Man, why couldn't I have been in Las Vegas last weekend? Prior to the games, I noted the difference in Wild-Card weekend since the NFL moved to a four-division setup, which allowed four division winners and two wild card team, as opposed to the previous three division winners and three wild card teams.
Back then, you could count on the division winners being strong teams and the wild cards exactly what they were named. Rare was it for wild card teams to advance past the divisional playoffs. They were simply inferior.
Now, with teams spread across four divisions, you find weaker division winners, and (sometimes) fairly powerful wild-card teams. Hence, you get more upsets and more road teams winning in the first round. Such is what we saw last weekend.
The ironic thing is the wild card team with the best record lost to the division winner with the worst record -- and that, fortunately for New England fans, was the only favored home team to win.
Saturday, January 7
Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4:30 p.m., ABC
Prior to the game, I recapped these teams' earlier matchup won by Tampa on a controversial last-minute two-point conversion. I noted that Washington had contained Tampa's running game and had to do so again. I also said that Washington would have that game in the back of their heads and that Joe Gibbs would outcoach Jon Gruden. Finally, I said Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis would shine while Chris Simms would show that he's not at the level he's been credited with.
Well, Brunell was far from stellar, but Portis did his job, and it was the Washington defense that really came through, forcing a Carnell Williams fumble (returned for a touchdown) and two Simms interceptions. One of the picks led to a Washington touchdown and the other sealed the game.
Prediction: Redskins, 31-17.
Result: Redskins, 17-10.
Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6), 8 p.m., ABC
I've written enough about this one. You can go back and read that stuff again if you want. All I'll say new is that I thought Jacksonville would be able to hit a couple deep balls and make a game out of it. In the end, they're not even comparable to the two-time defending champs. Respect, huh?
Prediction: Patriots, 34-24.
Result: Patriots, 28-3.
Sunday, January 8
Carolina (11-5) at N.Y. Giants (11-5), 1 p.m., FOX
This was the tough one. New York was 8-1 at home, having had the extra home game, and really seemed to have everything going their way. But they had several defensive injuries and in Eli Manning, like in Simms in Tampa, a quarterback not quite ready for this level of play. The key would be whether Carolina could contain Tiki Barber and force Manning into bad situations. After that, Carolina could rely on DeShaun Foster to punish the ailing New York defense and let Jake Delhomme air it out to Steve Smith and company when the opportunities arose.
Foster ended up with 151 devastating yards, and Delhomme hooked up with Smith for 84 yards and a touchdown. Smith also ran for a 12-yard score. On the other side, Carolina's defense shut down the No. 2 rusher in the league to the tune of 41 yards. Manning connected with only four different receivers, threw three interceptions and fumbled once. Now the NFL has to wait until at least next year for it's Manning vs. Manning Super Bowl.
Prediction: Panthers, 24-21.
Result: Panthers, 23-0.
Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5), 4:30 p.m., CBS
Once again, I called for defense to win, and after the demise of Carson Palmer, it was all but academic. Or was it? Cincy actually put up a good fight for a while, but Pittsburgh's defense was too overwhelming. I said Cincinnati lost too much momentum heading into the playoffs, and I think they could have survived losing Palmer (they took a 10-0 lead and were up 17-14 at the half), if they had won convincingly in the last weeks of the regular season. They forgot how to put away teams, or how to score in the second half.
Prediction: Steelers, 30-20.
Result: Steelers, 31-17.
This Weekend: 4-0. A much better start than I had to the regular season.
Overall Playoffs: 4-0. Oh, but things get much tougher from here, now that the pretenders are out of the way.