your humble-with-good-reason servant went 2-2. But the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America went 4-0. As you no doubt know, my son Buster's method for picking games this year is to take favorites of six points or more and flip for the rest.

After he took favored New England over Jacksonville, his coin came up heads, heads, heads, and the visitors won all three. So he's now in a crowded first-place tie in the Panel o' Experts postseason.

I gotta get a good system like that.

Because people occasionally ask me which teams Buster is picking, I'll include his prognostications this week as we look at what the NFL never calls its quarterfinal round.

SATURDAY

Washington (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
The NFL postseason often comes down to who's healthy and who's not. The Seahawks are in the pink of health, and oh by the way they're also the best team in the NFC.

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Washington: Not so healthy. Quarterback Mark Brunell is hobbling and pieces of running back Clinton Portis' upper body have actually begun falling off. And that's just the tip of the sick bay. This is a banged-up, beaten-up team coming off a hard-fought win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, during which the Seahawks were getting foot massages and back rubs.

Joe Gibbs' bunch has had a pretty good run in his second year -- including a win over the Seahawks in Washington -- and this is a solid team that would be elite with a better offense, which is to say with an offense.

The run ends here, though. Even if Seattle's high-powered offense has some rust on it after a meaningless season finale and the bye week, there's little danger that Brunell and company can do enough to make it matter.

Seattle should get its first playoff win since 1984, when they beat the Duluth Kelleys with President Coolidge in attendance.
Prediction: Seattle
Buster's coin says: Seattle favored by 9 and a half

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New England Patriots (10-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
8 p.m. EST, CBS
I vowed last year never to pick against the Patriots in a playoff game until someone beats them, which nobody's done in a record 10 tries now. Then I showed last week that I'd fallen off the wagon because I picked the Indianapolis Colts over the Pats in the AFC Championship Game in a "subsequent predictions" section.

I haven't decided yet how I'm going to pick that game if it comes to pass, but I'm predicting that it will.

Home teams win three out of four in this round, and the Broncos are the homiest home team going. You know they play their games like a mile up in the air?

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But I'm taking the Pats, which means that in both Saturday games, I'm taking the loser of the regular-season matchup between the teams. The Broncos beat the Patriots 28-20 on Oct. 16, but, if I may coin a phrase here, that was then, this is now.

The Pats, employing scarecrows and Fathead stickers in place of injured defenders, were 3-3 at the time. Since then, they've gone 8-3, including a playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week and a Week 17 loss to the Miami Dolphins in a game they cared so little about that coach Bill Belichick actually smiled during it.

Really, there's tape of it.

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The Broncos want to run the ball with Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell and the Patriots, who are pretty healthy now, want to throw it, then give it to Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk as a change of pace. The Broncos' best bet is to get pressure on Tom Brady and force him into mistakes.

Two problems with that plan: The Broncos don't put pressure on quarterbacks and Brady doesn't make mistakes.
Prediction: New England
Buster's coin says: Denver

SUNDAY

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Indianapolis (14-2)
1 p.m. EST, CBS
Peyton Manning and the Colts go back to work after not having played a meaningful game in 34 days. In the meantime they've lost to San Diego and Seattle, beaten Arizona, and endured the tragedy of coach Tony Dungy's son's suicide.

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There's no telling how they'll respond once the ball is snapped in anger again, and the Steelers are not the kind of team you want to be facing when you find out you're not at the top of your game.

The Colts handled Pittsburgh 26-7 on Thanksgiving weekend, but that was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return from knee and thumb injuries, and the Steelers were in the middle of a three-game losing streak at the time. They recovered two weeks later with a 21-9 hammering of the Chicago Bears, and have now won five straight, including last week's playoff victory at Cincinnati.

Roethlisberger's still got a sore thumb, which affects his touch, but let's face it, the Steelers aren't the Colts. They don't beat you with touch. They beat you by pounding running backs Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker at you, throwing downfield to Hines Ward, and mixing in gadget plays, usually featuring Antwan Randle-El. Then they pin their ears back on defense and attack your quarterback.

Problem is, if you attack Peyton Manning, you'd better get there, especially if you don't have the greatest secondary, which the Steelers don't. Manning has all the weapons necessary to make Pittsburgh pay for its blitzes. And, by the way, the Colts also have a stout run defense.
Prediction: Indianapolis
Buster's coin says: Indianapolis favored by 9 and a half

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Carolina (11-5) at Chicago (11-5)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
When Rex Grossman returned from a preseason ankle injury in Week 15, took over from Kyle Orton and led the Bears to a win over the Atlanta Falcons, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the Bears were now in great shape for the playoffs, with their top quarterback back in the lineup.

Folks, this is Rex Grossman, who, including that game and the next one, has now played in exactly eight NFL regular season games -- and zero playoff games. And it's not like he's played that well. He's completed 53.8 percent of his passes for 6.7 yards a throw, four touchdowns and six interceptions.

This isn't exactly the return of Johnny U.

Here are the quarterbacks who made their playoff debuts last week: Chris Simms, Byron Leftwich and Eli Manning. They all lost, and they all played poorly. Carson Palmer also made his debut, but was injured on the second snap.

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Well, at least Grossman gets to line up against a ferocious pass rush that features probably the best athlete in the league, Julius Peppers.

The Panthers are a wild-card entry and the Bears earned a first-round bye, and the Bears pounded Carolina 13-3 on Nov. 20. But the Panthers are the better team.

They compiled their 11-5 record, same as the Bears, against a much tougher schedule. Their offense is also clicking now in a way it wasn't in November. DeShaun Foster is running like a madman, and Steve Smith is one of the most dangerous weapons in the league.

But both of these teams are here because of their punishing, hard-hitting defense. This game is going to come down to one of those defenses forcing the other team's offense to make mistakes and turn the ball over.

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Are you going to bet on Grossman, making his playoff debut and appearing in his ninth career game, or Jake Delhomme, who two years ago calmly led the Panthers to the Super Bowl?
Prediction: Carolina
Buster's coin says: Chicago

Previous column: The tough turn pro

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