One thing you should know after the first weekend of the playoffs: Coaches who said they were going to establish a running game were either dreaming or lying. Not one of the eight teams in action hit its season average for rushing yards in a game, and there were no 100-yard guys. So, as we head into the divisionals, let's not get carried away with the smashmouth football hype. Unless freak weather conditions abound—or freak statistics, such as multiple turnovers—the teams that throw the ball best are going to win.
JAGUARS at PATRIOTS
January 14, 2008
FIVE OF New England's defensive starters in the finale against the Giants were 30 or over. Dare I say this unit has looked tired down the stretch? Three of the last half-dozen teams that played the Pats roughed them up. Sure, it could be a lack of urgency that goes with an early clinching, but some of the zip seemed to be gone. Does Jacksonville have enough punch in its attack to take advantage of that?
The book on the Jaguars indicates they'll try to run the ball and make a low-possession battle out of it. If they do they'll be playing into New England's hands. Too many things can foul up a long, primarily land-based march. But if Jacksonville comes out throwing, rolls quarterback David Garrard to either side, makes the Patriots' LBs and DBs run and the linemen chase, the Jaguars can wear down New England. Will it happen? Maybe, but I can't see the Pats being kept out of the end zone fewer than four or five times, and I just can't squeeze enough points out of the Jacksonville offense to match the Patriots' machine. New England 34, Jacksonville 24
CHARGERS at COLTS
I SEE a blowout here. In November the Colts, with practically their entire receiver corps crippled and Peyton Manning throwing six picks, came within a missed 29-yard field goal of beating the Chargers—in San Diego, no less. Now Indy's healthy and rested. Don't be surprised if weakside LB Freddy Keiaho, who missed the Chargers' game with an ear infection, has a big day. He's one of the league's quickest and soundest outside pluggers. Marvin Harrison should finally suit up, too. Even before he sprained his knee he was a mid-range, not a long-ball, threat this season. Still, the more weapons you have....
I didn't like what I saw of the Chargers on Sunday. LaDainian Tomlinson looked as if he were on cruise control. I didn't see his usual elusiveness and pop. Philip Rivers was O.K. but could have problems against a faster defense than what he's used to. And that's one thing the Colts can do—turn up the speed defensively. They won't overpower anybody, but they gave up the fewest points in the NFL this season through quick-striking ability. Indianapolis 38, San Diego 17
SEAHAWKS at PACKERS
TO MAKE this one close, Brett Favre has to go into one of those high-interception walkabouts that have plagued him in recent years but not very often this season. And for that to happen, the Seahawks have to bring the kind of pressure to which they subjected the Redskins' Todd Collins last Saturday. Now's not the time to ease up.
Of course, no one needs to tell Mike Holmgren how to deal with Favre, his former protégé. The last time Holmgren faced him, in November 2006, his defense turned the game by intercepting Favre twice at the end. But that one was played in weird conditions in Seattle—the coldest day ever in the Pacific Northwest for a Seahawks game.
I keep remembering the way Favre handled the Lions on Thanksgiving, compiling almost 500 yards with close to a pure run-and-shoot attack. I could see it happening again, if the Seahawks get too frisky with their blitz pressure, so there's the conundrum. Wish I could pick an upset here, but... Green Bay 31, Seattle 24
GIANTS at COWBOYS
WELL, HERE ARE two clubs that know each other. It was on Oct. 23, 2006, that New York sacked Drew Bledsoe out of the game, giving Tony Romo his first serious action. He was pretty bad. The Giants intercepted him three times and won. But then things started breaking right for Romo, the new starter, and he beat New York all three times they've met since, his performance markedly improving each time.
The Cowboys are one of the best teams in the league at controlling the Giants' sack attack. Left tackle Flozell Adams has pitched two shutouts against New York's rush specialist, Osi Umenyiora. A heavy blitz package is not the Giants' style, but they better figure out some way to generate pressure, or they'll lose in another shootout.
Eli Manning is fascinating to watch because you never know what's going to happen. He can get hot, or he can spray the ball, but one thing is consistent: His teammates seem to genuinely like him and rally around him. Dallas 34, Giants 30