Second Round of Playoffs is Deja Vu All Over Again

Back on Oct. 5, Tennessee rallied from a 10-3 fourth-quarter deficit to win 13-10 at Baltimore with the help of a bad call: a blow-to-the-head penalty on Terrell Suggs that actually was a blow to Kerry Collins' shoulder.

It came on third-and-10 and extended an 80-yard winning drive for the Titans that also demonstrated Collins was more than a caretaker quarterback keeping the position warm for Vince Young. But had the result been different, these teams might be meeting next Saturday in Baltimore rather than Nashville.

Baltimore-Tennessee is not the only replay in the NFL's second round of playoffs. Hardly.

All the second-round playoff games are rematches of regular-season games: Arizona (10-7) at Carolina (12-4), and the Ravens (12-5) and Titans (13-3) on Saturday; Philadelphia (10-6-1) against the division rival New York Giants (12-4), and San Diego (9-8) at Pittsburgh (12-4) on Sunday.

And unlike this week, when the home teams all were underdogs, things are as they should be next week — the home teams are favored.

In the AFC, the Tennessee is favored by 3 over Baltimore and Pittsburgh by 6 over San Diego. In the NFC, the Giants are 4½-point favorites, and the Panthers 9½ points over the Cardinals.

"We're familiar with them. They're familiar with us," San Diego coach Norv Turner said of the trip to Pittsburgh, where his team lost Nov. 23 in the only 11-10 game in NFL history.

Turner could be speaking for everyone.


Both road teams have real shots.

Baltimore travels well because any team that creates turnovers the way the Ravens do doesn't really need a home-field advantage. After all, they took the ball away five times Sunday in their 27-9 win in Miami against a team that had only 13 turnovers all season, tied for the fewest in the NFL.

They also can run, a three-back group headed by Le'Ron McClain that can wear down defenses and take the pressure off Joe Flacco.

Flacco became the first rookie to win a road playoff game Sunday, but rookie QBs are never immune to playoff pressure — as Atlanta's Matt Ryan demonstrated in throwing two interceptions in Arizona on Saturday. In fact, most of Baltimore's points Sunday came from the defense.

"I was just glad the offense finally got one late," said Flacco, who was a pedestrian 9-of-23 for 135 yards.

The Chargers go into Pittsburgh as the league's hottest team, one that ended Indianapolis' nine-game winning streak 23-17 in overtime Saturday night; it was San Diego's fifth straight win after an inexplicable 4-8 record. San Diego dominated for most of the game, which probably wouldn't have gone to overtime if the Chargers hadn't been caught napping on the 72-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne that put the Colts ahead in the third quarter.

Yes, the Chargers will have to play in cold weather on a notoriously inconsistent pitch.

But if they were able to pressure Manning, they can probably do it to Ben Roethlisberger against Pittsburgh's questionable offensive line. Roethlisberger sustained a concussion in the Steelers' final regular-season game. He says he'll play, but under league rules, concussions remains a medical decision.

"I believe we're a lot better team now than we were six weeks ago or eight weeks ago," Turner said. "So that's going to be a part of it. You're in the playoffs and you're playing a team that's got home-field advantage and is an outstanding team. We're going to have to be at our best."

The Titans' advantage against Baltimore is their offensive line, which allowed only 12 sacks — a remarkable feat with an immobile 36-year-old quarterback like Collins.

But Tennessee has injury problems, too.

Its two best (or best known) defensive linemen, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, finished the regular season hurt. Haynesworth has a knee injury and Vanden Bosch a groin injury, and coach Jeff Fisher says he expects both back for next week's game. Center Kevin Mawae, who has an elbow problem, is more of a question mark.


As the odds demonstrate, Arizona has less chance than Philadelphia at springing an upset, although the Cardinals were competitive in Charlotte in their first meeting with the Panthers, losing 27-23 on Oct. 26 in a game in which Kurt Warner threw for 381 yards. The Cardinals led 17-3 in the second quarter and took a 23-17 lead late in the third quarter after Carolina came back.

But they don't stop the run well, which means trouble with the Carolina tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. And they don't run well themselves despite a better effort than usual in Saturday's upset of Atlanta, when the Cardinals trotted out forgotten Edgerrin James for 73 yards on 16 carries.

Moreover, the Panthers got hot late and Arizona got cold. Despite its win over the Falcons, Arizona finished 6-0 against its rivals in the weak NFC West and is now 4-7 against non-division opponents.

The Giants beat the Eagles 36-31 in Philadelphia and were cruising at 11-1 when the Eagles came to the Meadowlands on Dec. 7. Philadelphia won 20-14, the Giants' defense had trouble getting stops, and their only offensive touchdown came in garbage time.

But that came at a point where New York was probably too assured it would get the home-field advantage and was feeling comfortable. It will be primed this week after its bye.

"It's going to be a tough game up there in the Meadowlands. We know they're rested," said Brian Westbrook, who rushed for 131 yards on 33 carries and caught six passes for 72 yards in Philly's win over New York. "They're a very good football team."

The Eagles didn't play especially well in their 26-14 win over Minnesota on Sunday in the pristine conditions of the Metrodome.

Donovan McNabb knows he won't pass as well in the wind of the Meadowlands, and the Giants will almost surely run for more than the 88 yards they had against Philadelphia in that game a month ago.

But it won't help that they are the favorites against a team that knows them as well as they know themselves. And vice versa.

As they proved during their Super Bowl run last season, the Giants prefer to be considered the underdog. Maybe that explains why they lost three of their final four games, winning the one that really counted — against Carolina.

That may explain last season. They win the games that count. So they probably will again.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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