Road to Super Bowl XLII : Wildcard Round
Now the REAL fun starts! Every game matters. Lose, and your season is over. Win, and you move on. The last team standing holds up the Lombardi Trophy! THIS is what it's all about! Are you sick of the clichés yet? I am. Let's move on...
Saturday, 05 January
Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks - 4:30 p.m. (E.S.T.) - NBC
The Redskins finished their regular season with a 27-6 win over the Cowboys, which secured their Wildcard spot in the playoffs. While competitive for most of the year, the Redskins had a mediocre record until several weeks ago. They had a tendency to hang in against tough opponents, and barely lose close games at the end. Some point to the death of Shawn Taylor as the turning point in the Redskins season. While playing for their fallen teammate has provided inspiration, it's not the source of improvement. The actual turning point seems to have been Todd Collins taking over as the starting QB. He appears to have infused the offense with veteran leadership and confidence. The defense, which has been tough all season, has been reinvigorated by the improved offensive production. The Redskins have less playoff experience than the Seahawks, but head coach Joe Gibbs has hoisted a couple of Lombardi Trophies in his career. He will have his team prepared to play in a hostile road environment
The Seahawks finished their regular season with a 44-41 loss to the Falcons. They arrive in the playoffs as winners of the NFC West division title. Superstar running back Shaun Alexander has faded significantly this season. In recent weeks, the Seahawks finally seemed to accept that handing off repeatedly to him would not win them many games. As a result, QB Matt Hasselbeck has been spreading the ball around more generously. The Seahawks have considerable defensive talent, but have suffered from season-long inconsistency. This team appeared in Super Bowl XL, just two years ago. Their playoff experience ensures that they will be prepared for this game. And rest assured, playing at home is a significant advantage for the Seahawks. Seattle fans are football-savvy. They know when and how to cause noise problems for opposing teams, and take pride in their "12th Man" reputation.
The logical indicators seem to favor the Seahawks... but I'm not convinced. They haven't been dominant, or even especially tough, all season. The Redskins are peaking at the right time. They have earned a few tough, necessary wins in recent weeks. Their momentum is too much to ignore, in the post-season. RESDKINS WIN.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers - 8:00 p.m. (E.S.T.) - NBC
The Jaguars rested most of their starters in their season finale, versus the Texans, and lost 42-28. They enter the playoffs as the top Wildcard entry. The Jags post-Byron Leftwich era got off to a shaky start under QB David Garrard, and struggled early in the season. By mid-season they were picking up momentum and finding a new identity. At season's end, they are now the team that no one is eager to play. Originally, the Jaguars entered the league in the former AFC Central division. They were originally built to face the division-leading Steelers twice each year each. After moving to the AFC South during realignment, they underwent some renovation to better compete with the Colts and Titans. Often dismissed as a soft "southern" team that couldn't compete with more physical northern teams in the winter playoff weather, this year's version of the Jags is a big, physical hybrid with an attitude. They are built for power running with under-rated star Fred Taylor and fireplug Maurice Jones-Drew. Their recieving corps is stocked with sturdy tight-end-sized receivers. They have a run-suffocating defense with a BIG physical front 4, and feisty DBs. Led by former LB-turned coach Jack Del Rio, these Jags don't just come to play... they come to make sure the opposition remembers who they played... a full week later.
The Steelers lost their season-ending rematch with the Ravens 27-21, while resting a fair number of their starters. Following the resignation of longtime head coach Bill Cowher after last season, they have struggled through thier own indentity search this season under new head coach Mike Tomlin. Long considered a run-first, ball control offense, the Steelers have shown flashes of offensive explosiveness this season. QB Ben Roethlisberger is big, mobile, and agile... attributes he has needed behind this season's shaky offensive line. His decision-making has been better, and he remains one of the NFLs most dangerous broken-play innovators. The defense showed traditional run-stuffing dominance early in the season, along with their historic QB-harassing ability. At season end, however, the Steelers D was showing serious cracks and was being gouged repeatedly. Amid a steady trickle of season ending injuries, including league-leading RB Willie Parker and standout DE Aaron Smith, the Steelers essentially staggered into the playoffs.
These two teams met just 3 weeks ago, in Pittsburgh... and the Jags handed the Steelers their only home loss of the season, 29-22. Regardless, playing at Heinz Field remains a tremendous advantage for the Steelers. The much-maligned field conditions play to the Steelers' favor, and Steelers fans are among the league's most rabid and knowledgeable. They'll cause as many noise problems as possible for the visiting Jags. Not to mention, this Steelers' player roster is largely intact from its Super Bowl XL win, just 2 years ago. What these Jags lack in experience, they make up for in toughness and desire. This is no stagger-into-the-playoffs wildcard team. If not for the Colts, they could be division champs with a #2 seed. They know the Steelers, and have been a thorn in their sides since their innagural season. The Jags were built to play this game, against this team, at this time of year. Regardless of the outcome... this will be a GREAT game. But Pix are about the outcome, aren't they? Old age and treachery overcome youthful exuberance. STEELERS WIN