By Paul Najjar
Wild Card games: 4-0
Panthers at Rams
The Panthers polished off the Cowboys last week with a solid mix of running and passing the football. QB Jake Delhomme and his offensive line played one of their best games of the season against the top rated defense of the Cowboys. They are a tough, physical football team that knows how to get the ball in the hands of their best players, RB Stephen Davis and WR Steven Smith.
The Rams finished the season losing three of their last five games. In those losses they simply turned the ball over too much. QB Marc Bulger had nine turnovers in those three losses and has looked harried in the face of a strong pass rush. WR Torry Holt has had the best year of any receiver in the league and will look to exploit the average Carolina cornerbacks Ricky Manning, Jr. and Reggie Howard. And what about RB Marshall Faulk, you ask? In past big games, Coach Mike Martz has generally NOT used Faulk enough in the running game. The Rams will need him today to ensure that they control the clock and sustain drives.
I think the Panthers' defense will charge hard at unsettling QB Marc Bulger. The Panthers' front seven on defense are big, physical and fast; they too will benefit from playing on the speedy artifical turf at St. Louis. Remember, this Panthers' team beat Indianapolis at Indy and that field is pretty much the same as the Rams' turf. They beat Indy by pounding their running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and even Rod "He Hate Me" Smart once in a while. I think they will pound the Rams' quick defense with at least 40 rushes. Carolina Coach John Fox knows what it takes defensively to beat the Rams in St. Louis. He was the defensive coordinator for the Giants from 1998 to 2001 and held the Rams' potent offense to an average of 20 points a game in the three games they played during his tenure. The Panthers defense and their tough running game leads me to pick them in an upset.
Panthers 20 Rams 17
Titans at Patriots
This will be one great game to watch. Earlier this season the Patriots and Titans played a 38-30 shootout that the Pats won with over 160 yards rushing (three Titans' defensive starters were out). They won't get that many rushing yards today. The air will be very cold as game time temperatures are expected to be near sub-zero and that will make the hitting that much harder and fierce. This is what the NFL playoffs are about: two very good teams playing in volatile weather conditions.
The Titans are coming off a great win at Baltimore last week. They dominated with their ground game and a couple of terrific plays out of their passing game even though QB and MVP Steve McNair threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. I expect the same game plan this week at New England: run the ball with tough man Eddie George and try to exploit the well-coached Patriots' defense.
The Patriots are the best team in football right now. They do just enough to win on offense and their defense has been pretty dominant. They will try to do things defensively in order to confuse the Titans' offensive blocking schemes. Offensively, look for QB Tom Brady to throw a variety of short and medium passes to counter the tough front seven of the Titans. This should be a low scoring, hard-hitting affair with the cold air affecting every player on the field. The Patriots are used to such conditions and will crawl away from this game with a win.
Patriots 17 Titans 14
Colts at Chiefs
The Colts are playing their best football since moving to Indianapolis in 1984. This team will be well prepared to face the big offense that Kansas City will put up against them. But Indy has seen plenty of big offenses this season as they played Tennessee and Denver twice each, as well as New England. The Chiefs have not put together a solid victory since November. Their defense has given up 45 points in two of their last five games at Denver and at Minnesota.
The Colts' played with confidence on offense and defense last week against Denver. They were the superior team in that game and they needed that type of performance to get their rhythm back as a team. Look for QB Peyton Manning and WR Marvin Harrison to have big games against the very tame Chiefs' defense. Manning should throw for 300+ yards and RB Edgerrin should run for more than 100 yards in this shootout. But look for some big plays on defense by Colts' DE Dwight Freeney as he tries to disrupt the Chiefs' short-passing game.
The Chiefs have been exploited on defense by some very good offenses, but none as good as Indianapolis'. They must stop Marvin Harrison from making big plays in the passing game. Offensively, QB Trent Green has been effective, but not outstanding. I think RB Priest Holmes is the key to this game and that if he gets 25 or more carries and rushes for 125+ yards, then the Chiefs will probably win the game. But I think the Chiefs will be playing from behind and have to throw the football too much. Call it a Colts' upset win on the road and a big win for QB Peyton Manning. Colts 31 Chiefs 21
Packers at Eagles
The Packers have had a tremendous run in the past three weeks. They have displayed a potent offensive attack and have played with passion. Defensively, the Packers have done little to actually stop their opponents. In order to win this game they will have to play turnover free football and continue to run the ball effectively. RB Ahman Green has been outstanding all season and continues to produce on the ground and as a receiver.