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Week 18: Wild Card Weekend Picks

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Used to be you could almost guarantee three home teams would win and one would lose on Wild Card weekend. That was before the four-division configuration. This change, in general, means there is one fairly weak division winner and two relatively strong wild card teams. In some cases, a team might miss out on a wild card to a team winning a division with a worse record.

Since the advent of the six-team playoff system in 1990, home teams were 4-0 in 2000, 2-2 in 1991 and 1992; otherwise, 3-1. That's 11 years of 3-1.

Used to be you could almost guarantee three home teams would win and one would lose on Wild Card weekend. That was before the four-division configuration. This change, in general, means there is one fairly weak division winner and two relatively strong wild card teams. In some cases, a team might miss out on a wild card to a team winning a division with a worse record.

Since the advent of the six-team playoff system in 1990, home teams were 4-0 in 2000, 2-2 in 1991 and 1992; otherwise, 3-1. That's 11 years of 3-1.

Last year, three road teams (the New York Jets, the St. Louis Rams and the Minnesota Vikings) beat three home teams (the San Diego Chargers, the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers) for the first time.

What do I see this time of year?
Upsets! Upsets everywhere!

Saturday, Jan. 7

Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4:30 p.m., ABC
This is a rematch of one of the season's great games. On Nov. 13 during Week 10, Tampa Bay drew within a point of Washington, 35-34, with 0:58 left in the game. On the extra point try, Washington blocked the kick, but was penalized for offsides. Tampa went for two, and Mike Alstott blasted the ball over the goal line for the win, 36-35. Going into that game, both teams were 5-3. It made the difference between who travels where today. Don't think Washington has forgotten that game. The `Skins shut down Bucs running back Carnell Williams and scored the most points Tampa gave up all season. Tampa also scored the most they scored all season. I think Washington is hungry, wants revenge and has a coach in Joe Gibbs that's 100 times better that Tampa's Jon Gruden. Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis will put on another show in case the people in Tampa missed it last time. Chris Simms will show that he still has a lot of growing up to do in this league.
Prediction: Redskins, 31-17.

Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6), 8 p.m., ABC
The cold is a factor, no matter who denies it. What's strange is that both defenses are playing well, and both give up a lot of points tonight. Byron Leftwich goes deep a few times, but Jacksonville can't get a ground game going. Tom Brady steps out of oncoming pressure time and time again to find the open man. Several more 6- to 8-minute drives later, and the two-time defending Super Bowl champs advance to the next round.
Prediction: Patriots, 34-24.

Sunday, Jan. 8

Carolina (11-5) at N.Y. Giants (11-5), 1 p.m., FOX
New York plays extremely well at home (8-1) ? they ?ve had nine home games and the benefit of just about every call In every game ? but Carolina is one of the league?s best road teams (6-2). New York is a little banged up on defense from the offense?s left side point-of-view. Look for Carolina to try to exploit that area, even though DeShaun Foster and Steven Davis are both banged up themselves. Carolina needs to confine Tiki Barber ? you can?t stop him, you just prevent him from wreaking havoc. Otherwise, quarterback Eli Manning ? really the rest of the Giants -- is prone to making mistakes. Tight end Jeremy Shockey is probable with an ankle and horribly overrated. But receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer are dangerous in their own right. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme actually has the edge in playoff experience, Steve Smith is a deadly target. The story of this game will be how teams protect the ball --- fewer turnovers and penalties wins the game.
Prediction: Panthers, 24-21.

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5), 4:30 p.m., CBS
I?m going to stick with what I wrote a couple weeks ago about momentum, which Phil Simms said was overrated. Neither of these teams has any significant injuries. They have completely different game plans. Pittsburgh wants to grind it out on the ground, controlling the clock, punishing the opposition on both sides of the ball. Cincinnati is like a fast-breaking basketball team. Move the ball quickly with a few deep passes, mixing in some run and short passes. Defensively, they try not to give up a flood of points. Here is where we find, once again, that while Cincinnati has a far superior quarterback, defense still wins in the playoffs. The Steelers are actually better on the road (6-2) than Cincinnati is at home (5-3). Cincinnati has beaten Pittsburgh twice this season, 38-31 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, and 27-13 in Cincinnati on Oct. 23.
Prediction, Steelers, 30-20.