John Madden
John Madden
Big Wild Card weekend
By John Madden

This Jacksonville Jaguars team is kind of an unknown. They finished the season 12-4 and no one knows anything about them. They are a small market team and in my four years with ABC I have never done a Jaguars game, you watch the big Sunday games and you never see Jacksonville and the next thing you know they sneak into the playoffs with 12 wins. When you start to think about a 12 win team and why they are not hosting a playoff game and that is because they are in the same division as the Indianapolis Colts. That may also be a reason the Jaguars were able to quietly get 12 wins because the Colts stole all the headlines.

For the Jaguars they are going to be getting their starting quarterback, Byron Leftwich, back from a broken ankle and the question is will he have to shake off some rust after being out for more than a month. His ankle was healthy enough to play last week but the coaches chose to hold him out so some of the rust may have gotten knocked off in the last two weeks of practice but the speed of the game is different than the speed in practice. Playing against the New England Patriots is going to be particularly tough for him and I will say that if they can find a way to protect him against their front seven their secondary is vulnerable and they are vulnerable to the deep pass and those are things that Leftwich can do.

That front seven of the Patriots defense is very good and Bill Belichick will use them to put pressure on Leftwich from many different places. The 3-4 scheme that the Patriots use allows a defense to disguise where the pressure is going to be coming from and then you are able to play those zones behind it but what you do know is that the linebacker that is coming is going to be a good rusher. It is going to be a Rosevelt Colvin, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi that is coming as that fourth rusher. This is where it all starts for the Patriots and if you take it even further I say it starts with the front three because they are the guys that play all that two gap and they make things happen for those linebackers who, whether they are dropping back into coverage or blitzing, I think they are the best set of linebackers in all of football.

Tom Brady knows how to play in big games, he wins a lot of games to get to those big games too. I'm so impressed every time not only the games we do but going to practice and watching him practice and then talking to him and listening to how determined and focused he is and then you watch him on film and see all the little things that he does so well. There are some quarterbacks that you say we'll rush him we'll get to him and throw him off rhythm and you don't do it to Brady. Everyone is trying to do it because he is a pocket passer, he's a rhythm thrower and maybe you do get him for a play but then he will come right back and throw a touchdown pass to Deion Branch.

For the Jaguars their strength is their defense and in particular their two tackles and the Patriots could have a hard time running the ball against them. The last game that we did in the regular season was Week 16 the Patriots at the New York Jets and even in that game Corey Dillon had a hard time running the ball so the Patriots aren't going to win this game by running the ball. They would like to get more running in and as Belichick would say they would like to get more effective running in. That is where the Patriots became a different team this year. They were a lot better passing and not as effective running the ball.

Are the Patriots the favorite in the tournament? I am a little old fashioned in that I believe a champion is a champion until they are beaten. No one has beaten this Patriots team in a playoff situation yet however it is going to be tough for them because they don't have a bye and the fact that they have to win 3 to get to the Super Bowl.

This is a rematch of a game earlier in the season and that was proof of how evenly these two teams are matched. Jon Gruden makes the call to go for a two point conversion and still today they are talking about whether Mike Alstott got into the end zone or not but that is how close these two teams are. The health of a few players and momentum may be the difference in a game between two such evenly matched teams.

The Redskins defense is a very tough defense that can make it tough going for a quarterback and a running back that are so young but I think Carnell "Cadillac" Williams will be able to have some success. It is still the same running it has been all year and when you get to this point I don't even know if you should call him a rookie any more. Now Chris Simms that is a different story I think Gregg Williams is going to show him every different defense he can and make him uncomfortable. He is not going to let him do anything the easy way. You can say we are going to run the ball, play good defense and play good special teams and the quarterback just manages the game and I believe all that stuff but there's still going to come a point where the quarterback has to make a play and the question is will he make the play in that situation or will the Redskins defense win in that situation? I think that is what it's going to boil down to.

For the Redskins offensively I think they have just figured out how to use Clinton Portis. I remember him in Denver and I thought that if he wasn't the best back in the league he was sure one of them. He came to Washington a year ago and it took some adjusting and adapting to do and now they are there and Portis reminds me of the back I thought he was three years ago.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense is loaded with veterans and one of those veterans that always seem to step up in the big game is Ronde Barber. With him on the field I know that I would never go three wide receivers and put my slot receiver out to the left because he plays the slot in nickel and that is where he will blitz from often times. It seems like in these games that he blitzes more, hits the quarterback, and gets more sack fumbles than anyone I can remember.

The key in this game for the New York Giants is Tiki Barber, he is having an amazing year. The only thing that is going to get them away from the running game is if the score gets away and they can't run the ball anymore. To run the ball you have to have running type situations and if you get into long yardage or if you get down a bunch then you can't run the ball. Those things are the only things that I can see that would take Barber out of the game. I can't see the Carolina Panthers defense taking the run from him he is just playing so well right now. He looks like a totally different guy, he is bigger, stronger, quicker, more confident, faster, he isn't fumbling anymore, ect& He is the real deal!

This is the first start of Eli Manning's post season career and I think he will do well. He may not do well on every play he is not going to be perfect. There are going to be bumps in his road but I like him and I like the way he plays and you know there are some quarterbacks that you don't want to do certain things because they can't do certain things, you know he can't throw the deep out, can't throw the deep ball, ect& so you eliminate certain things to protect against but Manning can do it all. The question is can he read the defense, does he not see a guy and throw a turnover or something like that that would be the tough thing because he is going to make some great plays and you just hope that when he misreads something if you are a Giants fan that it doesn't turn into a turnover. That is how they can lose this game.

For the Giants defensively there two ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, are playing very well right now and that is an advantage for them because they don't have to blitz to get pressure on Jake Delhomme. If the Giants do have to bring more than just the 4 defensive linemen then that swings the advantage back to the Carolina Panthers because that means you are covering Steve Smith with single coverage and the Giants don't have a guy for that.

This Panthers team hasn't been able to get consistent this season and some of that is their running game. A few years ago when this team went to the Super Bowl their running game was really good and it forced defenses to scheme not only for the running game but for their passing game. This year I don't know that you have to do anything special to stop the running game but you do have to do something special for Steve Smith. Now on the other side of that the Panthers are going to have to figure out how to run the ball effectively to keep the Giants out of those 2-deep coverages.

To me the question is do you believe more in home field advantage or playoff experience? If you believe in someone who knows how to play in a playoff game because they have been there then you have to say the Pittsburgh Steelers have an advantage because they were just in the AFC Championship game a year ago. If you say the team that has home field in these Wild Card games usually will win then you'd have to say the Cincinnati Bengals have the advantage

I know two things and the first is that the Steelers are going into this game thinking that they want to run the ball 60-70-percent of the time and then I know if they get ahead and into the end of the third quarter or the fourth quarter then they will run the ball 100-percent of the time. The Bengals are going to know that as well and they are going to try to take that run away and the minute that they get that done Ben Roethlisberger can make some plays, Hines Ward can make some plays so they make themselves one dimensional by saying we are going to run the ball and play good defense but a running team is not all they are.

Defensively for the Steelers you would have to say the words play making. We talk about different defenses and different defensive coordinators and Dick LeBeau is that kind of guy. He is going to give you something that you have never seen before with a guy like Troy Polamalu running around back there and their ability to show you one thing and do something different. When those things happen and they do confuse you for Carson Palmer that confusion has to just be an incomplete pass, it can't be a turnover. That is going to be the big thing there.

I used to believe that a team that goes the deepest into the playoffs is the team that came into the playoffs on a roll. In today's game teams are resting players the last few weeks of the season so I don't know if that is true any more. I would say if you are really trying then you really want to be playing well but I have seen teams give up the last few weeks and get into the playoffs and play really well so I don't know if the same thing holds true anymore.

Super Bowl-winning coach John Madden is an analyst for ABC's Monday Night Football.

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