King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL playoff preview: Cannon fodder for the Pats, Colts, Cowboys and Packers sort themselves out.


King Kaufman
January 4, 2008 5:00PM (UTC)

The NFL playoffs get going this weekend with the wild-card round, the sorting out of all those teams that aren't the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers, the four clubs that separated themselves from the rest of the league during the regular season.

But "the rest" has a different meaning in the AFC than in the NFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars have at one time or another played for a while like a legitimate member of an AFC Big Three. In the NFC the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants and Washington have left little doubt that there's a trench between them and the Big Two.

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Seattle hosts Washington and Tampa Bay hosts the Giants in the NFC. Jacksonville visits Pittsburgh and the Tennessee Titans travel to San Diego in the AFC.

The four-game wild-card round dates to 1990, and as you'd expect in a format in which home games are awarded to division champions over runners-up, home-field advantage has been pronounced. Home teams have gone 47-21.

For a long time, picking the wild-card round was easy. From 1993 through 2003, home teams went 3-1 every year but one. That year, 2000, home teams went 4-0. All you had to do was write down the four home teams and take your gentleman's 3-1 record into the divisional round. Plus you got a millennial lagniappe.

But it's been a pipe dream of mine to go 11-0 picking playoff games some year. I've never come close. Maybe I should put down the pipe. But what I tended to do was guess which road team would win. This usually resulted in a gentleman's 2-2.

In the last three years, though, things have gone haywire. Home teams have gone 1-3, 1-3 and 4-0. Of course you know what that means. And if you do, please tell me.

Here's a look at the four games this weekend, with my picks and those of my daughter, Daisy, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in the NFC. My son, Buster, is withholding his playoff picks in a contract dispute.

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SATURDAY

Washington (9-7) at Seattle (10-6)
4:30 p.m. EST, NBC
Home-field advantage can be a tricky thing. Players, coaches and the commentariat sometimes talk about certain stadiums being "tough places to play" bec`ause they're loud, but that volume and reputation don't always translate to wins.

But the Seahawks' home-field advantage is real. During their five-year streak of qualifying for the playoffs, NFL home teams have had a regular-season winning percentage of .574, meaning an average team would have gone about 23-17 at home and 17-23 on the road since 2003. The Seahawks have been roughly average on the road, going 18-22, but they've gone 33-7 at Qwest Field, including two undefeated seasons and this year's 7-1.

They've also gone 3-1 at home in the playoffs over that time, losing to St. Louis in 2004 but winning the last three, over Washington and Carolina in '05, Dallas last year, though home field wasn't nearly as handy in that game as Tony Romo's muffed snap. You can add the Hawks' home-field advantage to the overall home-field advantage in the wild-card round, if you can figure out what that is.

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Washington's late-season surge is also real. A lot of NFL winning streaks are the products of a weak stretch of schedule. But the four-game run the Washingtons put together to end the season and nail down the last playoff berth was legit. It started with a home win over the Chicago Bears, who at 5-6 -- same as Washington -- were still in the playoff hunt.

Then Washington, playing inspired football in the wake of the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor, beat the New York Giants, the first wild-card team, on the road, and ended the Minnesota Vikings' five-game winning streak -- mostly the product of a weak stretch of schedule -- in a game with the second wild-card spot on the line. Washington finished up by routing the coasting Cowboys.

The streak would have been five if they hadn't been beaten by the Buffalo Bills on a field goal as time expired in the first game following Taylor's killing.

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After more than a decade as a walking clipboard hook, quarterback Todd Collins has played well in relief of the injured Jason Campbell. But what are the odds of that continuing in the playoffs, especially in a crazy-loud stadium? And against a fierce Seattle pass rush?

I think not great, even though Seattle's lost two out of its last three, road games against the weak Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. The latter game was Week 17 nonsense, and even in Week 15 the Seahawks were in cruise control in their putrid division, which they won as usual by about 19 games. The question is: Do they know where the playoff switch is?

They'll need it to win what figures to be a tough, defensive game and earn the chance to have their season end next week -- on the road.
Prediction: Seattle
Daisy's pick: Seattle

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Jacksonville (11-5) at Pittsburgh (10-6)
8 p.m. EST, NBC

The Chargers' six-game winning streak -- mostly the product of a weak stretch of schedule -- notwithstanding, the Jaguars are No. 3 in the AFC. Whether they're part of a Big Three is another question, but this is a good team, and I think they'll get this year's wild-card road win.

Or one of the three. Whatever.

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The Jags lost five times this year. They looked weirdly awful on opening day against the Titans, got swept by the Colts, lost on the road to the then-scorching New Orleans Saints while quarterback David Garrard and several other key players were banged up, and finally dropped a meaningless Week 17 game at Houston.

But they also beat the playoff-bound Titans, Buccaneers and Steelers on the road and the Chargers at home. With Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew pounding out almost 2,000 yards rushing and Garrard leading an efficient if unspectacular passing attack, the Jaguars have one of the better offenses in the league. Their defense isn't what it once was, but then again the defense it once was never got the Jaguars to the Super Bowl. The current version is merely good.

The Steelers started the year strong, 4-1 with lopsided wins over Cleveland, Buffalo and Seattle, but the loss was to Arizona, and it kept going like that all year. They managed to lose to the New York Jets and barely beat Miami in the rain. They haven't beaten a quality opponent since Week 10, when they completed a sweep of the Browns. Leading rusher Willie Parker is out with a broken leg.

The Jaguars were able to run over the Steelers in a 29-24 win in the same stadium three weeks ago, and I can't think of a reason why Week 18 will be any better for the Steelers than Week 15 was.
Prediction: Jacksonville
Daisy's pick: Jacksonville

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SUNDAY

N.Y. Giants (10-6) at Tampa Bay (9-7)
1 p.m. EST, Fox
I had the Giants pegged to struggle this year and for coach Tom Coughlin to lose his job by Thanksgiving, so I have to call them surprising, otherwise I'd be admitting I don't know what I'm talking about, and I don't want to do that.

So: How about that job Coughlin did leading this surprising bunch to a 10-6 record and the playoffs!

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The Buccaneers are a mediocre club that comes in having lost three of their last four, though to be fair they were mostly concerned with keeping people healthy the last two weeks, even though they could have qualified for the No. 3 seed by winning their last two games.

Smart move. There's not that much difference between playing the Giants or Washington, and if you win there's not a huge difference between playing Dallas or Green Bay other than the weather -- which is something for a Florida team to think about.

The Giants will sic their pass rush on Jeff Garcia, who's good at escaping a pass rush but also good at getting beat up on those occasions when there's nowhere to go. The Bucs will throw their famous Tampa 2 defense, another unit that isn't what it once was but is still plenty good, at Eli Manning, who figures to make some mistakes and turn the ball over.

It won't be pretty, and while I usually think that stuff about the ability to run in the playoffs being key is bunk, I think whichever team can establish the run without too many turnovers will win. And I think that'll be Brandon Jacobs and the surprising Giants.
Prediction: New York
Daisy's pick: Tampa Bay

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Tennessee (10-6) at San Diego (11-5)
4:30 p.m. EST, CBS
The Chargers last won a playoff game during the Late Pleistocene era, when they were known as the Los Angeles Glacier Hoppers. So it's with shaking fingers that I type this: I think they'll beat the Titans.

The Titans are here because of their defense, which helped them build a 17-3 fourth quarter lead when these teams met in Nashville four weeks ago. The Chargers roared back to win that game in overtime, thanks mostly to nonpareil running back LaDainian Tomlinson, though Philip Rivers threw a pair of touchdowns in the final minutes.

That game was a bruiser, and this one figures to be more of the same. The winner may envy the loser its off week in the divisional round. The Chargers can slug on defense too, and the Titans, whether Vince Young, who's got a bad quad, is healthy or not, don't have as many offensive weapons with which to hit back.

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The Titans defense held the Chargers down for three quarters last month, but San Diego broke through. It won't take as long this time.
Prediction: San Diego
Daisy: San Diego (8.5-point favorite)

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Subsequent predictions

Divisional round
Dallas over New York
Green Bay over Seattle
New England over Jacksonville
Indianapolis over San Diego

Conference championships
Dallas over Green Bay
New England over Indianapolis

Super Bowl
New England over Dallas

I know: Boring. All the higher seeds win. I think I'd pick Jacksonville over Indy in the divisional round, but the Titans would have to win for that game to happen.

Previous column: Panel o' Experts tie!

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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