King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL divisional round preview: Patriots lead a Pack of heavy favorites.


King Kaufman
January 11, 2008 4:30PM (UTC)

The opening acts have done their thing, and now here come the headliners of the NFL playoffs, the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.

The undefeated Patriots are so good they get mentioned twice.

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All four teams, the top two seeds in each conference, are favored by at least a touchdown in their divisional-round home games this weekend. The visiting teams are the Jacksonville Jaguars at New England, the San Diego Chargers at Indianapolis, the New York Giants at Dallas and the Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay.

The wide point spreads mean that my son, Buster, the contract-holding-outest 4-year-old who ever said it's not about money but about respect, is unable to withhold his picks because he's still bound by the terms of his old deal, which stipulates that he and his coin-flippinest 2-year-old sister, Daisy, both take all favorites of six or more points. He's seeking an injunction -- actually just holding his breath -- to prevent this column from using his name.

Here's a look at the divisional round in chronological order.

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SATURDAY

Seattle (10-6) at Green Bay (13-3)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
I don't know if you've heard about this lately, but it seems that a few years ago, the Seahawks and Packers were playing a playoff game in Green Bay, and it went to overtime, and the Seahawks won the toss, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said to the official, "Shall I never see a bachelor of three score again?"

Wait, that's not what he said. He said, "We want the ball and we're going to score!" And a few minutes later he threw an interception to Al Harris, who ran it in for a touchdown and the Packers won. And you know what that means.

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Nothing. But we all agreed to mention it at the big media conspiracy meeting last month, when we also agreed to continue ignoring Wantagate.

Far more important is the fact that the Packers are a much better team than the Seahawks are. Seattle's a so-so team that walked into the playoffs from a crashingly bad division, then beat a Washington club last week that, however impressive and inspiring it was in the aftermath of Sean Taylor's death, wasn't that good. And the Seahawks struggled a bit before putting the game away.

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Brett Favre should be able to do a little more against the Seattle defense than Todd Collins was able to do, and the Green Bay front should be able to hold off the pass rush. Harris is still back there to make life difficult for Hasselbeck, as is his fellow corner Charles Woodson.

It would be nice, especially in a January game at Lambeau Field, if Hasselbeck could turn around and hand off to the great Shaun Alexander, but the great Shaun Alexander is a memory. Soon, the '07 Seahawks will be as well.
Prediction: Green Bay
Kids: Green Bay (7.5-point favorite)

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Jacksonville (11-5) at New England (16-0)
8 p.m. EST, CBS
Holy smoke! Did you know the Patriots went 16-0 this year? Why hasn't anybody mentioned this?

I really wish the Jaguars had gotten to play the Indianapolis Colts in this game, which would have required Tennessee beating San Diego last week.

The Jaguars are a damn good team, not a great one but one that can beat just about anybody on the right day. The Colts beat 'em twice this year and Jax would have had to go to the RCA Dome this week had the game come about, but it would have been a hell of a matchup. The Jaguars are playing well now, and it's hard for any NFL team to sweep three games in one year against another quality team.

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But the Titans didn't beat the Chargers, so the Jaguars have to go to Foxboro to play the Patriots, who are the reason for that "just about" qualification in the previous paragraph. The little flaws that keep the Jaguars from being a superb team but don't keep them from beating most teams will keep them from beating the Patriots. Against the Patriots, those little flaws look like massive shortcomings.

So David Garrard's a smart, shifty quarterback who didn't give the ball away this year, though even he admits that had more to do with luck than good decision-making. Most of the time, what he brings is plenty. Against the Patriots, it might mean four picks and a bunch of sacks. An ordinary bunch of receivers, usually good enough to do enough, won't be against the Patriots.

Against Pittsburgh quarterback Ben "Go Ahead and Take That Call, Sports Fans, I Hope to Still Be Standing in the Pocket and Holding the Ball When You Get Back" Roethlisberger, the Jaguars' good but not great pass rushers were able to get sacks. Against Tom Brady they'll be desperately throwing their hands up trying to get a deflection.

And so on. As much as I've come to have inappropriately warm feelings for the Jaguars in the last six weeks or so, I don't even like them to cover that big point spread Saturday.
Prediction: New England
Kids: New England (13-point favorite)

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SUNDAY

San Diego (11-5) at Indianapolis (13-3)
1 p.m. EST, CBS
The Chargers beat the Colts 23-21 in California two months ago. In that game, Peyton Manning threw six (VI!) interceptions and Darren Sproles -- career touchdowns in 29 NFL games not played on that day: zero -- ran back a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. And it rained.

If all those things happen again Sunday inside the Dome, the Bolts will win again. You heard it right here.

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If not, take the Colts.

They were all banged up for that crazy November game but they're feeling much better now. All Manning was missing that day were three of his top four receivers -- Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark -- and his left tackle, Tony Ugoh. They're all expected to play Sunday, as are linebackers Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler, who were out in November, and right tackle Ryan Diem, who was hurt in San Diego. Saying Harrison's going to play might be wishful thinking, but still.

The Chargers, on the other hand, had to watch their No. 2 offensive weapon, tight end Antonio Gates, carted off the field with a toe injury last week. They're crossing their fingers on his toe, as the San Diego Union-Tribune cleverly headlined, but he's hardly a shoe-in to play.

I know it's shoo-in and even that wouldn't be funny. We can't all be San Diego Union-Tribune headline writers, you know.

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No. 1 offensive weapon LaDainian Tomlinson is healthy, but the Colts are pretty good at stopping the run since about this time last year. The Chargers are on a nice run here. They've won seven straight. But only two of those wins were over winning teams, both of them Tennessee, and both of those games were bruisers.

I'm not even going to mention that, counting last week, the Chargers have won one playoff game since the Cleveland administration. The first one. If Manning can keep his interception total to one hand, the Colts will be a third of the way to -- remember this? -- defending their Super Bowl title.
Prediction: Indianapolis
Kids: Indianapolis (8-point favorite)

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N.Y. Giants (10-6) at Dallas (13-3)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
Remember that thing I said a minute ago about how it's hard for any team to sweep three games against a quality opponent in one year? Well, the Giants are a quality opponent and the Cowboys have beaten them twice this year. So there you have it: Cowboys win.

Hard, I said. Not impossible.

Listen, haven't we heard this before at playoff time? Terrell Owens has a sprained ankle and it's unclear whether he can play in the big game. That was the scenario before the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl three years ago, and Owens ended up playing. Well. In a losing effort. I get paid by the. Period. Why do you ask.

Now as then, his presence is huge. The Cowboys offense, the highest-scoring unit in the NFC and the second-highest-scoring in the league, is a very different animal without Owens. When T.O. isn't on the field, defenses can play more man coverage and put more heat on the quarterback, which is the Giants' strong suit anyway. The Giants should also be able to defend the run better without Owens to worry about, because they can put a guy who would be paying attention to him into the box.

All of which should make it obvious that unless Owens' foot falls off -- and can't be Schillinged back on -- he'll be in there. As in that Super Bowl, he's important even if he's just a decoy. And how would the Giants know he's a decoy? Even if he spends three quarters half-speeding it, he might just be sandbagging, waiting for them to leave him in man coverage so he can turn the jets on, which the Giants hate.

The Giants have a puncher's chance with that pass rush, if they can knock the ball away from Tony Romo -- who has a short history of buttery fingers in the playoffs and a sore hand -- or get an interception or six. Neither is all that likely. The Giants have had two cracks at the Cowboys this year, after all, and they've hemorrhaged 38 points a game.

Eli Manning has been playing well lately against good defenses, and he played well in Dallas on opening day, a 45-35 Cowboys win. But the Cowboys defense has jelled since then. It never again gave up 28 points in a game except when it played New England, which is a big except, and Manning didn't play very well against it in Week 10, when the Cowboys won in New Jersey 31-20.

The Cowboys played their last few games in fuzzy slippers, eating bonbons by the fistful. Unless they can't find the old playoff switch, they should be hosting the NFC Championship Game next week.
Prediction: Dallas
Kids: Dallas (7.5-point favorite)

Previous column: Georgia prez is newest BCS reformer

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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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