Sunday Countdown online: Your weekly NFL guide

Updated: January 3, 2008

Weekly Picks

Mike Ditka Keyshawn Johnson Emmitt Smith Chris Mortensen Tom Jackson
  Ditka Johnson Smith Mortensen Jackson
Washington @ Seattle Washington Washington Washington Washington Seattle
Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh Jacksonville Jacksonville Jacksonville Jacksonville Pittsburgh
N.Y. Giants @ Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Tampa Bay N.Y. Giants
Tennessee @ San Diego Tennessee San Diego San Diego San Diego San Diego
Week 17 Record 11-5 12-4 10-6 14-2 9-7
Overall Record 167-89 171-85 169-87 162-94 169-87
More picks: Our other experts' selections | SportsNation: Pick Wild-Card games

Countdown Confidential

by Rachel Nichols, Sal Paolantonio, Bob Holtzman and Ed Werder

Big Ben insurance: Coach Mike Tomlin started this week by announcing, "Ready or not, here we come."

But while Tomlin asks whether the playoffs are ready for the Steelers, the question remains: Are the Steelers really ready for the playoffs? Riddled with injuries, Pittsburgh is finding itself shifting players around once again now that tackle Max Starks is out for the season.

Starks himself was a replacement for Marvel Smith, so the Steelers -- down to what's behind Door No. 3 -- now will go with Trai Essex, who'll be protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side in the lineman's first career playoff start.

That's not exactly ideal for Roethlisberger, who will be facing increased pressure from the Jacksonville defense now that running back Willie Parker also has been lost for the season.

But Essex has vowed to protect his man -- he told me each time he walks to the line, he'll have one thought: "Don't let Ben get hit. I want to keep that jersey clean because he's a great player and the less he's on the ground, the more he can do for this team."

-- Rachel Nichols

"Philly-miliar" foes: The New York Giants might be playing against the Bucs in Tampa, but in this wild-card matchup all roads lead back to Philadelphia.

Jeff Garcia

AP Photo

Jeff Garcia knows the Giants' scheme.

Why? Well, consider that last season with the Eagles, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia practiced every day against the Philadelphia defense, which has been exported up the New Jersey Turnpike with great success this season by new Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who spent nine years as the linebackers coach in Philly.

In his sleep, Garcia can recite the complex set of blitz packages that are the essence of Spagnuolo's scheme. And Spagnuolo learned up close and personal that Garcia has an advanced degree in extending the play, going deep into the down, when the pocket dissolves and all appears lost.

And expect that pocket to break down. Garcia was sacked only 19 times all season, but 14 of them came in his final seven starts. The Bucs' offensive line has four starters with two years or less in experience, including two first-year starters on the left side: tackle Donald Penn and rookie guard Arron Sears, who says he will play with a very painful high ankle sprain he suffered last Sunday.

And the Giants, coming off an inspired performance against the Patriots, finished with the league-leading 53 sacks.

-- Sal Paolantonio

Bad blood simmering: Don't mistake the absence of trash talking between the Chargers and Titans this week as a sign that means there is no feud.

There is.

After the Chargers' 23-17 overtime win at Tennessee four weeks ago, San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman said he was told that Titans coach Jeff Fisher had ordered a hit on him.

Merriman suffered a sprained knee in the game.

Many Titans will admit privately that Merriman's comments linger in the locker room, but few want to discuss it.

Linebacker Keith Bulluck told me, "There are a lot of things that are motivating factors [this week], but what that guy said doesn't do anything for me."

Fisher even joked that he voted for Merriman for the Pro Bowl.

-- Bob Holtzman

Refocused Portis: It is perhaps the remarkable confession of running back Clinton Portis that provides some specific definition to the effect the death of Sean Taylor is having on the Redskins. Until now, it has been evident but also somewhat ambiguous.

In reflecting on the loss of his closest teammate last month, Portis came to the conclusion he had lost the very attribute that he most admired about Taylor -- his reckless playing style and determination to win.

Portis realized he was weary from injuries and criticism and the combination had caused him to surrender his passion for the game. He had been cheating himself and his team.

"I lost my love for the game," he said at Redskins Park. "I'd get hurt one time, then I'm 'injury-prone.' All of a sudden, the game's gone. And it's the realization of the game's not gone. It's still here.

Clinton Portis

AP Photo

Clinton Portis is refocused.

"I'm still here. I'm still a force to be reckoned with. I should have been doing more than I was doing. My numbers should never be the numbers that I had in some games. I was just settling."

This is what Portis remembers about Taylor, whom he considered the team's best player: When the Redskins would take the practice field, Taylor already would be sweating from having been out running.

When Portis would leave the facility, he would notice that sometimes Taylor's girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, and their young daughter would be waiting on Taylor in the parking lot. He was still inside, somehow trying to improve his game.

"Now, all of a sudden these past few weeks, my energy's back," Portis said. "Just the excitement's back in football. The passion's back in football. The fight to continue to carry this team is back."

-- Ed Werder

Wild-Card Weekend: Numbers Crunching

by Aaron Schatz, FootballOutsiders.com


Each week, Football Outsiders takes a look at every game with a mix of interesting numbers and in-depth statistical analysis. Football Outsiders stats explained here.

Redskins at Seahawks (Saturday), 4:30 p.m. ET

Seattle played the easiest schedule in the league according to average DVOA of all 16 opponents. Washington played the fourth-hardest schedule and the hardest slate of any team to make the playoffs.

Seattle had fewer penalties than any other team in the NFL (69, including declined and offsetting) and its opponents were called for nearly twice as many penalties (118). Washington was average in both categories.

Thirty-five percent of passes against the Redskins' defense were thrown to the middle of the field, which led the NFL. However, it is unlikely the Seahawks will try to take advantage; the Seahawks threw just 19 percent of passes to the middle of the field, fewer than any other team in the NFC. That's strange since the Seahawks were so successful when they threw to the middle of the field (third in the NFL in DVOA).


• More Redskins-Seahawks: Intel Report

Jaguars at Steelers (Saturday), 8 p.m. ET

In the first half of the season, Jacksonville ranked 13th on offense and 19th on defense. Since Week 10, the Jaguars are second on offense (behind New England) and sixth on defense.

Pittsburgh has been declining as much as Jacksonville has improved. At midseason, the Steelers ranked fourth on offense and second on defense. Since Week 10, the Steelers are 18th on offense and 14th on defense.

Fans think of Pittsburgh and Jacksonville as conservative, run-first offenses -- but Pittsburgh (23.1 percent) and Jacksonville (22.5 percent) were first and fourth in the percentage of deep passes attempted (longer than 15 yards through the air, no matter if complete or incomplete).


• More Jaguars-Steelers: Intel Report

More wild-card previews from Football Outsiders


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On This Week

Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m. ET

  • The Redskins staged a late-season playoff run in a season dedicated to slain teammate Sean Taylor. How did they do it? Ed Werder reports.
  • Jaguars RB Fred Taylor has overcome the "Fragile Fred" label that plagued him early in his career. Rachel Nichols reports.
  • Advice from the late Bill Walsh helped lead QB Jeff Garcia to Tampa this past offseason. Greg Garber explains the relationship between Garcia, Walsh and Bucs coach Jon Gruden.
  • The Titans and Chargers staged one of the most physical battles of the regular season. Our crew debates what their playoff rematch might look like.

Video

Chat Wrap

with Chris Mortensen

Robet (New Haven, Conn.): Jacksonville in the Super Bowl ? That would mean that a mediocre-at-best secondary would have to be able to contain Tom Brady and the highest-scoring offense in NFL history as well as Peyton Manning and his offense. C'mon Mort, aren't the Jags just media darlings getting set up for the inevitable fall? I mean the Pats and Colts have played far better defenses this year and have scored on them, do you believe that the Jags can score with the big boys?

Mortensen: I answered a very specific question as to IF a wild-card team was going to make it to the Super Bowl. I agree that the Jags' secondary and pass rush may not make for a good matchup with the Pats. But the Jags' offense could dominate the Pats' defense.

Jared Allen
Allen

Adam (Philly): Will Jared Allen re-sign with Kansas City or get franchised by the Chiefs? The Eagles would definitely make a run at him because Allen and Trent Cole would be dangerous!

Mortensen: Don't get excited -- KC will franchise him.

Vincent (Chicago): What does your gut tell you about Asante Samuel? Does he stay in New England for a little less than he might get elsewhere, or go for the biggest money grab?

Mortensen: I believe they are going to work hard to sign him. Players almost always go for the most money, even NE players, unless his name is Tedy Bruschi.

David (Memphis): I think Brian Brohm is the best QB in the draft and Matt Mauck is highly underrated. I think the Ravens should try for one of these guys. What do u think?

Mortensen: It's a good quarterback draft. Maybe not a can't-miss guy, but I do believe the Ravens will draft one.

Dan (Buffalo, N.Y.): Mort, will the Browns address the D mostly in the draft or through free agency? Any specific players they should try and sign?

Mortensen: The Browns will utilize both the draft and free agency. Will get into the free agent list another time because you have to measure who's really going to be free. Their focus will be on the defensive front 7.

Luke (Napa, Calif.): Do you think San Diego will be able to create turnovers against a healthy Indianapolis offense if they make it past Tennessee? If there is one thing that the SD defense is consistent at, it is creating turnovers to turn the tide of the game.

Mortensen: If they beat the Titans, that's the key to a Colts-Chargers game. Can the Colts keep that front seven from Peyton Manning?

Chad Pennington
Pennington

Craig (DC): What are the Fins going to do about their QB situation next year? Is John Beck the guy?

Mortensen: Beck might be the guy but, again, the team has to get better. I think they'll try to keep Cleo Lemon around and bring in a vet -- Chad Pennington?

Complete chat transcript  

Playoff predictions

by Gary Horton

    No. 5 Jacksonville over No. 4 Pittsburgh

    Ben Roethlisberger
    Roethlisberger

    Jacksonville won in Pittsburgh in Week 15 and these teams know each other well. They have similar styles and this should be a very physical game. The Jaguars are built to win in cold weather in January and can adapt their style to play in any situation. They are hitting on all cylinders, while the Steelers' running game is in shambles and they must depend on QB Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game.

    The Pittsburgh defense is not its usual dominant self, either, and Jacksonville will out-physical Pittsburgh in its own stadium, maintaining a reputation as the team nobody wants to play this postseason.

    No. 3 San Diego over No. 6 Tennessee

    LaDainian Tomlinson
    Tomlinson

    This is a good matchup on paper for the Chargers, but the Titans gave them all they could handle in Tennessee late in the season and these teams do not like each other. San Diego is finally playing aggressive defense and creating turnovers, while LaDainian Tomlinson and the run game are operating at a high level. Defensive pressure will be the key to this game. If the Titans have a great day against Chargers QB Philip Rivers they have a chance to win.

    On the other side, San Diego's defense will make life miserable for either Vince Young or Kerry Collins. Tennessee cannot score a lot of points and the Chargers will win this game by scoring early and forcing the Titans to play catch-up.

    Complete Gary Horton column