Friday January 4th, 2008

There's nothing quite like the NFL's 11-game Super Bowl tournament for delivering must-see games, and this weekend's first-round playoffs are as up for grabs as ever. We've got two rematches of memorable December games in the AFC, and two NFC road teams with momentum that seem poised to make noise in the postseason.

Here's our case for every possible outcome in the NFL's four first-round games:

The Redskins will win because ... they're by far the hottest team in the NFC field, going 4-0 down the stretch in December when they had to win out (even though they would have qualified at 8-8 thanks to the Saints and Vikings losing in Week 17). Four of the six NFC playoff teams lost their final regular-season game, and Green Bay was humbled by Chicago in Week 16. Washington is the only NFC team playing its best ball of the season as the playoffs arrive, and the Redskins defense is leading the way thanks to the superb coaching of Gregg Williams.

The Seahawks will win because ... Seattle has one of the most dependable homefield advantages in the NFL and has allowed just 13.9 points per game at home this season. The Seahawks went 7-1 at Qwest Field, with their only loss coming against New Orleans in mid-October. Rain is in the forecast (when is it not in Seattle?) and that could hamper Seattle's considerable edge in the passing game. But the Seahawks know how to play in the wet stuff; their short, controlled passing attack won't be brought to a standstill by a little precipitation.

The big picture: It's not out of the question that the loser of this game could be shopping for a head coach in the near future. Joe Gibbs is believed to be intent on returning for a fifth season in Washington, but it wouldn't be a shock if decides that the rollercoaster ride he just took will be his last in the NFL. Seattle's Mike Holmgren has been a year-to-year proposition of late as well, and he could opt to walk away after a first-round loss, with his Seahawks' window of Super Bowl opportunity seemingly all but closed.

The Giants will win because ... their pass rush is the best in the NFL, and that should come in handy against a Bucs quarterback (Jeff Garcia) who has been nursing a sore back for the past six weeks or so. The trio of Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck own 32 of New York's league-leading 53 sacks, and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has learned how to create the maximum disruption to an opponent's passing game by sending them from different sides of the line and all kinds of angles. On the road, the Giants' pass-rush happy defense has thrived, holding six of their eight opponents to 17 points or fewer.

The Bucs will win because ... that's what quarterback Jeff Garcia does in the first round of the playoffs, beat the Giants. Garcia is just 2-3 as a playoff starter, but both wins have come against New York. He helped execute a miraculous 24-point comeback against the Giants in a 2002 first-round game in San Francisco -- the biggest in NFC playoff history. And last year he led the Eagles to a 23-20 first-round win against New York, a game decided by the five-minute field goal drive that produced David Akers' 38-yarder as time expired.

The big picture: This fate of quarterback Eli Manning's tenure with the Giants doesn't hang entirely on the outcome of this game, but if No. 10 plays poorly and falls to 0-3 as a playoff starter with another inconsistent January showing, New York will likely feel led to go out this offseason and acquire someone to at least compete with Manning in 2008. But he probably could avoid that scenario if he builds on last week's mostly positive showing against the mighty Patriots with a sharp performance and a playoff win against the unheralded Bucs.

The Jaguars will win because ... the Steelers are an injury- decimated team that's on the verge of falling apart. Pittsburgh in recent weeks has lost its best defensive end, Aaron Smith (torn biceps), its top running back, Willie Parker (broken leg), and its first and second-string offensive left tackles, Marvel Smith (back surgery) and Max Starks (knee). All in all, it's a bad time for the Steelers to be getting a return visit from a Jaguars team that pounded them physically and hung up an astonishing 224 yards rushing in a 29-22 upset at Pittsburgh in Week 15. In their past eight games, the Jaguars have scored 256 points, just two fewer than the Patriots.

The Steelers will win because ... the NFL playoffs are still first and foremost about quarterbacking, and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger trumps the Jaguars' David Garrard, a first-time postseason starter. Roethlisberger is 5-1 in the playoffs in his four-year career, and he just put together the league's most impressive season that no one seemed to notice: a team-record 32 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions, 65.3 completion rate, and a 104.1 rating that trailed only the league-MVP-to-be, Tom Brady. Big Ben has been more resourceful than ever this season, spreading his 32 scoring passes among eight Steelers.

The big picture: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is pivotal game for the Jaguars organization. Jacksonville has been trying to break into the NFL's elite class for a few years now, but it needs to win a playoff game -- its last postseason victory came in 1999 -- to prove it can measure up to the big boys. And given that the Jaguars aren't exactly the hot ticket they once were in Jacksonville, a little playoff-season excitement could do wonders for reinvigorating a fan base that has dwindled before team owner Wayne Weaver's eyes in recent years.

The Titans will win because ... Vince Young loves taking center stage in the spotlight games. You know what he did in bowl-game settings in college at the University of Texas, but he's also had two of his better games this season on the road on Monday Night Football -- throwing for a season-best two touchdowns in a win at New Orleans, and recording season highs in both passing (305 yards) and rushing (74) in a loss at Denver. Young left the win at Indy last week with a quad strain, and he may have to split time with Kerry Collins. But coming up big in big games is a forte of VY.

The Chargers will win because ... they're finally firing all their weapons on offense. San Diego's season-ending six-game winning streak is not merely tied to Norv Turner's belated discovery that he can indeed give LaDainian Tomlinson the ball 25 times a game. Quarterback Philip Rivers has three straight games of a 100 passer rating or higher, and hasn't thrown a pick since Week 14. Receiver Chris Chambers has given San Diego a vertical threat and opened up the middle for tight end extraordinaire Antonio Gates. And the Chargers offensive line continues to keep Rivers clean every game.

The big picture: No team has more pressure on it to win this weekend than the Chargers, whose embarrassment of riches in terms of talent these past four seasons still hasn't produced a playoff victory. With San Diego general manager A.J. Smith just getting a contract extension, Turner isn't coaching for his job this week. But we all know what happened to the last Chargers coach who couldn't parlay regular-season success into a playoff win. For everyone's sake in San Diego, beating the underdog Titans at home is mandatory. It's time for the Chargers to finally take that next step.

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