NFL Playoff Preview: Divisional Round

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Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb returns to action Saturday after missing six games with a broken ankle

As soon as we got adjusted to teams playing like studs one week and duds the next that's you, Patriots, Dolphins and Saints the league now plays with our emotions by the half. Giants fans were already booking flights to Tampa Bay before Jeff Garcia put on a fourth-quarter show that made Joe Montana look like Joe Mantegna. And do you think any Cleveland Browns fans made it through their every-game-must-come-down-to-a-final-heave season without suffering a heart attack? Head coach Butch Davis was 50 years old when the season started. He's now 87.

You have to feel sorry for the Colts, too. They thought they were going to play the same Jets who lost to Chicago in Week 15 and instead faced a combination of the 1999 Rams and '85 Bears. What was that, a John Madden video game with the cheat codes activated?

And then there were the Falcons, convincing winners at Green Bay. You know the NFL is getting ridiculous when you can't even count on a snowy Lambeau Field atmosphere to overwhelm a Southern team that plays home games indoors.

With all this unpredictability in the air, we present our weekly previews and some picks pulled out of a hat...


PITTSBURGH (11-5-1) at TENNESSEE (11-5), 4:30 p.m. ET
Realignment took these teams out of the same division, but the Steelers and Titans did meet earlier this season, and it was a game Pittsburgh QB Tommy Maddox would like to forget ... and did. During a woeful, three-interception performance in Tennessee's 31-23 victory, Maddox was knocked out by LB Keith Bullock on a clean hit that forced him to miss a couple of games. Hard hitting again will be the theme of the day, as both teams are physical, methodical and disciplined. Perhaps it's because they're not a highlight-reel team that the Titans aren't given even more credit for winning 10 of their last 11 games. None of their players were voted to the Pro Bowl, and this is their first big game since the snub.

X Factors:: The Steelers' receiving corps, once a soft spot for the franchise, has blossomed this year with Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. They'll be the most dangerous gamebreakers on the field.

Series History: Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh) and Jeff Fisher (Tennessee) rank 1-2 among the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. Fisher holds a 9-6 advantage in the head-to-head series, as the Titans have won eight of the last 10 against the Steelers.

Who's Next: The winner travels to Oakland, unless the Jets upset the Raiders, in which case Gang Green comes to town.

Our Pick: Tennessee 21, Pittsburgh 17

ATLANTA (10-6-1) at PHILADELPHIA (12-4), 8 p.m. ET
It's billed as a battle between the NFL's most dynamic QBs, Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb. This is the first game back for McNabb after his regular season was cut short in Week 11 when he broke his ankle on the third play of the game — and then threw four TD passes. The Eagles went 5-1 in his absence, stirring just a tad of debate over whether Philly's offense is more efficient with No. 5 on the sideline. To which we remind you that he threw four TD passes on a broken ankle, shattering the record for TD passes on a broken ankle by four. The Eagles, who finished tied with Tampa Bay for the best record in the league, have been taking one step closer to a title for the past few seasons. Two years ago, they lost in the divisional playoff. Last season in the NFC Championship game. The natural progression points toward the Super Bowl in San Diego.

X Factors:: Veterans Stadium turf vs. Michael Vick. The possibilities for injury are too tragic to think about. Both of these defenses are masters at creating turnovers, a trait that can turn momentum in any game.

Series History: This battle of the birds hasn't kicked off since October 2000, and both teams have a much different makeup since.

Who's Next: A Falcons victory sends them off to the winner of San Francisco vs. Tampa Bay. Otherwise, the Eagles host the NFC Championship against that victor.

Our Pick: Eagles, 24, Falcons 17


SAN FRANCISCO (11-6) at TAMPA BAY (12-4), 1 p.m. ET
When we last saw the 49ers, they were bowling over any 300-pound lineman standing near the goal line in the ugly finish to last week's thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Giants. Quarterback Jeff Garcia's blend of brilliant decision-making, flawless execution and sheer athleticism in the fourth quarter was all it took to eke out the one-point victory. The Bucs are used to bringing offenses down to earth, however. Their defense led the NFL in total defense, points allowed and interceptions, and they absolutely corralled Michael Vick twice this season. Tampa Bay also welcomes back the NFC's highest-rated passer, Brad Johnson, who missed a couple of games with a back injury. If he plays as he has all season — consistent and relatively mistake-free — the Bucs' defense is more than capable of taking care of the rest.

X Factors:: Clearly, the 49ers can't afford to give up 38 points again and expect to win, though that isn't likely to happen against the Bucs' offense, which has improved a little under head coach Jon Gruden, but won't be confused with the 1998 Vikings anytime soon.

Series History: For a couple of teams used to being atop the standings, they don't have much of a recent history. The 49ers and Bucs have never faced off in the playoffs and haven't met in the regular season since a Tampa Bay victory in 1997.

Who's Next: The winner get a home game against Atlanta if the Falcons upset the Eagles. Otherwise, it's off to Philadelphia.

Our Pick: Tampa Bay 23, San Francisco 14

N.Y. JETS (10-7) at OAKLAND (11-5), 4:30 p.m. ET
For the fourth time in their last 11 road games (including playoffs), the Jets head off to Oakland to play in front of the scariest-looking people this side of the Star Wars Cantina. This is the first playoff game for the Raiders since last January in New England, when the nation learned what a tuck play was, and Adam Vinatieri booted one of the most improbable kicks in NFL history. Having garnered the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Silver & Black's reward is a date with perhaps the NFL hottest team, the Jets, winners of eight of their last 10, including last week's destruction of the Colts. Oakland, however, handed New York one of those losses, 26-20, on a Monday night in early December, and it has record-setting MVP Rich Gannon tossing strikes to the ageless and still terrific Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. On paper, this is the best game of what looks to be four close matchups this weekend.

X Factors:: Raiders cornerbacks are beat up, so expect Charles Woodson and Tory James to have a heckuva time chasing Santana Moss, Laveranues Coles and Wayne Chrebet around.

Series History: The Raiders have won nine of the past 11 against the Jets, including a 38-24 victory in last year's playoffs.

Who's Next: The Raiders will host the winner of Pittsburgh vs. Tennessee, or the Jets hit to road to one of those cities.

Our Pick: Raiders 30, Jets 27