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January 30, 2008

New York Giants (10-6) at Tampa Bay (9-7)

January 3, 2008

New York Giants Defense
8th Ranked against the Run
11th Ranked against the Pass
New York Giants Offense
4th Ranked in Rushing
21st Ranked in Passing

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense
17th Ranked against the Run
1st Ranked against the Pass
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offense
11th Ranked in Rushing
16th Ranked in Passing

The Giants have played the Buccaneers sixteen times in the regular season and have won ten of those contests, nine of them by seven points or less. But although New York has never met Tampa Bay in the playoffs, they are well acquainted with Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia in post season games. Over the last six years the Giants have made it to the post season four times on a wild card berth including their entry as the fifth seed this year. And of their three previous wild card games, Garcia was the opposing quarterback in two of them.

In 2002 Garcia and a brash young wide receiver named Terrell Owens led the 49ers back from 38-14 deficit late in the third quarter to beat the Giants 39-38 in the second greatest comeback in pro football playoff history. It was a game marked by controversy after which the NFL’s director of officiating Mike Pereira made a rare public statement that a blown call by the officials with no time left on the clock wrongfully deprived the Giants of a shot at a game winning field goal. San Francisco went on to lose their divisional playoff game to Tampa Bay by a 24 point margin.

In 2006, after struggling just to reach a 5-5 record the Eagles lost their five time pro-bowl quarterback to a season ending knee injury. A journeyman backup quarterback came in to pick up the pieces and won four of his next five games including huge wins in three consecutive weeks against their division rivals the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys, to bring the Eagles an NFC East championship. The veteran quarterback continued on to beat the Giants in the first NFC wild card game, which ended after he pulled the Eagles into position to score a game winning field goal with no time left on the clock. His name was Jeff Garcia.

Now for the third time, the Giants will face Jeff Garcia in a wild card game against a team which Garcia has led to a division title. New York comes into this game with a 10-6 record, the same mark they owned when they squared off against Garcia and the 49ers in 2002, the only other wild card game in which Garcia came in having started every game for his team. But Garcia may not have as much momentum as he did when he faced the Giants as the Eagles quarterback last year. At 9-7 his Bucs have the worst record of any division champion in the conference and they are coming into the playoffs on a two game skid.

Momentum is something the Giants have in abundance however. Even though they lost their season finale 38-35 to the undefeated Patriots they showed the league and themselves that they have a lot of guts and determination. New England had to claw their way back from the greatest deficit they had faced at any time during the entire season, and but for a few mistakes the Giants know they could have knocked Goliath out; that will give them a huge dose of confidence going into the playoffs. If New York’s defense can play with the same intensity as they showed against New England and if Giants running back Brandon Jacobs can take time off the clock by pounding out some good yardage on the ground then the Giants ought to able to make the third time the charm and break the Garcia spell finally.

NFL Football Week 18 – The Golden Age of Passing

January 2, 2008

NFL; In the new millennium the quarterback position has become the most coveted of all destinations in pro football. Where the focus of the game once lay squarely on a teams ability to run the football today’s fans are enthralled by the pass instead. Surrounded by bruising offensive linemen and protected in a soft cottony web of regulations and penalties designed to keep them safe and sound, the new generation of quarterbacks are truly an elite breed. The exalted Heisman trophy, once the domain of fullbacks and halfbacks, and the literal embodiment of which has been a trophy of a stiff armed runner, has been given to an NCAA passer in seven of the last eight years.

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Jacksonville (11-5) at Pittsburgh (10-6)

January 1, 2008

Jacksonville Jaguars Defense
11th Ranked against the Run
15th Ranked against the Pass
Jacksonville Jaguars Offense
2nd Ranked in Rushing
17th Ranked in Passing

Pittsburgh Steelers Defense
3rd Ranked against the Run
3rd Ranked against the Pass
Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
3rd Ranked in Rushing
22nd Ranked in Passing

In one of two AFC wild card games that are rematches of late regular season contests, Jacksonville will come to Pittsburgh for the first round of playoffs this Saturday. Unlike the Titans meeting with San Diego on Sunday however, the Steelers – Jaguars game really is a virtual repeat of their previous meeting since it takes place on Pittsburgh’s home turf again. Jacksonville came away with the victory in Week 15 on a messy playing field after the Steelers had tied the game late in the fourth quarter.

No opponent has ever beaten the Steelers at home in the post season as well as in a home regular season game in the same year during Pittsburgh’s entire 75 year history. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Jacksonville has not had much respect for Pittsburgh traditions. The Jaguars win three weeks ago broke a seven game home winning streak by the Steelers, and Jags running back Fred Taylor rushed for 147 yards; previous to that the Pittsburgh defense had not allowed any single player to rush for over 100 yards against them in more than three years.

One would fully expect that whatever happened the last time these two met that allowed the Jaguars to run for better than 200 yards on the number one ranked defense in the NFL will have been corrected if it’s possible to do so. What the Steelers will probably be concerned about is whether the problem presented by Jacksonville’s offense is one that can even be solved. It may well be that the Jaguars simply have a big, physical offensive front who are powerful enough to push the Pittsburgh front seven out of the way to make room for the ground attack and that they have enough endurance to keep doing it for the entire game.

What was made clear during their last visit is that the Jaguars aren’t put off by the kind of miserable weather that is often present in the Steelers home venue. Since Pittsburgh apparently won’t have any advantage in case of cold rainy conditions it will probably be better for the Steelers if the conditions are dry even if the temperature drops well below the 62 degree average that Jacksonville is used to playing in.

The reason for that is that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will probably have to throw the ball a lot against the Jaguars. Willie Parker, the fourth ranked rusher in the NFL is out for the season with a broken leg sustained in the Steelers Week 16 win over the Rams. Pittsburgh backup running back Najeh Davenport filled in nicely to finish that game but whether Davenport can have the same success against a better Jaguars run defense remains to be seen.

Another problem the Steelers need to correct, especially if they plan to attack Jacksonville’s somewhat vulnerable secondary, is the breakdown of the Pittsburgh offensive line under the pressure of the Jaguars pass rush. Roethlisberger was sacked five times by Jacksonville last time they played, while the Steelers didn’t drop Jags QB David Garrard for a loss even once.

This one is there for Pittsburgh to win or lose, but Ben will likely need to hook up with wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes and with tight end Heath Miller for some touchdowns. If the Steelers defense, which has been slumbering over the last several games lives up to it’s reputation and comes alive again in the playoffs, and if the front four can open some gaps for Davenport and can protect Roethlisberger then Pittsburgh could outscore the Jaguars.

Tennessee (9-6) at Indianapolis (13-2)

January 1, 2008

Tennessee Titans Defense
6th Ranked against the Run
11th Ranked against the Pass
Tennessee Titans Offense
5th Ranked in Rushing
27th Ranked in Passing

Indianapolis Colts Defense
17th Ranked against the Run
1st Ranked against the Pass
Indianapolis Colts Offense
16th Ranked in Rushing
5th Ranked in Passing

“This is a playoff game for us, and that’s how we have to play,” says Titans running back LenDale White. True enough, since a loss would make it their last game of the season and give Cleveland the sixth seed and a wild card berth in the playoffs. How difficult a task it will be for Tennessee is anyone’s guess at this point however because the game is certainly not a playoff game or even anything close to it for the Colts. Because of that, Indianapolis will likely be giving some of their better players a lot more time on the sideline than they otherwise would expect to get.

The most obvious candidates for down time are quarterback Peyton Manning who is still very healthy and star wide receiver Marvin Harrison who is just this week beginning to feel strong enough to play. “I think we make a big mistake by thinking we’re going to go in there and beat up on some backups,” according to Titans defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is one of the league leaders with twelve sacks this season. “Indy’s the defending world champs. That says a lot about their depth. They’ve been banged up for a good part of the year, playing with some backup guys.”

One could guess that the Colts having a number one rated pass defense is simply a function of the fact that they have less work to do because their opponents are concentrating on running the football instead. There may be a bit of truth to that however slight, but a few things make that analysis somewhat less solid. For one thing the Colts defense are among the league leaders in keeping others out of the end zone. That usually doesn’t happen to a team that can’t stop the run because red zone incursions by the opposing offense most often end in a touchdown. The second chink in that theory is that the Colts are tied for second in the league with 22 interceptions this year, and they have run back those pickoffs for more yardage than only three other teams in the NFL.

The topic of the Colts run defense holds a great deal of interest for the Titans because Tennessee desperately needs to have success running the football if they hope to get past Indianapolis. Titans quarterback Vince Young has thrown only 9 touchdowns this year, fewer than any other starting quarterback in the league who has played at least thirteen games. At the same time he has been picked off 17 times, and while some other QB’s in the league have been intercepted more, they have also thrown a lot more touchdowns and don’t have a ratio of TD’s to INT’s anywhere near as poor as Young’s.

Luckily for Tennessee they haven’t depended on having an all-pro passer for their recent success. They have won their last two games with a solid running attack and a stiff defense. Behind both White and Young they have picked up no less than 127 yards rushing in every one of their four most recent games, and they have held opposing offenses to about 16 points per game. Tennessee is no slouch at pass defense either – they are the team that the Colts are tied with for second place in interceptions this season, and the Titans have been +6 in the turnover category during the aforementioned four game period.

Although Tennessee hasn’t won in Indianapolis since 2002 they have consistently given the Colts problems whenever the two have played. Without key starters on the field for Indy the Titans should have a decent chance to overcome the advantage that the Colts would normally hold and boost themselves into the playoffs.