NFL Playoff Preview: Round 1

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Round Two: In September, the 49ers beat the Giants, 16-13. Can they win again?

Don't ask us to explain how we got here. By almost all accounts, this has been the strangest NFL season on record. Before the season, you could have made a lot of money — a LOT of money — by betting that the Rams would finish at 7-9. You would have been classified as clinically insane if you predicted that Tommy Maddox would be starting in the playoffs while Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady watched on TV. And forget about the odds of only one of the league's top-10 rushers (the Giants' Tiki Barber) advancing to the postseason.

But that's how it happened, along with the fight to lose home-field advantage in the NFC, which looked like it would go to the Bucs till they got killed at home in Week 16, then to the Eagles till they blew a late opportunity a week later, and then to the Packers who barely showed up in their season-finale against the Jets. In the end, home-field was awarded to the least loser, Philly.

Here's what to look for — we think — in the wild-card round this weekend...


INDIANPOLIS (10-6) at N.Y. JETS (9-7), 4:30 p.m. ET
How crazy was the last week of the NFL's regular season? At the start of their 4 p.m. ET home game against the Packers, the Jets weren't sure a win would even get them into the playoffs. Three hours later, they were AFC East champs with a postseason home game. And with Gang Green playing its best ball the only time it matters — at the end — it's been hard to find a free seat on the bandwagon. Colts QB Peyton Manning is going to the Pro Bowl again, but Jets counterpart Chad Pennington is getting most of the ink this week, after finishing the season 8-4 as a starter with 22 TDs and a miserly 4 interceptions. Manning, by comparison, threw 19 picks, but still managed one of his finest seasons, setting a club record with a 66.3 completion percentage and tossing 143 balls to Marvin Harrison, who broke the previous league reception record by 20.

X Factors: Pennington is a cool customer, but no QB is going to fare well with Colts rookie DE Dwight Freeney in his face. The 11th overall pick out of Syracuse finished second in the AFC with 13.0 sacks and forced nine fumbles.

Once considered the Marshall Faulk of the AFC, Colts RB Edgerrin James has been nagged by injuries this year before showing signs of life last week against Jacksonville. If he returns to his old form, the Colts are a much better team.

Series History: The Colts have won five of the last seven against the Jets, though New York won the only playoff game between the two franchises. Joe Namath came through with his Super Bowl III guarantee in that one.

Who's Next: The winner visits Oakland next week, unless the Browns upset the Steelers, in which case the destination is Tennessee.

Our Pick: Jets 24, Colts 17

ATLANTA (9-6-1) at GREEN BAY (12-4), 8 p.m. ET
These numbers are going to get repeated all weekend long, so we might as well get them out of the way: The Packers are 13-0 all-time in home playoff games, including 11-0 at Lambeau Field. So not many expect the Pack to lay an egg, like it did against the Jets last week, losing not only home-field advantage throughout the postseason but a bye as well. Because of the overhaul in player personnel, it seems like forever since the Falcons were in the playoffs, but it was only four years ago when they emerged as NFC champions. Of course, that was before Michael Vick, who has looked a little more human down the stretch, when the Falcons lost three out of four to end the season. His counterpart, once known for his improvisation as well, though not as dynamically as Vick, is the incomparable Brett Favre, who finished second in the MVP voting this week in a close race with Raiders QB Rich Gannon. But while all the attention is on the quarterback position, don't discount the disruptive nature of both defenses. The Falcons amassed 47 sacks (4th most in NFL) and finished with a +12 takeaway ratio. The Packers led the league with 45 takeaways (+17).

X Factor: Vick's supermodern quarterbacking and superhuman ability vs. a streak with roots dating back to the Lombardi era. What a way to get introduced to postseason football. If he breaks something big early, it could really disrupt the Pack's defensive mind-set.

Series History: Packers have won three of the last four, including a home playoff game in 1995.

Who's Next: If the Packers win, they go to Tampa Bay next week. Otherwise, the Falcons visit Philadelphia.

Our Pick: Packers 31, Falcons 21


CLEVELAND (9-7) at PITTSBURGH (10-5-1), 1 p.m. ET
No playoff matchup of the weekend matches more familiar foes than this one. This game that will be the 102nd meeting between the Browns and Steelers but only the second time they've met in the playoffs (1/7/95: Pitt. 29, Cle. 9, at Pitt.). The Steelers won both regular-season meetings between these AFC North squads by only three points, yet they're the biggest favorites of the first round, at 7 1/2 points. Browns QB Kelly Holcomb fills in for the injured Tim Couch in the franchise's first playoff appearance since returning to the NFL in 1999. He performed admirably (111.0 rating) in splitting the first two games of the season as a starter, but the Browns' offense now focuses on rookie RB William Green, who is averaging over 100 yards rushing per game in his last seven. Pittsburgh QB Tommy Maddox also makes his first playoff start, and has two big-play targets in Pro Bowl receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress (190 catches combined). This is not the same Jerome Bettis-reliant team fans may be familiar with, though the defense is still menacing (50 sacks topped the AFC).

X Factors: Ten of the Browns' 16 games came down to the final minute, which is valuable experience come playoff time. They'll have to limit the Steelers' quick-strike ability to keep it close.

Series History: The Steelers have won the last five in the series and nine of the last 10 at Pittsburgh.

Who's Next: If the Steelers win, they go to Tennessee next week. Otherwise, the Browns visit Oakland.

Our Pick: Steelers 24, Browns 14

N.Y. GIANTS (10-6) at SAN FRANCISCO (10-6), 4:30 p.m. ET
A team is not normally considered "hot" coming a 10-7 overtime victory at home despite four turnovers, a shaky kicking game and costly penalties. But that's how people are viewing the Giants, who come into this matchup winners of four straight, including last week's thriller against the Eagles in which they tried to steal defeat from the clutches of victory and just couldn't do it. Now they're the darlings of the media, who are almost universally predicting an upset of the 49ers, a team that's been locked in as the No. 4 seed for a couple of lackluster weeks now. Giants QB Kerry Collins and WR Amani Toomer may not be headed to the Pro Bowl like San Fran's Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, but it was only two weeks ago that they went on the road to outshine the Colts' Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.

X Factors: The Giants have been getting some good kick and punt returns out of Delvin Joyce, but the rest of the special teams for both clubs are anything but. Each team's offense could wind up with good field position after a mistake. The biggest knock on the 49ers is that they lack a killer instinct. So the question is, Are they ready to knock someone in the jaw, or are they best defined as a team whose best player is more concerned about coordinating his touchdown celebration?

Series History: The 49ers won the season-opener at the Meadowlands, 16-13, for their fifth victory in a row (including playoffs) against Big Blue. The Giants' lone playoff victory in four postseason games at San Francisco came in the 1990 NFL Championship game.

Who's Next: The winner visits Philadelphia next week, unless the Falcons upset the Packers, in which case the destination is Tampa Bay.

Our Pick: Giants 21, 49ers 20