- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for other games. Here's his look at wild-card weekend.
They won the AFC North over the Steelers. Thanks to Marvin Lewis, they've made their first trip to the playoffs since 1990. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has Carson Palmer working out of the no-huddle and looking like Peyton Manning, circa 2002. The Bengals are a hot team on the rise.
But they are underdogs to the Steelers even though they are at home. The Bengals finally thought they had earned the respect of critics by beating the Steelers 38-31 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4. That victory all but clinched the AFC North and gave the Bengals the respect they expected.
Heading into the playoffs, the Bengals learn again they have to prove themselves. The Steelers recovered from that loss with four victories and finished with the same record as the Bengals at 11-5. Folks go back to the Steelers' 27-13 victory in Cincinnati and can't shake those thoughts. Nor can they overlook Cincy's two straight losses heading into the postseason.
Looking behind the numbers, you can see the concern. The Bengals' defense is a worry. Over the last seven games, they've given up 373 yards and 31 points a game. Because of the decline, the Bengals have the worst defensive numbers among the 12 playoff teams. They are giving up 338 yards (ranked 28th) and 21.9 points a game (22nd).
Early in the season, the Bengals were a gambling defense that created turnovers at a record rate. Cornerbacks didn't necessary gamble for interceptions but they grabbed them. The Bengals led the league with 31 interceptions and have a turnover differential of plus-25.
But those who live by the turnover can die by the turnover. Plus, there is another aspect that has nothing to do with the defense. The Bengals' no-huddle offense is so good that it gets their defense on the field faster. Remember, that was the problem the Colts had in the early days of the their no-huddle offense. Unless a no-huddle team plays with the lead, games tend to turn into shootouts.
The Steelers are clearly better than a No. 6 seed. They stumbled in November because of Ben Roethlisberger's injuries and a temporary loss of their running identity. Roethlisberger is playing with a fracture in his thumb that will need postseason surgery, but as was the case in the second game against Cincy, he showed he is equipped for a shootout. He did it all the time when he was at Miami (Ohio).
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former Bengals head coach, did a good job of defending the Colts' no-huddle in their Monday night loss to Indianapolis, and he will try to do better than his last venture against the Bengals, when the Steelers' D gave up 38 points.
The key for the Steelers' defense will be the offense. While it is expected that the Bengals' offense won't keep the defense well rested, the Steelers thrive on ball control. They regained their running confidence with the combination of Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis.
Normally, you would say making a No. 6 seed the favorite on the road against a No. 3 would be an insult. Oddsmakers don't. They favor the Steelers. It makes for the best game of the weekend.
• Washington Redskins at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ABC, Saturday, 4:30 ET) | Scouting report
They met in one of the great games of the season. It was also one of the most controversial. Jon Gruden decided to go for a two-point conversion toward the end of regulation that would have either won or lost the game. Gruden didn't want to take the chance of losing a coin toss that would have given Washington the ball to start overtime. So he called a straight-ahead run for fullback Mike Alstott, who scored with 58 seconds left. Even though it appeared through replays that he didn't get into the end zone, the play was reviewed, the call stood, and the Bucs got a 36-35 victory. For this playoff game, though, no one is expecting a shootout. The Redskins have the ninth-ranked defense. The Bucs finished No. 1. That's right, No. 1! Even over the Bears. The Redskins have come together under the coaching of Joe Gibbs. His Redskins march into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Mark Brunell is playing despite a medial collateral ligament sprain in his right knee. He showed surprising mobility despite the injury. He wears a knee brace, but it's the normal knee brace he wears for his once reconstructed knee. In some ways, the offenses are mirror images of themselves. The Redskins and Bucs both give maximum blocking protection to their quarterbacks. By scheme, both teams utilize a lot of one-wide receiver sets. The Redskins send Santana Moss. The Bucs send Joey Galloway. The Bucs won't have Michael Clayton on the other side of Galloway on Saturday because of a knee injury, but he hasn't been much of a factor in the passing offense this year, anyway. One player to watch will be Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who had 14 sacks and will be on a mission to get to Brunell. The Redskins will try to get to Simms with blitzing. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams does a great job of mixing and matching defensive looks. It's a great matchup of two good running backs. Clinton Portis finished fourth in rushing with 1,516 yards, the third 1,500-yard season of his career. Cadillac Williams established himself in his first season as a factor. He had 1,178 yards. Both backs are banged up and both backs figure to be involved in a physical game. Like the Steelers, the Redskins are a dangerous sixth seed. The Bucs are young on offense. They will have to grow up Saturday.
Will the Panthers' running game show up Sunday? If it does, the Giants are in trouble. DeShaun Foster can be a tough running back to tackle, but the question facing the Giants is do they have enough defenders to stop him? The linebacking corps is Tom Coughlin's biggest worry. Antonio Pierce, who has been great at middle linebacker, didn't make it back for this game because of a high ankle sprain. Reggie Torbor still has his hamstring injury and is questionable. Nick Greisen is at middle linebacker and though he's banged up, he will play. Because of the defensive concerns, this could be a high-scoring game. The Giants are the lowest-rated defense among the NFC playoff teams, giving up 327.5 yards and 19.6 points per game. The Giants have the big-play pass capability with Eli Manning and the big-play running of Tiki Barber, which enabled them to finish fourth in offense with 361 yards and 26.4 points a game. The Panthers have the better chance of matching up against the Giants' offense than the Giants have against the Panthers' offense. Carolina coach John Fox has the coverage cornerbacks who can free up an extra defender to try to stop Barber or rush Manning. Manning isn't very accurate on the short passes, so expect Fox to match up Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas on the Giants' receivers and take his chances. The good news for the Giants is that they are at home. If this game was played in Charlotte, N.C., the Giants might not have much of a chance. What's weird, though, is Manning's stats are worse at home than they are on the road. At Giants Stadium, Manning is only a 50 percent thrower and his 6.3 yards per attempt is a yard less than his average yards per attempt on the road. At home, he has 15 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions while he has fewer interceptions (six) in road games. The team that makes the most mistakes will lose. That's why it's important for the Panthers to establish the running game. Foster has a tendency to fumble, and if he does, the Panthers are in trouble. The Giants will have a hard time matching up against Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. He's been unstoppable all season. This game can go either way.
• Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots (ABC, Saturday, 8 ET) | Scouting report
Despite a 12-4 record, the Jaguars are the playoff team most in need of earning respect. They can whine all they want about not gaining any respect despite having victories over the Steelers, Bengals and Seahawks. But what do they expect? They had a ridiculously easy second-half schedule, facing only one winning team. They played down to bad competition. They have a quarterback question. Byron Leftwich is making his first appearance since Nov. 27 and figures to be rusty coming off a broken leg. Plus, they are playing a three-time Super Bowl champion on the road in the cold. Please, stop the lack of respect theme. The Jaguars are the longest shot for pulling off an upset. They are 7½-point underdogs and the odds might get worse. Two of their best defensive players -- linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive end Reggie Hayward -- are questionable and may not play. The Patriots may not have linebacker Tedy Bruschi, but they are relatively healthy coming into this game. Tom Brady is almost unstoppable in home playoff games. Heck, he's been unstoppable in the postseason (9-0), period. Over the past five weeks, the Patriots' defense has improved against the run, thanks to the return of defensive end Richard Seymour. The only chance the Jaguars have of winning is having a big game from Fred Taylor. Taylor can be the neutralizer if he can get 150 yards. The Jaguars take pride in their resilience. They like the fact they came from behind to win in nine of their 12 games. However, if they fall behind in New England, the Jaguars will be blown out. Of all the playoffs games, this is one that could be very one-sided.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4mEric D. Williams