Steelers, Falcons, Eagles, Pats will prevail

STEVE COAD -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

N.Y. Jets (11-6) at Pittsburgh (15-1)

The line: Steelers by 9

The skinny: Tomorrow, 4:30 p.m. (CBS) AFC divisional playoff. The Steelers may not be in a hurry to name a starting running back but you know their backfield is big enough for both Jerome Bettis, who piled up 941 yards this season, and Duce Staley, who had another 830. The pair shared playing time and glory this season, but only after Staley, a major offseason acquisition from Philly, injured a hamstring at the end of October. All told, The Bus had six 100-yard games while Staley had four. In the Steelers' 17-6 victory over the Jets on Dec. 12, Staley was lifted after managing just 51 yards on 16 carries. Thereafter, Bettis drove through the Jets for 57 yards on 10 carries. Actually, Staley's 51 yards that day were his highest total over the second half of the season. If the Jets are to have a chance -- and I think they do because QB Chad Pennington is healthy other than a tummy upset this week -- Curtis Martin needs to fare a lot better than he did last time out vs. the Steelers. Martin, the NFL's leading rusher this season with 1,697 yards and 371 carries, managed just 72 yards on 24 carries in their mid-December meeting. The Jets are 2-4 this season when Martin gains fewer than 90 yards. Pittsburgh's greeting committee for Martin? Merely Joey Porter and James Farrior, a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers. The Steelers couldn't even lose while resting their stars, Ben Roethlisberger & Co., on the final day of the regular season when the game meant everything to the Buffalo Bills.

Cody's call: Steelers 24-17

St. Louis (9-8) at Atlanta (11-5)

The line: Falcons by 7

The skinny: Tomorrow, 8: 15 p.m. (Fox). NFC divisional playoff. Mike Vick, as exciting as any player in the NFL today, deserves all the credit he gets. But there should be plaudits aplenty left over for Atlanta's smashing defensive front four that went from laughingstock -- 6,108 yards surrendered last season -- to industry pillar with their NFL-high 48 sacks this campaign. Overall, on D the Falcons sit eighth vs. the run. Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has 13 sacks this season, is the frontman of the Falcons' front four but he's no one-man show. Remember these names as you're watching: tackles Rod Coleman, who has 11 1/2 sacks and forced a Falcon-high five fumbles, and Ed Jasper; and defensive end Brady Smith, who has six tackles and three forced fumbles. By the way, the Falcons defensive co-ordinator is Ed Donatell, who has clearly landed on his feet after taking the fall for the Green Bay Packers defensive foibles last season (like the Packers were better on D this season, but that's a whole different column). When these teams met in September, a 34-17 Falcons' victory, Vick ran for 109 yards and passed for another 179. Vick finished the season with 902 yards. Only 22 running backs had more, including Atlanta's Warrick Dunn, who gained 1,106 on the way to his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. Overall, the Falcons are No. 1 on the run. The Rams' maligned defence is 29th vs. the run. The Rams were sacked 50 times this season and their minus-24 turnover differential was fifth-worst in the league. While it didn't work that well in last weekend's wild card games, home field and defence should win.

Cody's call: Falcons 30-20

Minnesota (9-8) at Philadelphia (13-3)

The line: Eagles by 9

The skinny: Sunday, 1 p.m. (Fox). NFC divisional playoff. For all of Donovan McNabb's bravado this week, I'm uneasy about the Eagles. Since beating Dallas 12-7 on Dec. 19 and wrapping up home-field advantage throughout the NFL playoffs, the Eagles have rested their top guns in tanking games against St. Louis and Cincinnati. That's not exactly true: The Eagles' biggest star, wide receiver Terrell Owens is injured (sprained ankle in the Dallas game), not resting, and may be done for the season. In other words, the Eagles go into this weekend without momentum and without a win since Owens' injury. The question begs: Can the Eagles win without Owens? After all, T.O. had 1,200 receiving yards during the regular season, nearly a third of McNabb's 3,559 passing yards. He also snagged 14 of the Eagles' 32 TD passes. On Sunday, the Philly wideouts will be Todd Pinkston (676 receiving yards) and Freddie Mitchell (377). With Owens missing as a deep threat, Associated Press football writer David Mordkoff thinks the Vikings' defence will be able to crowd the line of scrimmage, making it difficult for McNabb to run and somewhat nullifying running back/slot Brian Westbrook, who is the Vikings' leading rusher and second-leading receiver. Minnesota's defence is improved -- ask the Packers -- especially with the return of corner Antoine Winfield but it's still ranked 28th overall, 21st against the run and 27th vs. the pass. Hopefully for the Eagles, when they hit the switch Sunday, their game light will come on.

Cody's call: Eagles 23-21

Indianapolis (13-4) at New England (14-2)

The line: Patriots by 2

The skinny: Sunday, 4:45 p.m. (CBS). AFC divisional playoff. Sparks flew early this week when Colts place-kicker Mike Vanderjagt, a shoot-from-the-lip guy from Oakville, was quoted as saying the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots were "ripe for the picking." The Patriots fired back, none more directly than safety Rodney Harrison, who called the kicker "Vanderjerk." Harrison added that Vanderjagt should concentrate on booting, not talking, an obvious reference to Vandejagt's missed 48-yard field-goal try with 24 seconds left that would have forced overtime in Indy's 27-24 season-opening loss Sept. 9 at Foxboro. In fairness to Vanderjagt, he had made an NFL-record 42 in a row prior to that misfire. Meanwhile, the Colts have some scary figures to ponder, although I doubt they'll waste much time at it. The temperature in Foxboro Sunday will range from a high of zero to a low of minus-9 with a 20-per-cent chance of participation. Since 1993, the Pats are 20-2 when the weather dips below plus-2. And they're 10-0 when the mercury falls below freezing. It was snowy and just below zero last season when Peyton Manning tossed four interceptions (among five Colts turnovers) in Indy's 24-14 loss to the Patriots in the AFC final. A lot of people think this is the Colts' time to take revenge. Manning, last year's co-MVP, has been even more brilliant this season. The Pats' secondary has been stung by the injury bug. Star corners Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are out. But if any team in the NFL can adjust, it's Bill Belichick's Patriots. New England has won 19 straight at home.

Cody's call: Patriots 23-20

Playoff record Straight up Last week: 1-3. Overall: 1-3

Spread Last week: 3-1. Overall: 3-1


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