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Jan. 5, 2008

NFL - wild card previews

by Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor, Nitin Sukumar, Online News Editor and Copy Editor and Elsi Wu, Online Sports Editor
After a grueling 17 week season, the NFL playoffs are finally upon us. And rejoice, our Washington Redskins are indeed in them! Wild card weekend is always one for surprises, and the four intriguing matchups on tap will have their share. Can the Redskins pull off the upset in the Emerald City? Our experts have their say.

Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks

Saturday, January 5, 2008 4:30 p.m. on NBC

The Word: Riding a four game win streak, the Redskins head cross-country into seriously noisy territory at Qwest Field the stadium that forced the NFL to write up the crowd noise rule.

Offense: As the Redskins trudged into the locker room at halftime on Dec. 6., things could not have looked bleaker. Exhausted emotionally and physically, the team had just returned from burying slain safety Sean Taylor, was playing their second game in five days and had just lost their franchise quarterback in the midst of a lackluster playoff-run. Enter Todd Collins. The career benchwarmer, who had not taken a snap in a decade, was suddenly thrown to the helm of the Skins' playoff efforts. So far, he has offered the offense, and the team, what they've all been seeking for so long stability. As a starter, Collins has earned a quarterback rating of 106.4 with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. He has revived the Redskins receiving core with the help of the offensive line and RB Clinton Portis's solid production and has opened up options downfield, including resurgent wideout Santana Moss.

For the Seahawks, the shift to a pass-first offense after the loss of star RB Shaun Alexander to injury earlier this season has produced very favorable results. Pro Bowl-bound QB Matt Hasselbeck has completed over 60 percent of his passes in the last four games and has found an unlikely favorite target in 12-year veteran WR Bobby Engram. Seattle's rainy weather may also put a wrench in Mike Holmgrem's air attack, for which an underperforming Alexander and inexperienced backup RB Maurice Morris do not have the firepower to respond to. The Seahawks also have not yet settled on a starter at left guard, which may leave Hasselbeck vulnerable to pressure.

Advantage: Redskins

The Redskins passing attack will rely heavily on speedy wideout Santana Moss.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Gerald Herbert via Yahoo! Sports</i>
The Redskins passing attack will rely heavily on speedy wideout Santana Moss. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Gerald Herbert via Yahoo! Sports

Defense: Though the Redskins defense is ranked fourth in the NFL, their strength is in stopping the run, an option that the Seahawks will try to avoid. Since the Skins' victories came against injury-ridden Chicago, run-intensive Minnesota, Manning's erratic play in New York and Dallas' second string, the secondary will get its first real test against Hasselbeck's arm and explosive receiving corps.

Anchored by LB Lofa Tatupu and DE Patrick Kerney, the Seahawks defense is effective at stuffing the run, but gives up an average of 222.4 yards per game through the air. If the defense is able to immobilize Portis and pressure Collins, they have a chance of rendering the Redskins' offense ineffective.

Advantage: Redskins

Player to Watch: WR Santana Moss The Redskins win if Moss is productive. As long as the offensive line holds up to let Collins deliver the ball like he has shown he can, Moss is a major down-field playmaker that can put away a game, especially against the Seahawks' weak secondary.

Bottom Line: The Seahawks may be the weakest team in the playoff pool, and the Redskins are the hottest. Momentum is key in the playoffs... last year's Bears, anyone?

Prediction: Redskins 27 Seahawks 20


Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers

Saturday, January 5, 2008 8:00 p.m. on NBC

The Word: The Jags, after winning six of their last eight, head back to Heinz Field where they handed the Steelers their only home loss this season.

Offense: The Pittsburgh offense has been dominant all season long. But after an injury to Willie Parker ended his season, the running game has been hurt badly. Najeh Davenport is a good running back, but cannot make up for Parker's loss on his own. Ben Roethlisberger is being forced to pass more often, and with the weapons he has in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes that's not really a bad thing, yet the Steelers are 22nd in the league in pass offense. On the other side, the Jags have one of the most consistent quarterbacks in David Garrard. Garrard only threw three interceptions with 18 touchdowns and a 64 percent completion rating. Their dual running back combo with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew is probably the fiercest in the league. The Jags have the second-ranked rush offense in the league.

Advantage: Jaguars

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio's offense is run through running back Fred Taylor and quarterback David Garrard.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Phil Coale via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio's offense is run through running back Fred Taylor and quarterback David Garrard. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Phil Coale via Yahoo! Sports

Defense: Pittsburgh comes into this game with the number-one ranked defense in the league. Their defense has been very productive in creating turnovers, forcing 25 fumbles. But their pass defense has struggled in creating turnovers, managing only 11 interceptions all season. The Jaguar defense is much better at forcing turnovers, with 20 this season. They have the second-best rush defense in the league and their front seven is one of the best in the league, but they are vulnerable to the passing game. Both teams do a good job of getting to the quarterback, Pittsburgh with 36 sacks and Jacksonville with 37.

Advantage: Steelers

Player to Watch: Paul Spicer, DE, Jaguars One thing Roethlisberger likes to do is roll to his right side out of the pocket and throw or run from there. Defensive end Paul Spicer is going to have to contain Roethlisberger from that left end position and make sure he can't get out of the pocket. Spicer has 7.5 sacks this season, but containment will be just as important as getting sacks. If Roethlisberger does get out, Spicer needs to make sure he pressures him so that Roethlisberger throws a bad pass.

Bottom Line: The explosive running attack of the Jags and the consistency by Garrard is going to keep the Steelers' defense on edge. While their defense is good enough to handle it, the loss of Willie Parker is going to force their offense to find new ways to gain yards and score.

Prediction: Jaguars 34, Steelers 24


New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sunday, January 6, 2008 1 p.m. on FOX

The Word: Tampa Bay, led by offseason addition Jeff Garcia, captured the NFC South title after an atrocious 2006 campaign, while New York has battled through a tough schedule and Eli Manning's inconsistency en route to the first wild card position in the NFC.

Offense: New York has plenty of weapons to utilize on offense, but QB Eli Manning sometimes forgets how to pull the trigger. He did show some life last week against the Patriots, but fell apart at the most critical point of the game. The offensive line, consisting of the same five players all season, took a major hit with the loss of center Shaun O'Hara to knee injury last week. For the G-Men, the task is simple: keep the ball out of Eli's hands as much as possible. The Giants' loaded RB position will need to show up big time against the Bucs. If the team can't establish the run, it'll be up to Plaxico Burress and Kevin Boss to bail out the wannabe-Peyton. Jeff Garcia has made it a season-long Christmas for speed demon WR Joey Galloway in Tampa. Behind several injuries to tailbacks, Earnest Graham has emerged as a capable runner and pass catcher. By limiting turnovers, the Bucs have made the most out of their conservative offense.

Advantage: Even

Defense: The Giants boast one of the most effective defensive lines in the league, anchored by Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. New York has certainly gotten to the quarterback this year, posting a league high 53 sacks. With Antonio Pierce suiting up at middle linebacker, the team has a formidable box holding opposing rushers to under 100 yards rushing on average. But the secondary runs thin with inexperience at corner back. The Bucs, with their infamous Tampa-2 defense, can lay waste to Eli's morale behind the league's top pass defense. Pro Bowl-snubbed corner Ronde Barber and MLB Barrett Ruud can wreak havoc behind a four-man line that doesn't need any help to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

How Eli Manning responds to the playoff pressures will determine the fate of the Giants.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/David Duprey via Yahoo! Sports</i>
How Eli Manning responds to the playoff pressures will determine the fate of the Giants. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/David Duprey via Yahoo! Sports

Player to Watch: Eli Manning, QB, Giants We all know that Jeff Garcia is the model efficient quarterback and that's who Eli needs to become. Tampa's zone defense means turnovers, so Eli will need to have all the focus in the world to come out of this game still standing. The targets are there: Burress, Boss, Amani Toomer, and Steve Smith are all capable receivers.

Bottom Line: Tampa's D will overwhelm Eli Manning after his surprising performance versus the Patriots. New York head coach Tom Coughlin's decision to put up a fight last week will come back to haunt him. Not only will turnovers hurt the G-Men, but injuries in recent weeks as well. In addition to O'Hara, both tight end Jeremy Shockey and linebacker Kawika Mitchell are gone. Tampa has rested several key starters recently, perhaps too much so, and may suffer from lack of momentum. But coach Jon Gruden accomplished what he wanted to by entering the playoffs looking healthy.

Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Giants 17


Tennessee Titans at San Diego Chargers

Sunday January 6, 2008 4:30 p.m. on CBS

The Word: A rematch of the thrilling Week 14 slugfest that saw the Chargers prevail in OT. Both teams enter riding hot streaks, with the Chargers having won six in a row and the Titans four of five including a Week 17 win to capture the sixth and final playoff berth.

Offense:

LaDainian Tomlinson is the best running back, and arguably the best player, in the game, and the Chargers will rely heavily on him. Tomlinson racked up 146 yards and the game-winning touchdown the first time these two teams met up. Quarterback Philip Rivers laid an egg in his first playoff appearance last year against New England, but has looked sharp as of late, including three straight games with a QB rating over 100. His favorite target Antonio Gates will be his beastly self, but a possible contributor could be midseason addition Chris Chambers, who has started to develop a nice rapport with Rivers.

Tennessee quarterback Vince Young's status is still uncertain for Sunday's matchup.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Mark Humphrey via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Tennessee quarterback Vince Young's status is still uncertain for Sunday's matchup. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Mark Humphrey via Yahoo! Sports

On the other sideline, the Tennessee offense is not as sexy, but still quite potent, relying on Jeff Fisher's smashmouth running that has seen tremendous success for the past decade. Vince Young is nicked up, as are his top receivers Roydell Williams and Bo Schaife, so establishing the ground game early and often will be especially key. The Titans' offensive line has been solid, opening up holes for LenDale White and Chris Brown. White in particular has come into his own this season, topping 1000 yards rushing in his second year in the league.

Advantage: San Diego

Defense:

Ted Cottrell and Ron Rivera have built a solid defensive unit in San Diego that is playing well at the right time, having given up 17 or fewer points in six straight games, all Ws. Linebacker Shawne Merriman will no doubt come out to play in the rematch of the game that saw him get injured by a questionably "dirty" play. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie had a league-leading 10 picks, and can make the Tennessee quarterback, Vince Young or Kerry Collins, pay for throwing in his direction.

Like with their successful early 2000s teams, the Titans boast a physical, overwhelming defense. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is an absolute monster, single-handedly wreaking havoc on backfields. Having a healthy Haynesworth is the only way the Titans can even dream of containing LT. The Titans' secondary led by veterans Nick Harper and Chris Hope has held up alright without Pacman Jones.

Advantage: Even

Player to Watch: Vince Young Young has been shaky all season, throwing almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns (17 picks to only 9 TDs) while only running for three on the ground. But as USC fans can attest to, VY has the uncanny ability to elevate his game to legendary levels when the chips are down. The Titans are mum on the status of Young's hamstring, but if he suits up on Sunday, you know he'll bring it.

Bottom Line: Undoubtedly this will be a very physical game, closer than most people would think. The Titans are young and hungry, making them a dangerous underdog. In the end though, the Chargers have the talent and experience to capture their first playoff game since the 1994 season.

Prediction: San Diego 20, Tennessee 13



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  • Joseph Couchman on January 7, 2008 at 9:47 AM
    Hail!
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