by Patrick Stanton
JetNation Senior Columnist
WASHINGTON REDSKINS @ TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS â€“SAT 4:30pm ABC
What a tangled web the rush for the playoffs weaves. At one point this season, it looked as if the Redskins would not even sniff the postseason while the Bucs would be happy just to get a wild card berth. Instead, the now NFC South champion Bucs find themselves hosting a resurgent Skins team. The wild card in this game will be Chris Simmsâ€™ ability to effectively manage this offense against a defense that has not surrendered more than 20 points since week 12. Meanwhile Mark Brunell, no stranger to the playoffs himself, faces one of the best defenses in the league after being beaten during the twilight of the regular season. For Washington to win, they cannot become a one dimensional team, something that plagued them throughout the regular season. While Tampa Bay has the confidence that their defense can keep them in any game, it will be up to an inconsistent Chris Simms and the offense to build a lead early enough for the defense to defend. In the end, while both sides match up somewhat evenly, my gut tells me that the Buccaneers pull this one out.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS @ NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS â€“ SAT 8PM ABC
Somewhere amidst the crying, whining and complaining done by Brady and Dillon in the past week, is a football game waiting to be played. While they wonâ€™t admit it, Belichick and his team are probably happy to have avoided Pittsburgh in the first round. Instead of Pittsburgh, the Pats face a Jaguars squad who will be led by Byron Leftwich, back from injury for his first start in over a month. Regardless of whether itâ€™s Leftwich or Gerrard behind center, the Pats would be foolish to overlook this team whose 6th ranked defense is capable of keeping them in the game. When the Jaguars have the ball, theyâ€™ll have to establish the running game against a tough Patriots front 7 who will out for blood after spending most of the season out with injuries. When the Patriots get the ball, expect Tom Brady to lead a passing attack to make up for an inconsistent running game led by injury prone Corey Dillon. While they may make a valiant stand, I just canâ€™t see the Jags pulling this one out. Iâ€™ll take the Pats.
CAROLINA PANTHERS @ NEW YORK GIANTS â€“ SUN 1PM FOX
When almost every national sportswriter was predicting Carolina as a shoe-in as the NFCâ€™s representative in the Super Bowl weeks ago, do you think they even considered this: an away game for Carolina at NY? After spending the first Â¾ of the regular season in the NFC South driverâ€™s seat, the Panthers hit the skids and are lucky to be in the postseason at this point. As for the Panthers offense, donâ€™t be fooled by their recent trouncing of the Atlanta Falcons. DeShaun Foster is a major question mark at this point and in my mind heâ€™s key to a Panthers win. If Foster doesnâ€™t play and the game is placed in Delhommeâ€™s hands, this offense will have their hands full against what will be an all out attack by Strahan and Umenyiora. While Carolinaâ€™s top 5 defense is not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination, Manning and Barber provide a lethal and well balanced attack that the Panthers will have trouble containing if they allow either one to get into full rhythm. Although this one is a complete tossup, Iâ€™ll go with the Panthers to get the road win.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS @ CINCINNATI BENGALS â€“ SUN 4:30PM CBS
Havenâ€™t seen a playoff game in which the division champion and home team is an underdog? Look no further then this match up, pitting two hated divisional rivals against each other for the right to move on. After a trying November, the Steelers have reestablished their bruising running game and Ben Roethlisberger has managed to come back from injury and get the train back on its track. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati train is anything but back on track after a series of games in which everyone, including yours truly, began wondering if the Bengals defense is really capable of stopping anything. Over the past 7 games, the Bengals Defense has roughly given up an average of 350+ yards and 30 points a game and during that 7 game span they lost the final two. Those performances are hardly inspiring as the Bengals enter into their first playoff game since 1990. The Bengals are going to need to be flawless on offense and it would be in Carson Palmerâ€™s best interest to score early and often if theyâ€™re going to win this game. With Pittsburghâ€™s punishing running game back and suspect defensive efforts, the Bengalsâ€™ chance to advance hinge solely on the backs of the offense. The Bengals say they feel insulted by being the underdog and want the respect that comes with being division champions, but as successful as this season has been for them, I donâ€™t see the respect coming after this game is over. 6th seeded Pittsburgh pulls the â€˜upsetâ€™ and beats the 3rd seeded Bengals in the jungle.