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Wild-card predictions

My favorite game this weekend is Giants-Bucs. No, I don't mean the thrill-a-minute variety. I don't watch these things recreationally. I'm talking about the game in which I feel most confident as a handicapper.

I think the Bucs are weakest in the area in which the Giants are the strongest, O-line vs. D-line. I think that's the softest part of the Tampa Bay operation, and we know what the Giants can do when their rush is working.

I think Michael Strahan will have a big day against the Bucs' RT, Jeremy Trueblood, whom they're trying to tell us is a budding super star. If they don't give him help, and that's a silly premise already because I KNOW they're going to give him help, but assuming they're trying to prove something and they leave him alone against the ... all at once, now ... the "crafty veteran" ... then I give Michael a minimum of two sacks.

The Bucs closed out their season allowing a lot of sacks -- four apiece in three of their last four games. OK, they were early playoff clinchers and a lot of the stats are window dressing, but still, once you get into bad habits ...

Jeff Garcia is a resourceful quarterback, though. He buys time and yards. He engineers comebacks -- two against the Giants in their last two postseason losses, including that landmark game in which he brought the Niners back from 24 down in the fourth quarter. But I don't think they'll give him time to get his game together. If I were the Giants, I'd worry about a Joey Galloway-SamMadison matchup that could be disastrous, but the New Yorkers aren't exactly suicidal and I'm sure they'll figure out a way to zone it up and keep such a confrontation from taking place.

The basic reason why I like the Giants so much is I think there's a difference in class here. Tampa Bay played in the weakest division. The Giants had to struggle. What bothers me, as a handicapper who traditionally leans to unpopular teams, is that everybody I talk to loves the Giants.

"That's because you only talk to people from around here, from Jersey," says The Flaming Redhead, a.k.a. Dear Wife. "If you lived in Tampa, everyone you met would love the Bucs."

That's another reason not to move down there.

Giants win it in a slow-scorer, 20-13.

Here comes Upset No. 2 -- The hot team stays hot, which means the Redskins take one from the Seahawks and their 12th Man in Qwest Field on the shores of, uh, the banks of ... Puget Sound? Is that where all those pretty pictures come from?

The crowd noise is supposed to scare people, terrify them. Next to the dentist who forgot the Novocain, I hate that 12th Man junk worse than anything. Linda, if you say something that begins, "They have a right to..." I'm going to tell you something about my background and history that'll give you nightmares. And the Redskins are now a battle-hardened gang of roadies who have won two must-win away games in the last three weeks.

The hot team theory usually works pretty well in the first weekend of the postseason. After that, quality of personnel kicks in, but right now I think it makes sense to ride with a club that's feeling good about itself.

Todd Collins knocks me out. Never in his long history as an NFL scrub, preceded by his reign as a starter they were trying to replace, did I ever think he would emerge as the smooth, confident operative who got them through their last three games so neatly. Jason Campbell has undeniable talent. Anybody can see it. But Collins just looks like such a pro out there, a guy who knows how to work a game.

Of course, we haven't seen what happens when things start falling apart. He didn't ride the bench for so many years because people thought he was great. But wines, cheese and quarterbacks do tend to age, and maybe we are seeing the emergence of something special.

The Redskin defense is opportunistic, active and well coached. The offense is capable of moving the ball by any means. The weakness is Santana Moss is too big a part of it, and he's injury prone. Every time he makes a diving catch, I wonder if he's going to get up. Without him they operate in a lower gear and Clinton Portis keeps getting gang tackled.

Matt Hasselbeck is a Pro Bowl QB who can run hot and cold. I keep having strange feelings about him, after seeing him go through erratic streaks when the stakes were raised. I think he'll get his points in the Saturday opener. I just think the Skins will get more of them.

Washington 31, Seattle 27.

You say you're a die-hard NFL fan? Fine, name me three members of the Titans' offensive or defensive lines, excluding Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch. Too tough? OK, the names of two guys in their secondary. See, that's my point. They're unknown, and unappreciated and the biggest dog on the board this weekend (9 points) as they head to San Diego.

They're a nasty looking gang. Some of them haven't shaved when they hit the field. Sometimes their shirts come out of their pants. San Diego is pretty. LaDainian Tomlinson ... my, there's a nice looking chap. And Philip Rivers ... he looks like the hero in the kinds of football movies they used to make about a million years ago. You know, goes back to the frat house after the game and talks about it to his pals while he's sipping a nice, cool lemonade. A pretty boy. Of course, he didn't look so pretty when he was doing that nasty taunting bit to Jay Cutler the other night, but that's just me. I get turned off by pretty-boy QB's acting like punks.

"So all this is why you're picking Tennessee, right?" says my partner through this stormy sea of life. Nah, I won't go that far, although stranger things have happened. I just like them with the nine points.

Vince Young is the X-factor, even more so with the bad wheel that could go at any time. You know their defense is going to play tough, though, and once again, I found a matchup that really looks bad for the quarterback's side. LT Marcus McNeill, who got destroyed by Houston's Mario Williams, against RDE Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is riding the crest of his life right now. OK, you're right. It'll be Vanden Bosch against McNeill and that monster tight end, Brandon Manumaleuna, whom they brought in for exactly this purpose, but still...

"Aren't you the one who likes to go with the hot team?" says a voice nearby. No question, the Chargers are hot right now, coming off six-straight wins, including an overtime victory in Tennessee. That accounts for the big number by which they're favored.

OK, I think they'll win, but not big. And here's another angle. The Merriman-Young affair. Young was involved in a scramble and Merriman happened to get in the way and Young ran into him and went out of the game with bad ribs. Sounds phony, I know, but honest, that's what happened. "I seen it myself, it could be nahtin' else," to quote Big Abe, the cabbie who used to go to the Brooklyn Dodger games.

The Titans cooked up a little retaliation number. RT David Stewart propped Merriman up, center Kevin Mawae took him out at the knee. Merriman left the game and he's OK now, but it could have been a hospital shot, and it is very ugly stuff indeed. How much of that bad blood will remain? Probably none. They're all making too much money nowadays to bear grudges.

Chargers 33, Titans 26.

Talk about games that look too easy. Jacksonville, a teeny weeny two-point favorite over Pittsburgh, looks like the steal of the weekend. Beware the steals. The Jags beat them by seven, in Pittsburgh, almost three weeks ago. Out-Pittsburghed 'em. Ran the ball 42 times. Threw nine fewer passes. Yeah! That makes for a shorter game, so I can go outside and check my lobster traps.

What has changed since then, to make us believe it won't be another seven-point Jaguar victory? Beats me. But it must be something. How about this? Fast Willie Parker, who gained 100 yards for the Steelers last time, is now gone. And Big Ben probably will have to put it up more times than he'd like, to cover the loss of the NFL's leading rusher at the time.

One interesting statistical note. I'm assuming this contest will present the heaviest tandem of starting quarterbacks in a postseason game in history. AchtungNick Stamm of Stats, Inc.! Is this accurate information? Is 481 pounds (240 for David Garrard, 241 for Big Ben) a veritable Sumo for Signal Callers, or has this been done a few times before?

OK, I'll get off this extraneous kick and give you the same blah blah you'll hear from now until kickoff. Pittsburgh loads eight in the box to stop the run. Garrard hurts them with his arm. The Steelers drop back to a normal seven. Jacksonville runs. Back they go to eight. The old expanding box syndrome. Now they pass. The accordion number. Breathe deeply, please. It'll be over in a minute.

Here's what I see. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been over this course a few thousand times. I don't know what he'll come up with, but it'll be imaginative. Maybe a variety on the zone blitz, which he invented, a spin off involving a series of run-stopping thrusts, maybe something entirely different. For sure, he isn't going to just sit there and let his guys get eaten alive by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

I'll admit this isn't much of an analysis. I really don't see the Jaguars showing the imagination to change tactics all that much and catch the Steelers preparing for the wrong thing. But one rule of the playoffs is that things always change, especially since a prior meeting. That's what the Steelers hope, anyway.

Jaguars 17, Steelers 12.

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