Let the real season begin

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

One team was taking care of business, the other was flirting with monkey business.

The end result for these two anyway was that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals will meet for the third time this season when the NFL playoffs begin next weekend.

The Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins all controlled their own fates yesterday and responded with wins to secure tickets to the post-season.

The Bengals, meanwhile, stunk out the joint in a game that still had some meaning, losing a 37-3 blowout on the road to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bengals-Steelers matchup on Sunday is arguably the most intriguing of the four wild-card pairings as the journey to Super Bowl XL begins. The Bengals have a home game for their first trip to the post-season since 1990, but have to be getting nervous.

They clearly were less than motivated, even though the AFC's third seed was possible, allowing Chiefs running back Larry Johnson a joyride of 201 yards and three touchdowns.

And that's where the Bengals have to get worried. The Steelers are stuffing it down opponents throats on the ground and Cincinnati has surrendered an average of 31 points in its past five games.

In a game they had to win, the Steelers never let up on a Detroit Lions team that was up for a fight, winning 35-21 on the strength of three Jerome Bettis touchdown runs.

The Steelers were the only road team to be favoured when opening wild-card odds were released, pegged as three-point picks. If the Bus rolls like that when the division rivals meet, the rubber match could be over in a hurry.

Other snapshots of a final Sunday that was generally low on both intrigue and meaningful surprises:

- You get the feeling the Patriots had the perfect prep for the playoffs with their 28-26 loss to the Dolphins.

They rested key starters but played hard to keep momentum on a late-season run. They also secured arguably the easiest wild-card opponent in the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Even better, the Patriots were assigned an 8 p.m. start Saturday and oddsmakers made them 7 1/2-point favourites. No team in the league is more accustomed to playing in prime time and a helping of New England winter wouldn't hurt as the quest for a third consecutive title begins.

- The Bucs were all business, wrapping up the NFC South with a 27-13 decision over New Orleans, finishing off a last-to -first season. Up next is a home date with the Redskins, who put a dagger to the Dallas Cowboys' hearts with their 31-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

That matchup gets the prize as the defensive feature of the weekend. The pounding takes place Saturday in Tampa where the Bucs opened as the 2 1/2-point choice.

- Carolina knew it had to win to get in, but imagine the Panthers' surprise when their opponents took a knee.

Yes, the Atlanta Falcons should be ashamed of their performance in a 44-11 home loss against a supposed division rival.

The Panthers, who are three-point underdogs, make for an interesting foe for the host Giants in their Sunday wild-card contest. The defence is capable of giving Eli Manning a rough ride in what will be his NFL playoff debut and the running game, led by DeShaun Foster, will be a tough test.

- Atlanta had some company in mailing it in -- notably from Tennessee, Chicago and Cincinnati. But give the Eagles credit for making the Redskins earn the sixth and final seed in the NFC. As agonizing as the Redskins win was for Cowboys fans, they can't fault the Eagles, who fought to the bitter end.


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