Intriguing underdogs

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

This much we know after the first week of NFL playoffs: Vegas oddsmakers are standing firm with their plan to make the AFC representative a 12-point Super Bowl favourite.

That opinion is based primarily on the theory of New England and Dallas earning their spot in Phoenix the first Sunday of February.

If the theory becomes fact, it will make for a long, pre-Bowl weeks of obsessing over the Patriots, of course. But it also offers strong incentive to pay attention to the present.

Following a wild-card weekend that exceeded expectations in terms of quality, the divisional round should take that up a notch with at least three intriguing underdogs.

There will be enough focus on the Patriots, who shouldn't have much trouble with the Jacksonville Jaguars in Saturday night's prime-time contest at Foxborough.

The Pats have been the story since Week 9 when the watch for a perfect season unofficially began. It's difficult to fathom what could possibly be left to say about them in four weeks.

The Jags were full measure for a strong effort on Saturday night in Pittsburgh but don't get carried away in thinking they have a chance in New England.

The Steelers were a mediocre opponent who couldn't match up physically yet they still almost pulled off a stunning comeback.

As tough as the Jags can be, they won't push around the Patriots like they did the Steelers. Other than his 32-yard run for the first down to set up the winning field goal, quarterback David Garrard struggled on Saturday night.

That makes him the type of fresh meat New England coach Bill Belichick likes to feed to his defence, a big reason why the Jags opened as 11-point underdogs, a number that is likely to climb higher.

The other AFC match of divisional weekend is flying under the radar but it may be the best of the four this weekend.

It has been easy to forget that the Indianapolis Colts are the reigning champs and as such, the last team to beat New England in last year's AFC championship.

Before they get another shot, though, the Colts will have to put back the San Diego Chargers, a team that may be the most dangerous to come out of the wild-card round.

Granted they were weak in the first half of yesterday's 17-6 win over the Tennessee Titans, probably the biggest reason they opened as 81/2-point underdogs last night.

But when LaDainian Tomlinson is allowed to run, the opposition has a handful.

In a Week 10 meeting in San Diego, the Chargers squeaked out a 23-21 victory. And don't forget 2005 when San Diego marched into Indy and spoiled the Colts bid for an undefeated season.

Both of the NFC contests have upset potential, especially if you buy into the theory that both Dallas and Green Bay are overrated.

First the Cowboys, who are early 71/2-point picks over their NFC East rival New York Giants. The Giants made surprisingly easy work of Tampa Bay yesterday a week after pushing the Patriots to the brink in the regular-season finale.

In those two games, the G-man have seen huge maturation of quarterback Eli Manning. Through his first 15 games this season, Manning coughed up 27 turnovers (20 interceptions and seven lost fumbles.)

In his past two, Manning has turned it over just once while throwing six touchdown passes.

Meanwhile, the Giants pass rush made life miserable for Tom Brady and Jeff Garcia in back-to-back weeks and will give Tony Romo all he can handle in Dallas.

At 81/2 points, the Packers are even bigger favourites over the Seattle Seahawks who looked solid in knocking off the Washington Redskins on Saturday, especially on defence.


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