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Saturday, January 15, 2005 

Divisional Weekend

This is always the best weekend of NFL football, as the top 4 teams are back in action after the bye week. It's always a good idea not to get blinded by what last week's winners accomplished, since the bye teams historically have a great record in the Divisional Playoff round. It's also a week of mixed emotions, since there are only 3 more games left after this weekend. Unless you are a baseball fan (which I am) your sports offseason is right around the corner.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh
Saturday 4:30PM EST CBS

I'm sure Bill Cowher has pointed out to his team that CBS wanted the Indy-NE game in their "prime time" slot on Sunday afternoon. It is incredible to me that most folks are picking the Steelers to win this game going away, but then expecting them to lose next week. Pittsburgh is 15-1, with 14 straight wins, and an undefeated rookie QB. They have already beaten the Jets, Patriots, and Eagles, and their defense gave up the fewest points of any team in the league:

Pittsburgh 251
New England 260
Philadelphia 260
NY Jets 261

When these two teams last met on December 12, it was a defensive battle. The game was 3-3 entering the fourth quarter, when Jerome Bettis threw for a TD and ran for another as Pittsburgh pulled away for a 17-6 win. Ben Roethlisberger had a bad game (9-19-2-144) but the Steeler defense held Chad Pennington to similar stats (17-31-3-189) and three INTs. I expect another low scoring game, with Pittsburgh content to ground it out on the ground as they have all season, and advance to the AFC title game.

St. Louis at Atlanta
Saturday 8PM EST FOX

Meanwhile, this game should be a shootout. Atlanta won their only meeting this season back in week 2 34-17, but that was a long time ago. I'm still amazed the Rams made the playoffs despite allowing 73 more points than they scored (319-392), but the Falcons finished 11-5 when their point differential was +3: 340-337. Marc Bulger showed last week that he can move the Rams offense, but their defense nearly gave it away at the end, and survived only because of (yet another) dropped ball. This game looks wide open, with plenty of big plays and mistakes possible on the turf. But in a sense, this game will be anti-climatic if Philadelphia wins on Sunday; there is no way either of these teams can compete against the Eagles defense.

Minnesota at Philadelphia
Sunday 1PM EST FOX

On the surface, this game looks like a battle of two star QBs, Donovan McNabb and Duante Culpepper. Both teams have injured star WRs, though Terrell Owens is out and Randy Moss will likely play. The difference is on defense, where Philadelphia has been terrific while Minnesota has been porous at best. But can Philadelphia exploit this without Owens? The Eagles have had trouble scoring at times, and while the last few weeks are misleading because they clinched home field so early, they did lose their last two games and were hardly impressive against the Redskins (17-14) or Cowboys (12-7) the previous two weeks - even before Owens got hurt in the third quarter of the Dallas game. Over their last 4 games (1.5 with Owens, 2.5 without), they scored just 46 points while allowing 79. These flaws may doom the Eagles chances eventually, but they should win this game.

Indianapolis at New England
Sunday 4:30PM EST CBS

This game has been over-analyzed so much here in New England that it is tough to come up with anything new and insightful to say. As I wrote earlier, I completely disagree with the notion that the Steelers have no chance against the winner of this game - though I suspect they would prefer to play the Colts defense. The Patriots offense is being underrated, while their defense, which has been hurt all year, has somehow managed to give up the 2nd fewest points in the NFL. But you do get the sense that maybe the Colts are due, almost like the late 1980s in the NBA, when Detroit finally defeated Boston, and later, when Chicago dethroned Detroit. Peyton Manning has had his finest season, and the Colts defense is better, but still below average. The messy track might slow down the Colts receivers, but the temperatures look to be around freezing, which is average for this time of year.

One factor I haven't heard much about is Corey Dillion's fumble problems. What if the Patriots get the ball first, drive down the field, and Dillion drops it inside the 5? The Patriots have taken advantage of similar Colts mistakes in the past, or, depending on your point of view, forced similar Colts mistakes. Turnovers will play a big role again, since these teams are evenly matched overall due to the injuries to the Patriots secondary. If this game becomes a shootout, I like the Colts chances. The Patriots definitely need to stretch the field against their defense, but also need ball control to keep Manning off the field. I hope it works.

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