The playoffs are here. Please refrain from the stupid Jim Mora joke. No, I mean it. Everyone's sick of it, and it's not funny anymore.
Normally, there are a couple "easy" games in the wild card round. You know...those games where the home team is a prohibitive favorite, or where the home team has Anthony Wright under center and virtually no chance of winning. They're going to happen.
Not this year.
All four games are tough, and all four games should be highly entertaining. We'll rank them and talk about them in my order of confidence with my pick, starting with the lowest (all times Central, by the way, because that's where I live).
--> Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, 3:30pm Sunday, CBS
I've gone back and forth a few times on this. I even tried to read Bill Simmons' old Playoff Gambling Manifesto on ESPN.com. I'm just not sure what to think, so I'll follow my gut, which has been whispering "Pittsburgh" all week.
(That's a figure of speech. If my gut were really whispering "Pittsburgh", I would have sought professional help by now.)
I know the Steelers didn't look that good against the Bengals in Pittsburgh. They looked awfully average, as a matter of fact. And the Bengals still needed four turnovers to win the game. The Bengals turned into ballhawks this year, forcing 44 turnovers. But they can't rely on the turnover in this game.
I know I probably shouldn't, but I go back to their meeting in Cincinnati. You know what I'm talking about...the day that Jerome Bettis took over. He's got another one of those in him, and the Steelers have redemption on their minds after getting pushed around at home against these guys a few weeks ago.
The Steelers have a bit more savvy in situations like this. Not only that, but they have a better defense. Carson Palmer, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Chad Johnson will have their day. This won't be it.
The pick: Pittsburgh
--> Washington at Tampa Bay, 3:30pm Saturday, ABC
This is another one I've had some trouble with. I actually told my father-in-law that I thought Tampa would win.
Washington is hot. They've won five straight. They won three pressure-packed divisional games among the five. And had they not won all five, they wouldn't be here. Tampa, meanwhile, has stumbled a couple times, including a 28-0 loss in New England in a game they thought they needed to have. The Redskins have a solid veteran QB who won't cost his team a road playoff game. The Buccaneers have Chris Simms, the antithesis of what I just talked about.
The 'Skins have also discovered the vertical game with Santana Moss, and Clinton Portis is running well enough to make us all forget about those stupid disguises he wears for media sessions during the week.
Say what you want about Joe Gibbs, but he has his team peaking at the right time, and while they might not go all the way, I'm betting that the Seahawks are rooting hard for Tampa in this game, because they want no part of Washington next week.
The pick: Washington
--> Carolina at N.Y. Giants, 12pm Sunday, FOX
I don't know that I can say it any differently than this: I love the Giants in this game. Carolina has been too inconsistent to like much, with three terrible home losses (New Orleans??), along with awful road performances in Miami and Chicago. The Panthers have some talent, and Steve Smith scares the dickens out of anyone, but they're just not good enough to win a road playoff game.
Tiki Barber, meanwhile, is good enough. If he didn't have enough of a chip on his shoulder, now he has to watch while an undeserving player celebrates winning the NFL MVP award. Being that he plays in New York (kinda), what more does Barber have to do? He practically carried this team while Eli Manning was routinely forgetting what color jersey his receivers were wearing. How does Barber finish third in the MVP voting?
Anyway, Barber runs for 175, Manning takes care of the ball, Delhomme gets picked twice, and the Giants win.
The pick: New York
--> Jacksonville at New England, 7pm Saturday, ABC
What's with the love for Jacksonville in this game? Leftwich and Taylor are both nicked, and the last nine teams the Jaguars beat this year combined for 38 wins all season. The Jags are going on the road to Foxborough, where playoff dreams go to die, and they have to play the two-time defending champs. The only thing that can save Jacksonville is New England looking ahead to Indy next week, and I don't like the chances of something like that happening as long as Belichick is in charge. Especially when they won't be going to Indy next weekend (though they won't find that out until Sunday when Pittsburgh beats the Bengals).
Gee - I'm not sure why I'm so confident in New England.
The pick: New England
This sets up the following matchups next weekend:
Washington at Seattle
N.Y. Giants at Chicago
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis
New England at Denver