Wild NFL playoff ride on tap

STEVE COAD -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

Happy wild-card weekend, fellow NFL junkies.

Yes, the postseason is upon us. The field of 32 teams, all of which began the campaign with high hopes in early September, has been cut to 12 , including the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

In a column prior to the beginning of the season, I said the Philadelphia Eagles would soar and win it all, snapping the Pats' two-year hold. Of course, we all know that didn't happen. The Eagles never got off the ground, injuries and the whole Terrell Owens episode crashing their chances. (By the way, I also said things would not go smoothly this season between T.O. and the team, so I'm not a complete idiot.)

Now I'm taking another shot at it. First choice: the Seattle Seahawks, this year's sensational surprise. Failing that, the Indianapolis Colts. And failing that . . .

Really, all we know is that the champions of the AFC and NFC will meet Feb. 5 at Detroit's Ford Field. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.

Here's a look at this week's wild-card matchups:

Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5)

The line: Bucs by 2 1/2

The skinny: Tomorrow, 1 p.m. (ABC). Games don't get much better than the Nov. 13 collision between these two. The Bucs scored a touchdown just as the game moved into the final minute of regulation time, but still trailed 35-34. They could have kicked the convert for the tie, of course, but head coach Jon Gruden chose to go for two and the win. It worked. Mike Alstott, Tampa's 248-pound battering ram fullback, crashed in to secure the Bucs' 36-35 victory. This time out, the focus might well be on a different running back -- Clinton Portis of the Redskins. In that loss to the Bucs, Portis rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown, one of his five 100-yard rushing games this season. Tampa Bay's defence finished the season No. 1 overall (No. 6 against the run, No. 6 versus the pass). The Bucs surrendered just 277.8 yards a game, their biggest clunker coming against Washington (389 yards and 35 points against). The Redskins have won five straight. Interesting stat: the Redskins had 11 takeaways and 18 sacks in the first 11 games, and 17 takeaways and 17 sacks in their last five. Washington's D is ranked ninth overall.

Cody's call: Bucs 21-17

Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6)

The line: Patriots by 8

The skinny: Tomorrow, 8 p.m. (ABC). The last playoff meeting between these teams, the AFC divisional final on Jan. 3, 1999, marked the last time the Patriots lost in the postseason. Yup, the Jags won 25-10. Strangely, it's the only time Jacksonville has ever beaten New England. Job 1 for the Jags tomorrow, will be slowing down Pats quarterback Tom Brady. Brady finished the regular season with 4,110 passing yards, becoming the first Patriot to lead the loop. He set a career high, with 530 passing attempts and his 92.3 passer rating was just a touch below his career best. More important, he's 9-0 as a playoff starter and 20-1 when the temperature falls below 4 C. The Jags have won eight of their last 10 road games, but are 0-3 at Foxborough. The Jags' sixth-ranked defence allowed 290.9 passing yards a game. Their D collected 47 sacks this season (third in the NFL) and they had four players with three or more interceptions. Jacksonville is 7-3 this season with Byron Leftwich at quarterback, and 5-1 with David Garrand at the helm. Combined they've thrown just six interceptions, fewest in the NFL.

Cody's call: Patriots 23-17

Carolina (11-5) at New York Giants (11-5)

The line: Giants by 2 1/2

The skinny: Sunday, 1 p.m. (Fox). The Giants' defence is ranked 24th overall (No. 12 against the run, and an ugly 27th against the pass). Fact is, says Associated Press football writer Paul Montella, New York's D has been superb at times -- like the nearly four-game stretch in which it didn't allow a TD. But he points out there have been leaks, too, especially against the pass. Enter Steve Smith, the Panthers' smooth-as-silk wide receiver, who topped the NFL with 1,563 receiving yards and tied for first with 103 catches. He averaged 15.2 yards a snag and scored a dozen TDs. Smith is a playoff gem as well, averaging 101 receiving yards and scoring three TDs in his four playoff games. The Panthers are one of just three teams to rank in the top 10 in overall defence. They're No. 3 overall, fourth against the rush and ninth versus the pass). Giants running back Tiki Barber set a franchise record with 1,860 rushing yards, the 11th best single-season total in NFL history. In four playoff games, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has a 106.1 passer rating, including six TD tosses, one interception and 987 passing yards. Most important, his record is 3-1.

Cody's call: Giants 27-24

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5)

The line: Steelers by 3

The skinny: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. (CBS). The Steelers are consummate road warriors, going 6-2 away from their Heinz Field home this season. Included in that run was a 27-13 win over the Bengals Oct. 23 at Cinci's Paul Brown Stadium. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh is the only road team favoured to win this weekend. Besides having won four straight in Cincinnati, the Steelers have opened with a win their last seven trips to the playoffs. People would feel more comfortable about the Bengals' prospects had they not finished the season by bowing to the Bills, then being blown out by the Chiefs. For all the great things they accomplished this season, it shouldn't be forgotten the Bengals were 4-3 over the last seven games and gave up an average of 30 points a game. Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is 20-8 versus the Bengals. Still, Cinci QB Carson Palmer is having a magical season -- throwing an NFL-leading 32 TD passes and finishing second with a 101.1 passer rating. He and the Johnsons -- running back Rudi and wideout Chad -- will have to put up big numbers to save Cinci from its toothless defence. The Bengals' D is ranked 28th overall.

Cody's call: Steelers 30-21

Final regular season record

Straight up

Last week: 9-7; overall: 174-82

Spread

Last week: 6-7; overall: 126-99


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