NFL Playoffs Saturday

NFL Playoffs Saturday

Game Preview for Redskins vs Seahawks

(Sports Network) - The Washington Redskins will be riding an unbelievable wave of momentum when the most surprising of this year's NFL postseason participants makes a cross-country trip to Seattle's Qwest Field this Saturday for an NFC Wild Card showdown with the playoff-tested Seahawks.

Washington captured the sixth and final seed in the conference playoffs with a remarkable late-season surge inspired by the shocking and tragic death of safety Sean Taylor and led by a journeyman quarterback who hadn't received regular playing time in a decade.

The chances of earning a postseason berth appeared quite bleak for the Redskins only a month ago, when the club fell to 5-7 following a heartbreaking last-second home loss to Buffalo on December 2. The defeat was Washington's fourth in a row and came just days after Taylor was fatally shot during an invasion of his Florida home.

The odds seemingly grew even longer when starting quarterback Jason Campbell dislocated his kneecap in a Week 14 game against Chicago. But on came nearly- forgotten backup Todd Collins, who guided the Redskins to a 24-16 victory over the Bears as well as wins in the team's last three regular-season contests.

Prior to being forced into service, Collins had not started an NFL regular- season game since December of 1997 and had only 27 pass attempts over the previous nine years. The 36-year-old certainly hasn't shown any signs of rust, however, as Collins has completed nearly 64 percent of his passes and thrown for five touchdowns without an interception since taking over under center.

Washington's defense has also been instrumental in the resurgence. The unit has yielded just 13.3 points and a league-best 71.8 rushing yards over the course of the current four-game win streak, and was utterly dominant in this past Sunday's meeting with NFC front-runner Dallas.

The Redskins limited the Cowboys to a paltry 171 total yards and seven first downs, a stifling performance that paved the way for Washington's playoff- clinching 27-6 triumph. Dallas also mustered a mere one rushing yard on 16 attempts on the afternoon.

Washington now has yet another obstacle to overcome, and that's the "12th Man." Seattle has produced a stellar 22-4 overall record at Qwest Field since 2005 and has won each of its last three home playoff games, including last year's dramatic 21-20 decision over Dallas in the opening round that was best remembered for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's botched hold attempt on a potential game-winning field goal in the game's final stages.

Also part of that successful stretch was a 20-10 victory over the Redskins in the 2005 NFC Division Playoffs, the same season in which Seattle made its only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Seahawks locked up their fourth consecutive NFC West title with a 42-21 home rout of fellow division member Arizona in Week 14, but dropped two of three games following that impressive win to finish at 10-6. Seattle concluded its regular season with a wild 44-41 loss at Atlanta last Sunday.

A normally stingy Seahawks defense allowed the lowly Falcons to score 24 fourth-quarter points in that game, spoiling a 501-yard output by the Seattle offense that played the entire second half without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and top running back Shaun Alexander.

Both players were held out with the Seahawks' playoff position already determined and are dealing with minor injuries, as Hasselbeck bruised his right wrist during the game and Alexander has been hampered by an assortment of nagging ailments all year long. Each will be in the lineup on Saturday, however.

SERIES HISTORY

The above-mentioned 2005 Divisional Playoff is the only postseason meeting between the Seahawks and Redskins, as well as the most recent matchup between the clubs.

The Redskins hold a 9-4 edge in their all-time regular season series with Seattle, and have won four straight in the series dating back to 2001. The Redskins were 20-17 home winners in overtime when the teams met back Week 4 of the 2005 campaign, and took a 14-3 decision when they last traveled to Seattle for a regular season game, in 2002. The Seahawks, who are 2-4 at home against the Redskins all-time, earned their only home regular season victory in the series in 1998.

Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs is 5-1 all-time against the Seahawks, including 4-0 during his first tenure with the franchise (1981-92). The Seahawks' Mike Holmgren is 1-4 all-time against the Redskins, with all five games coming since he has been at the helm in Seattle, and is 1-1 head-to-head against Gibbs.

WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL

Washington's game plan is to control the clock with a persistent running game keyed by workhorse Clinton Portis (1262 rushing yards, 11 TD, 47 receptions), who's coming off a determined showing against Dallas in which he amassed 104 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. It was the second time in three games that the colorful back eclipsed the century mark, and he's scored four times over that span. The Redskins will need Portis to be careful with the ball, however. He fumbled six times during the regular season and will be facing a Seattle defense that's good at forcing turnovers.

The Seahawks ended the year ranked 12th overall against the run (102.8 ypg) and have done a respectable job in that area throughout the year. A fast and aggressive defense is led by standout middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (109 tackles, 4 INT, 1 sack), one of four members of the group to be named to this year's Pro Bowl. He and strongside starter Leroy Hill (81 tackles, 3 sacks) will have the task of keeping Portis under wraps on Saturday, while rookie tackle Brandon Mebane (29 tackles, 2 sacks) will be in charge of clogging up the interior and enabling Seattle's playmaking linebackers to move in space.

Seattle's strength on defense is its ability to sack the quarterback or pressure him into ill-advised throws at a ball-hawking secondary that compiled 20 interceptions during the regular season. End Patrick Kerney (62 tackles, 5 forced fumbles) led the NFC with 14 1/2 sacks and has been a disruptive force all year long, as has athletic outside linebacker and fellow Pro Bowl honoree Julian Peterson (74 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 2 INT). Linemen Darryl Tapp (49 tackles, 7 sacks) and Rocky Bernard (35 sacks, 3.5 sacks) have also been effective rushers for a unit that finished fourth in the NFL with 45 sacks. A quality defensive backfield that surrendered a league-low 15 touchdown passes in 2007 is headlined by cornerback Marcus Trufant (85 tackles, 7 INT, 15 PD), who also earned a trip to Honolulu next month.

The Seahawks will try to force the rejuvenated Collins (888 passing yards, 5 TD, 0 INT) into mistakes, but the well-prepared quarterback has made precious few of them since taking over the Washington offense. The change also seems to have benefited wide receiver Santana Moss (61 receptions, 3 TD), as the speedster has averaged 87 receiving yards in Collins' three starts. Portis has also been an integral part of Washington's 14th-ranked passing game (216.4 ypg) lately, while tight end Chris Cooley (66 receptions, 8 TD) is the team's most reliable target and a productive player in the red zone. A key matchup to watch on Saturday is how rookie right tackle Stephon Heyer fares against the dangerous Kerney. Collins has received solid protection up front during his stint and will need for that to continue, as he's not a mobile quarterback.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

The Seahawks have used a far different offensive approach than the conservative Redskins this season, preferring to attack opponents through the air with the strong right arm of Hasselbeck (3966 passing yards, 28 TD, 12 INT) and a deep and talented receiving corps. Seattle's Pro Bowl quarterback is playoff-proven, as Hasselbeck has averaged better than 250 passing yards and thrown seven touchdowns against just three interceptions in four career postseason games at home. Assuming Deion Branch (49 receptions, 4 TD) returns from a calf strain that caused him to miss last week's loss, the Seahawks will send out four capable wide receivers on Saturday. Bobby Engram (94 receptions, 1147 yards, 6 TD) is the savvy veteran Hasselbeck usually looks to in a tight spot, Nate Burleson (50 receptions, 9 TD) the dangerous big-play threat, and D.J. Hackett (32 receptions, 3 TD) the emerging star who's had a potential breakout year slowed by injuries.

The quartet could present matchup problems for a Washington secondary that isn't very deep due to the loss of Taylor and a season-ending knee injury suffered by cornerback Carlos Rogers at midseason. The healthy members of the defensive backfield have certainly held their own as of late, as former Seahawk Shawn Springs (62 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) has re-emerged as a shutdown corner down the stretch and veteran Fred Smoot (50 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD) has played well in place of Rogers. During the course of their win streak, the Redskins have held opposing quarterbacks to an average of 5.1 yards per pass attempt and garnered five interceptions. Look for Washington defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to throw an array of blitzes at Hasselbeck, as his premier rush end, Andre Carter (55 tackles, 10.5 sacks), draws a tough assignment in perennial All-Pro tackle Walter Jones.

Holmgren will be counting on another strong playoff performance out of Hasselbeck, since the Seahawks will likely have their share of troubles running the ball on Saturday. The Redskins completely shut down Dallas' ground attack last Sunday and limited Minnesota's rookie sensation Adrian Peterson to 27 yards on nine carries the previous week. Tackling machine London Fletcher (128 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) heads a defense that ranks fourth in the NFL against the rush (91.3 ypg), while tackles Anthony Montgomery (42 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Cornelius Griffin (42 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have been unsung heroes in the team's run-stopping prowess. Young safeties LaRon Landry (95 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Reed Doughty (53 tackles, 0.5 sacks) deserve some of the credit as well.

Alexander (716 rushing yards, 5 total TD) will probably split ball-carrying duties with Maurice Morris (628 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 5 total TD), who piled up 91 yards and a touchdown on only 13 rushes against Atlanta last week. Seattle amassed 167 yards on the ground against the Falcons, but averaged just 101.2 rushing yards per game (20th overall) over the course of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Seahawks have gotten plenty of big plays out of the return game this year, as Burleson and rookie Josh Wilson have combined for three touchdowns and the latter is averaging 27.5 yards running back kicks. Burleson's 11.3 yard average on punt returns trailed only Chicago's Devin Hester for tops in the NFC, but he and Wilson will be challenged by a Washington squad that has fielded one of the league's best coverage teams. For the Redskins, Rock Cartwright (25.8 ypg) is a very good kick return man but starting wideout Antwaan Randle El (6.1 ypg) hasn't made a great impact on punts.

Both coaches should feel confident in their kickers. Seattle's Josh Brown has an outstanding 85 percent career success rate (58-of-68) on field goals at Qwest Field and tied a league record with four game-winning kicks in the final minute of regulation or overtime during 2006. Washington's Shaun Suisham has made good on 16-of-17 three-point tries on the road this year.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

There's not a hotter team in this NFC playoff tournament than the Redskins and no quarterback has played better down the stretch than Collins, but this could be his and his team's toughest challenge yet. The Seahawks' track record at home is quite impressive, and Hasselbeck is a quarterback who has proven he can handle the big-game atmosphere as well as tough weather conditions that may be present on Saturday, with the forecast calling for rain and wind. Seattle's depth at receiver could prove troublesome for a Washington defense that's rather thin along the back line, and Hasselbeck should be able to pick apart the secondary if he has time to do so. On the other side, the Seahawks' ability to generate pressure threatens to end the remarkable string of mistake-free outings from Collins that have been paramount to the Redskins' late-year success. Washington's defense will keep this one close, but Seattle will find a way to come up with a big play or two that will make the difference.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 17, Redskins 13

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Mourning Redskins hit playoffs on roll

They were 5-7 and had just lost an emotional game in the wake of safety Sean Taylor's death. But instead of fading, they stormed to four straight wins and the final Wild Card spot in the NFC when Minnesota lost their final two games. Now they draw the Seahawks, a team that has changed its offensive tactics in the wake of Shaun Alexander's poor season.

Oddsmakers currently have the Seahawks listed as 3-point favorites versus the Redskins, while the game's total is sitting at 40½.

The Redskins defeated Dallas 27-6 as a 9-point favorite in Week 17. The combined score fell UNDER the posted over/under total (39).

Clinton Portis rushed for 104 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns for Washington, while Todd Collins completed 22-of-31 passes for 244 yards with a touchdown.

The Seahawks lost to Atlanta 44-41 as a 1-point favorite in Week 17. The combined score went OVER the posted over (38.5).

Seneca Wallace completed 17-of-22 passes for 206 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for Seattle, while Maurice Morris rushed for 91 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown.

Team records:
Washington: 9-7 SU, 7-7-2 ATS
Seattle: 10-6 SU, 9-6-1 ATS

Washington most recently:
When playing in January are 7-3
When playing on turf are 4-6
After outgaining opponent are 5-5
When playing outside the division are 6-4

Seattle most recently:
When playing in January are 5-5
When playing on turf are 8-2
After outgaining opponent are 5-5
When playing outside the division are 5-5

A few trends to consider:
The total has gone UNDER in 5 of Washington's last 5 games when playing on the road against Seattle
Washington is 4-1 SU in its last 5 games
Washington is 4-1 ATS in its last 5 games
Washington is 4-1 ATS in its last 5 games when playing Seattle
Seattle is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games at home
Seattle is 5-0 ATS in its last 5 games at home
The total has gone UNDER in 5 of Seattle's last 5 games when playing at home against Washington
Seattle is 6-2 SU in its last 8 games

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Game Preview for Jaguars vs Steelers

(Sports Network) - The Jacksonville Jaguars will be out to accomplish a unique first on Saturday night at Heinz Field, when Jack Del Rio's team faces the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC First-Round playoff matchup.

Jacksonville, which scored a 29-22 win in the Steel City back in Week 15, will be vying to become the first visiting team in NFL history to win in Pittsburgh twice in the same campaign.

Only two previous teams have had a chance to pull off the feat, but both the 1978 Houston Oilers and 2001 Baltimore Ravens lost playoff games in Pittsburgh after winning there during the regular season.

The AFC North Champion Steelers will be attempting to both avoid that piece of history and right a ship that has drifted off course in recent weeks.

After starting the year at 7-2, Mike Tomlin's club was just 3-4 in its final seven regular season games, a stretch that included losses to the hapless Jets and Ravens.

Injuries to key players like running back Willie Parker (broken leg) and defensive end Aaron Smith (biceps) were viewed as having an impact on that less-than-stellar stretch, and injury concerns continue to cast a pall over the team as it embarks on its first postseason game since winning Super Bowl XL roughly 23 months ago.

In addition to Parker and Smith, the Steelers will be without their top two left tackles, Marvel Smith (back) and Max Starks (knee), when they take the field on Saturday.

Jacksonville doesn't have the history of its Black and Gold counterpart, but the Jaguars do seem to be playing from a position of greater strength at this moment.

Del Rio's squad went 6-2 in the season's second half, with the only losses during that stretch a three-point setback at Indianapolis and last week's road defeat to Houston in a game that saw many of Jacksonville's key players sit out in preparation for the playoffs.

Many league observers consider the Jaguars, who last won a playoff game in 1999, to be among the NFL's most dangerous postseason participants, a reputation they will look to earn when they play in one of the league's most difficult road venues on Saturday.

SERIES HISTORY

Jacksonville leads its all-time series with Pittsburgh, 11-8, including the aforementioned 29-22 win at Heinz Field in Week 15. The Jaguars have won three straight in the series since the Steelers scored a 17-16 win in Jacksonville during the 2004 campaign. Jacksonville is 2-0 in the Steel City since last losing there, 20-7, in 2001.

Del Rio is 3-1 against the Steelers, while Pittsburgh's Tomlin is 0-1 against both Del Rio and Jacksonville as a head man.

WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL

Jacksonville's offensive approach on Saturday night won't exactly be a state secret, as a team that was No. 2 in NFL rushing offense (149.4 yards per game) will look to establish the ground game against a Pittsburgh defense that was gutted for 224 running yards when these teams met in Week 15. The 1-2 punch of Fred Taylor (1202 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Maurice Jones-Drew (768 rushing yards, 9 TD, 40 receptions) has been excellent all season, with Taylor exploding for five consecutive 100-yard games before being rested by Del Rio against Houston last Sunday. The veteran's incendiary remarks about the playing surface at Heinz Field earlier in the week should make him something of a target for both the Steelers defense and the team's loyal fan base on Saturday.

Jacksonville's aerial attack is less heralded than the running game, but quarterback David Garrard (2509 passing yards, 18 TD, 3 INT) has been among the league's most efficient passers all season. Garrard, who will be making his first career playoff start, compiled a passer rating of 102.2 that was third in the league behind only Tom Brady (117.2) and Ben Roethlisberger (104.1). Wideouts Reggie Williams (38 receptions, 10 TD), Ernest Wilford (45 receptions, 3 TD), and Dennis Northcutt (44 receptions, 4 TD), all of whom had touchdown catches against Pittsburgh last time out, have been the team's most reliable deep options. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (37 receptions, 2 TD) has been another middle-of-the-field threat for Garrard. The Jacksonville line allowed 31 sacks on the season, but none against Pittsburgh in Week 15.

Although the Steelers' struggles against the run have been evident in recent weeks, Jacksonville might seek to take some chances downfield against an injury-battered Pittsburgh secondary. The Black and Gold list four defensive backs - safety Troy Polamalu (knee), cornerbacks Deshea Townsend (foot), Bryant McFadden (ankle), and Allen Rossum (hamstring) - as questionable for Saturday night's contest. That situation will put additional pressure on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme to get to Garrard. Linebackers James Harrison (98 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT) and James Farrior (94 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) have been the most reliable pass rushers for the Steelers this season. Pittsburgh ranked tied for dead last in the league in interceptions (11) during the regular season, with cornerback Ike Taylor's (80 tackles, 1 sack) three picks leading the squad.

After doing a good job stopping the run for much of the season, the reputation of the Steelers' front seven took a hit when it allowed an average of 164.7 ground yards over its final three games. Injuries to Aaron Smith and Polamalu (58 tackles), two of the team's best run-stoppers, had something to do with that trend. The play of veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton (33 tackles, 0.5 sacks) will be key to Saturday's effort, as will the tackling of inside linebackers Farrior and Larry Foote (81 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT).

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

The depleted state of the Pittsburgh running game could force the offense to go to a pass-heavy approach behind Roethlisberger (3154 passing yards, 32 TD, 11 INT). Two keys to the potential Saturday success of Roethlisberger, who set a franchise single-season mark for touchdown passes this season, will be the play of inexperienced left tackle Trai Essex and the ability of top wideout Hines Ward (71 receptions, 7 TD) to rebound from a persistent knee injury. Essex has made just four career starts since being drafted out of Northwestern in 2005, and will be trying to prop up a line that has allowed 47 sacks on the year, by far the highest total among 2007 playoff teams. Ward, who was named Super Bowl MVP in his last postseason game, turned in his lowest receiving yards total (732) since 2000 this year, and was limited to three catches for 27 yards against Jacksonville last month. Santonio Holmes (52 receptions, 8 TD) has supplanted Ward as the team's most reliable deep target, and tight end Heath Miller (47 receptions, 7 TD) remains a threat as well.

The Steelers ranked third in NFL rushing offense (135.5 yards per game) during the regular season, though most of that total can be attributed to Parker, who was leading the league in ground yards at the time of his Week 16 injury. The man tabbed to replace him, ex-Packer Najeh Davenport (499 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 7 TD), amassed just 27 yards on 12 carries in his first start of the year against Baltimore last Sunday. Rookie Gary Russell (21 rushing yards) and recently re-signed veteran Verron Haynes (1 reception) could garner some carries as well on Saturday. Of the three running backs currently on the Pittsburgh roster, Haynes has the most playoff experience. The Georgia product appeared in six postseason contests in 2004 and 2005, including Super Bowl XL. Davenport played in three playoff games as a member of the Packers in 2003 and 2004, carrying 21 times for 77 yards and a touchdown.

Attacking Roethlisberger and the makeshift Steelers pass protectors will likely be the chief directive for the Jacksonville defense on Saturday. The Jaguars dragged "Big Ben" down five times when the team visited Pittsburgh in Week 15, with ends Brent Hawkins (14 tackles, 3.5 sacks), Bobby McCray (18 tackles, 3 sacks), and Paul Spicer (34 tackles, 7.5 sacks) all finding their way to the sack column in that contest. At the same time, the Jaguars must be better on the back end, where they allowed Roethlisberger to throw three touchdown passes without an interception last month. Cornerback Rashean Mathis (58 tackles, 1 INT) and veteran strong safety Sammy Knight (93 tackles, 4 INT) lead the defensive backfield, which will be a man down on Saturday if rookie safety Reggie Nelson (63 tackles, 5 INT, 1 sack) can't shake off a thigh injury to crack the lineup. Nelson is regarded as questionable.

The Jaguars ranked a respectable 11th in the league against the run during the regular season (100.3 yards per game), but there are some strides to be made against them in that area. Jacksonville will definitely be without top defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (ankle), middle linebacker Mike Peterson (hand) could soon join Stroud on season-ending injured reserve, and Stroud fill-in Grady Jackson (9 tackles) is questionable for this week with a knee injury. Plus, though the Steelers were playing from behind for much of their Week 15 matchup with the Jags, Willie Parker still managed to amass 100 yards on just 14 carries. Jacksonville's most notable run-stuffers at the moment are tackle John Henderson (38 tackles) along with linebackers Daryl Smith (71 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Justin Durant (49 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Steelers' Jeff Reed (23-of-25 FG) was the NFL's most accurate kicker (15 or more kicks) in 2007, and his only miss at Heinz Field all year came in a quagmire against Miami on Nov. 26th. Reed also notched 10 kickoffs for touchbacks. Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda (42.4 avg.) has had an encouraging rookie season.

With Rossum (23.3 kickoff return avg., 1 TD, 6.4 punt return avg.) a question mark, Willie Reid (21.2 avg.) could handle kickoff returns for Pittsburgh. with Cedrick Wilson (3.0 avg.) on punt returns. Rossum's lone TD of the year came on a 98-yard return against the 49ers in Week 3.

Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee (12-13 FG) was also accurate, and is 11-of-12 on field goals since returning in mid-November from a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for eight weeks. Scobee has 12 touchbacks in eight appearances. Jaguars punter Adam Podlesh (41.6) has struggled at times this season and mishandled two snaps against Pittsburgh in Week 15.

Jones-Drew (26.2 kickoff return avg., 1 TD) and Dennis Northcutt (9.2 punt return avg.) are the return men for the Jaguars. Jones-Drew had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Saints on Nov. 4th. The Jaguars allowed two kickoff returns for TDs to Houston's Andre' Davis last Sunday, but otherwise played decent special teams defense all year.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Steelers might not be in mid-season form at this moment, but you can hardly expect a franchise as proud as this one to go down before its home fans without a serious fight. Look for Pittsburgh to scratch and claw to stay in this game, with special teams making a key contribution to help out the depleted offensive and defensive units. In the end, however, look for Jacksonville to prevail. The Jaguars are simply too explosive and too confident at this stage to turn in another one-and-done in the playoffs. Taylor and Jones-Drew will help wear down the Steelers "D", with the running game providing a back-breaking big play in the fourth quarter.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 20, Steelers 16

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Jags look to repeat Week 15 victory at Heinz Field

Jacksonville came to Pittsburgh three weeks ago and won in the snow. They might have to do it again in the AFC Wild Card. The surging Jags visit the Steelers, who will be without RB Willie Parker. Both come off meaningless road losses last week. Of note, Jacksonville is 7-1 ATS past eight meetings with Pittsburgh.

Oddsmakers currently have the Jaguars listed as 2-point favorites versus the Steelers, while the game's total is sitting at 39½.

The Jaguars lost to Houston 42-28 as a 6.5-point underdog in Week 17. The combined score went OVER the posted over/under total (41.5).

Quinn Gray completed 25-of-39 passes for 302 yards with four touchdowns for Jacksonville and Ernest Wilford caught six passes for 58 yards with two touchdowns.

The Steelers lost to Baltimore 27-21 as a 3-point favorite in Week 17. The combined score went OVER the posted over/under total (35).

Charlie Batch completed 16-of-31 passes for 218 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for Pittsburgh, while Santonio Holmes caught four passes for 98 yards with a touchdown.

Team records:
Jacksonville: 11-5 SU, 11-5 ATS
Pittsburgh: 10-6 SU, 8-8 ATS

Jacksonville most recently:
When playing in January are 5-5
When playing on grass are 8-2
After outgaining opponent are 6-4
When playing outside the division are 9-1

Pittsburgh most recently:
When playing in January are 7-3
When playing on grass are 7-3
After being outgained are 8-2
When playing outside the division are 5-5

A few trends to consider:
The total has gone OVER in 5 of Jacksonville's last 5 games
The total has gone OVER in 5 of Jacksonville's last 5 games on the road
Jacksonville is 5-0 ATS in its last 5 games when playing Pittsburgh
Jacksonville is 7-1 ATS in its last 8 games
Pittsburgh is 7-1 SU in its last 8 games at home
The total has gone OVER in 17 of Pittsburgh's last 25 games at home
Pittsburgh is 8-4 ATS in its last 12 games at home
Pittsburgh is 14-7 SU in its last 21 games

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

What bettors need to know: Redskins at Seahawks
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Sour ending

The Seahawks’ season finale left a bad taste in the mouths of Seattle backers after the club surrendered 44 points to the lowly Atlanta Falcons. The poor showing can’t be attributed to a mismatch of Seattle backups against Atlanta starters.

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren left his first-string defense in until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Seattle had nothing to gain from the contest but it was still a shock to see a good Seahawks’ defense play its worst game against the offensively-challenged Falcons.

“We were playing basic defense,” linebacker Julius Peterson told reporters afterwards. “We shot ourselves in the foot with turnovers. We still have a great defense.”

Peterson and his mates were actually on pace to break the franchise record for fewest points allowed in a season before last weekend’s meltdown.

“Every game means something to me,” Deon Grant said. “I don’t care if it’s against my little sister.

“I don’t like to be embarrassed. We had them 10-0, and they had just three games. We gave up 44 points. That’s definitely not good.”

Getting the most out of Moss

The Redskins played the majority of 2007 without their top big-play threat. Santana Moss suited up for 14 of Washington’s 16 matches but it was clear he was not 100 percent.

But Moss is now running at full strength with the ‘Skins first playoff game just days away.

“Early in the year, me and Coach (Joe) Gibbs talked,” Moss told USA Today. “He knew I was nicked up a little bit. He was like, ‘We go as far as you go.’ Sometimes you have to get healed.

“I stayed in the treatment room and made sure I could patch up some of the things that were nicked up and go out there and play my best football. I’m a professional. If I can go out there and be productive regardless of what’s bothering me, I will do that.”

Moss’ patience is starting to pay off. The wide receiver has grabbed 18 balls for 290 yards and two touchdowns over Washington’s last four games (all wins straight up and against the spread).

“Santana’s a big-play guy,” Gibbs said. “When we do get plays over 20 (yards), chances are he’s a guy who’s going to get a bunch of them. I don’t know of anybody that is better adjusting to a deep ball. He has GPS. He can find it when other people can’t. He’s not a big guy, but he plays big.”

Wristy business

The Redskins’ fourth-best run defense coupled with the Seahawks inability to run the ball consistently this season means Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren will continue rely on the passing game.

“At this point, we’re going to do the things that work for us,” Holmgren said. “So we’re not going to change that much. And I think how far we go will be dependent on how well we do those.”

The NFC West champs seem unconcerned about the right wrist injury Matt Hasselbeck suffered in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Falcons.

“I was throwing the ball away and hit the ground,” Hasselbeck told the Seattle Times. “I don’t know if I landed on it or somebody landed on it, but I just kind of fell awkwardly.”

The three-time Pro Bowler shook off the pain a tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Engram shortly after the incident. He’s practiced all week and there’s been little indication the wrist is giving him any additional problems.

Head-to-head

The Seahawks and Redskins last met in divisional round of the NFC playoffs two years ago. Seattle won the elimination contest 20-10 and covered as 9 ½-point favorites. Washington had won and covered in the previous four meetings.

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

What bettors need to know: Jaguars at Steelers
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Who’s left at tackle for Pittsburgh?


The Steelers are down to their third-string left tackle because of injuries to Max Starks and Marvel Smith. The task of protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side falls on seldom used Trai Essex. The third round pick in 2005 was a healthy scratch for 12 of Pittsburgh’s games this season.

“Trai is the next guy up and the level of expectation will not change,” head coach Mike Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Using common sense, because he is the third guy we’ve lineup up at that spot this year, we have to do some things schematically to help him. We intend to do that, but we expect him to play winning football for us.”

Tackle isn’t the only thin position for the Steelers. Pittsburgh heads into its home playoff game without Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, defensive end Aaron Smith and with several other starters limping around practice.

“Injuries are a part of the game and when I say that, I believe it,” Tomlin said. “We are not unlike any team. Any of the 12 teams that are in this field left still standing have had injury issues. They found ways to overcome it.

“Whoever hoists that Lombardi Trophy in a month or so will have had injury-history issues and will have found ways to overcome it. We don’t dwell on that. That’s as much of part of the game as blocking and tackling. The healthy guys play and the standard of expectation doesn’t change.”

Been there, done that

The Jags are considered by many to be the club that could throw a wrench in the AFC playoffs. Of course some might point out the Jaguars did little to impress in their last playoff appearance – a 28-3 loss to the New England Patriots at Foxborough two years ago.

There are a number of reasons to think Jacksonville is a different club than the 2005 edition. That team benefited greatly from a soft schedule and finished with a 12-4 mark. The ’05 Jags went 7-1 in the final eight games but barely squeaked out wins against the Cleveland Browns (20-14) and San Francisco 49ers (10-9).

“We have good chemistry going on, and I think this is the best team I have been on as the word team is concerned,” Jags running back Fred Taylor, now in his 10th year with the Jaguars, told Florida Times Union. “On past teams, we had some great players. These guys on the team now, there are no selfish players. We thrive off of everyone else.”

It doesn’t hurt having a productive quarterback (David Garrard) behind center either. Jacksonville’s once non-existent offense is now one of the better units in NFL. Garrard’s steady play has pushed the Jaguars’ offensive into the league’s top seven in both scoring and total yards.

“We’ll see if it’s better,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t win, it’s the same thing like the team in 2005.”

The numbers lie

The Steelers finished with the league’s best run defense but they allowed an average of 165 rushing yards in the final three weeks. Jacksonville first exposed Pittsburgh’s D when the club rushed for 224 yards at Heinz Field.

“We’re standing there watching, and you are like, ‘Holy cow, we’ve never seen a team run on us or beat us at home,’” Roethlisberger told USA Today. “I don’t expect that to happen again. I expect our defense to come out firing. That motivates us as an offense. They give us the ball in good field, and they are fun to watch.”

The black curtain will have to come up with a way to stop the Jags’ tag team running tandem of Maurice Jones-Drew and Taylor.

Head-to-head

Jacksonville has won and covered three straight against the Steelers including the last two games at Heinz Field. The Jaguars have covered the number five straight times and eight of the last 10.

Jacksonville also leads the series history 11-8.

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Jaguars appear to have playoff-foe Steelers' number

Parker's loss puts too much pressure on Roethlisberger, handicapper says

Despite their success, running back Fred Taylor and the Jacksonville Jaguars keep a low profile. In terms of respect, the Jaguars always feel like underdogs.

Jacksonville finished the regular season 11-5, but had no starters voted to the Pro Bowl. Taylor is expected to go for the first time as an injury replacement for Willie Parker of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Without Parker, the Steelers are stumbling into the playoffs as 21/2-point home underdogs to the Jaguars in an AFC wild-card matchup Saturday.

"No team in the NFL playoffs, including New England, is playing better than Jacksonville, and it is lost on no one that the Jaguars seem to have some kind of whammy on Pittsburgh," handicapper Kelso Sturgeon (kelsosports handicapping.com) said.

Taylor rushed for 147 yards and the winning touchdown, and David Garrard passed for three scores in Jacksonville's 29-22 victory at Pittsburgh on Dec. 16.

The teams have played once in each of the past three seasons, and the Jaguars won and covered every time. In the eight meetings between the teams since 2000, Jacksonville is 5-3 straight up and 7-1 against the spread.

Sturgeon said the loss of Parker, fourth in the league in rushing with 1,316 yards, should be too much for the Steelers (10-6) to overcome.

Pittsburgh must rely heavily on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In a season-ending loss at Baltimore, Roethlisberger rested and Najeh Davenport rushed for just 27 yards on 12 carries.

"The Steelers, a traditional running team, must try to beat Jacksonville with the pass. Parker is out and Davenport can't fill his shoes, as he showed last week," Sturgeon said.

"This puts Pittsburgh's chances squarely and exclusively on the arm of Roethlisberger, and my money says a team can't change overnight from a running team to a passing team and make it work."

The Jaguars are solid defensively and run-oriented on offense, with Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew making up maybe the best running back duo in the league.

Taylor had five consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts before sitting out the last game of the season. He finished ninth in the NFL with 1,202 yards rushing and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

"Jacksonville is healthy, has the perfect mix of running and passing in its offense and plays great defense," Sturgeon said. "It also is of note Pittsburgh has lost three of its last four games while Jacksonville has gone 6-2 in the second half of the season, with three of those wins against playoff teams.

"I look for the Jaguars to use a very disciplined offense to hold on to the ball, control the clock as they have done game after game, limit Pittsburgh's offensive opportunities and grind out a fourth straight win against the Steelers."

The Steelers opened as 1-point favorites at some sports books.

"I think these are great playoff matchups," MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said. "The team I think really looks good is Jacksonville. But it's going to be hard to go to Pittsburgh twice in a three-week span and win."

Seattle is a 3-point home favorite over Washington in the NFC wild-card game Saturday. The Seahawks opened as high as 5-point favorites.

"The Seahawks haven't got much respect the whole season, and I think deservedly so," Walker said.

Betting underdogs is usually a solid strategy in the NFL, but this season was a little different. Favorites finished 128-118-7 against the spread.

The Green Bay Packers, seeded second in the NFC, posted the league's best spread record at 12-3-1. The Jaguars were next at 11-5.

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Redskins at Seahawks
By Brad Young

Wild-card weekend kicks off with a pair of teams that haven’t met since the postseason two years ago. Seattle toppled Washington in that contest en route to its only Super Bowl appearance.

However, the Seahawks were the NFC’s top seed during that 2006 matchup in the divisional round. Seattle is the third seed this season, while Washington is the sixth and final seed.

The Redskins are battle tested this time around, coming out of the NFC East that has three playoff teams with every team finishing .500 or better. Meanwhile, the Seahawks won the lackluster NFC West against divisional rivals that went a combined 16-32.

“Seattle has struggled down the stretch, while Washington has been on fire,” stated VegasInsider.com handicapper Scott Pritchard, who currently leads VI with a +600 on his guaranteed plays. “That being said, the Seahawks did go 7-1 at home this season.”

Caesars Palace currently has Seattle listed as a 3 ½-point home ‘chalk’ over Washington, with the total set at 40. The total has remained constant throughout the week, but the Seahawks opened as a five-point favorite. NBC Sports will provide coverage of Saturday’s NFC wild-card game beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Washington (9-7 straight up, 7-7 against the spread) earned the NFC’s sixth and final postseason slot by winning its last four games SU and ATS. The Redskins wrapped up the regular season by beating rival Dallas as a nine-point home ‘chalk,’ 27-6. The combined 33 points failed to topple the 39-point closing total, helping the ‘under’ improve to 4-2 the past six games.

Quarterback Todd Collins was 22-of-31 passing for 244 yards with a touchdown, while running back Clinton Portis had 25 carries for 104 yards and two scores. Wideout Santana Moss stepped up with eight receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. Moss has really stepped up during the Redskins’ four-game winning streak, accounting for 18 receptions for 290 yards and two touchdowns.

“I expect Todd Collins to have a hard time with Seattle’s defense,” noted Pritchard. “The Seahawks defensive front has been creating havoc against opponents.”

Seattle (10-6 SU, 9-6 ATS) dropped to 1-2 SU and ATS its last three games after falling to Atlanta last weekend as a two-point road favorite, 44-41. The combined 85 points soared ‘over’ the 38 ½-point closing total, ending back-to-back ‘under’ outings.

The Seahawks lost after allowing the Falcons to post 24 points in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck injured his wrist against Atlanta, and completed 15-of-25 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown before sitting down. Backup Seneca Wallace finished the game by going 17-of-22 passing for 206 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Maurice Morris paced the ground game with 13 carries for 91 yards and a score.

Seattle faces a tough task this weekend against a Washington team that ranks fourth in run defense. The Seahawks should be up to the task after producing season highs rushing the ball in back-to-back weeks.

“No one has run well against the Redskins the past four weeks,” said Pritchard. “Seattle running back Shawn Alexander has definitely struggled this year.

“Two years ago against Washington in the playoffs, Alexander was held to just nine yards on six carries and the Seahawks still won by 10 points.”

Washington is 3-1 SU and ATS the previous four encounters with Seattle, but the lone setback occurred in the postseason two years ago as a 9 ½-point road underdog, 20-10. The combined 30 points never seriously threatened the 41 ½-point closing total.

Washington quarterback Todd Collins is expected to start, while Jason Campbell (knee) is ‘doubtful’ versus the Seahawks. Linebacker Randall Godfrey (abdominal) has been upgraded to ‘probable.’

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (wrist) is ‘probable’ against the Redskins, while linebacker Niko Koutouvides (knee), defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (groin), wide receiver Deion Branch (calf) and offensive tackle Walter Jones (shoulder) are ‘questionable.’

Saturday’s forecast for Seattle calls for rain and wind, with a high of 45 degrees and a low of 36.

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Washington (9-7, 7-7-2 ATS) at Seattle (10-6, 9-7 ATS)

After a stunning late-season push to get the NFC’s No. 6 seed, the Redskins make a cross-country trek to face the NFC West champion Seahawks at Qwest Field in a rematch of a divisional playoff game from the 2005 season.

Washington pounded Dallas – which was already locked into the No. 1 seed – 27-6 on Sunday as a nine-point chalk to finish the regular season on a 4-0 SU and ATS streak. QB Todd Collins, a 36-year-old journeyman who replaced the injured Jason Campbell for three-plus games and guided the Redskins’ run to the playoffs, went 22 of 31 for 244 yards with a TD and no INTs. RB Clinton Portis rushed for 104 yards and two TDs to finish the season with 1,262 yards and 11 TDs, the fifth time in six seasons Portis has gone for at least 1,200 yards. WR Santana Moss had eight catches for 115 yards, including a 42-yard TD.

The Cowboys, minus WR Terrell Owens, took key starters out by early in the second half, helping the Redskins to a 354-147 yardage advantage and a 14-minute time-of-possession edge. Washington held Dallas to just a field goal in each half.

Seattle, in a meaningless game at Atlanta last week, lost a 44-41 shootout as a two-point road favorite to end the regular season on a 1-2 SU and ATS skid, which came on the heels of a five-game SU and ATS winning streak. QB Matt Hasselbeck, playing only the first half, was a solid 17 of 22 for 206 yards with two TDs and one INT. RB Maurice Morris racked up 91 yards and a TD on just 13 carries, and WR Nate Burleson had his biggest game of the season with seven catches for 119 yards and two TDs.

These teams met twice in the 2005 season. Washington posted a 20-17 home win in overtime to cash as a two-point favorite in the regular season, but Seattle got revenge with a 20-10 home playoff win as a 9½ -point chalk on its way to reaching its first Super Bowl.

The Redskins started out 1-5 on the road (1-3-1 ATS) before recording outright upset wins in their last two on the highway. Washington enters this one on ATS rolls of 19-7-1 against winning teams, 5-1 ATS against the NFC and 6-2 in January. Furthermore, coach Joe Gibbs, who kept his squad focused after the shooting death of S Sean Taylor, is 17-6 SU and ATS in the postseason.

On the negative side, Washington went 1-5 SU (2-3-1 ATS) against teams with a winning record this year and is 3-7-1 ATS in its last 11 games on field turf, including the 2005 playoff defeat at Seattle.

The Seahawks went 7-1 at home this season (6-2 ATS), closing with five consecutive SU and ATS wins at Qwest Field. Seattle is also on positive ATS runs of 6-2 as a chalk, 6-2 against the NFC, 4-1 following an ATS loss and 5-2 following a SU loss. Finally, Mike Holmgren’s squad is 16-7 ATS in its last 23 as a home favorite.

Offensively, Washington ranks just 20th in scoring (20.9 points per game), though it does have the league’s 12th-best rushing attack (116.9 yards per game). The Redskins are much stronger defensively, allowing 19.4 ppg (11th), 305.2 total ypg (8th) and just 91.2 rushing ypg (4th). However, they finished with a minus-5 turnover differential.

Hasselbeck finished the season with a career-high 3,966 passing yards (62.6 completion percentage), 28 TDs and 12 INTs. Oft-injured RB Shaun Alexander had just 716 yards (3.5 per carry) and four TDs, but Morris added another 628 yards and four scores, averaging a solid 4.5 ypc.

Seattle is in the league’s top 10 offensively in points (24.6, 10th), total yards (348.9, 9th) and passing yards (247.8, 8th). Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ defense allowed just 18.2 ppg (7th), and they were a middling 15th in total yards allowed (321.8). However, they did post a solid plus-10 turnover differential.

The under is 4-2 in Washington’s last six overall, 6-2 in its last eight January starts and 7-3 in its last 10 Saturday matchups. Washington has further under trends of 4-0 in the playoffs, 5-1 following a spread-cover and 34-16-2 as a road pup.

For Seattle, the under is on streaks of 5-0 on Saturday, 4-1 in the playoffs, 8-3 at home and 7-1 following a SU loss.

ATS ADVANTAGE: SEATTLE and UNDER


Jacksonville (11-5 SU and ATS) at Pittsburgh (10-6, 8-8 ATS)

The fifth-seeded Jaguars, just three weeks removed from a solid upset win at Heinz Field, return to Pittsburgh for a rematch with the fourth-seeded Steelers, winners of the AFC North.

Jacksonville had nothing to play for in its season finale at Houston last week, and it showed in a 42-28 loss as a seven-point underdog, halting the Jags’ 7-0 ATS streak (6-1 SU). Starting QB David Garrard didn’t take a snap, leaving the offense in the hands of backup Quinn Gray, who went a strong 25 of 39 for 302 yards with four TDs and no INTs. But the Jags gave up two Andre Davis kickoff returns (97 and 104 yards), which proved the difference.

Pittsburgh, anticipating that San Diego would beat Oakland and steal the No. 3 seed, also backed off against Baltimore in losing 27-21 as a three-point road pup, closing the season on a 1-3 SU and ATS skid. Backup Charlie Batch, in relief of Ben Roethlisberger, went 16 of 31 for 218 yards, offsetting two TDs with two INTs. The Steelers got outgained 334-264 by a Baltimore squad that had lost nine straight games.

The Jaguars beat Pittsburgh 29-22 on Dec. 16 as a three-point road pup. Jacksonville finished with a whopping 421-217 edge in total offense, including 224-111 on the ground in a game played in miserable conditions that featured frigid temperatures, wind, rain and snow. The Jags own a three-game SU and a five-game ATS winning streak against the Steelers, all as an underdog.

Going back to the days when both teams were in the AFC North, the host is 14-5 ATS in the last 19 series meetings.

This season, Jacksonville went 6-2 ATS on the highway and 8-2 ATS in non-division play. The Jags are on further positive ATS trends of 5-0 against teams with a winning mark, 6-1 against the AFC, 13-5-1 following a non-cover and 7-3 off a SU loss. However, they are 2-5 ATS in their last seven playoff games and 0-4 ATS on the road in the postseason.

The straight-up winner is an eye-popping 30-2 ATS in Jacksonville’s last 32 starts, dating to the 2006 season opener.

The Steelers went 6-2 ATS in the first half of the season, then nose-dived to a 2-6 ATS finish. They’re also just 1-6 ATS in their last six against the AFC, 3-6 ATS in their last nine non-divisional contests and 1-4 ATS in their last five home playoff battles. However, the five-time world champs went 4-0 ATS during their run to the 2005 Super Bowl title as a No. 6 seed.

Garrard ended his first season as a starter by completing 64 percent of his passes for 2,509 passing yards with 18 TDs and just three INTs and two lost fumbles. The RB tandem of Fred Taylor (1,202, 5.4 per carry, 5 TDs) and Maurice Jones-Drew (768 yards, 4.6 ypc, nine TDs), neither of whom played in Houston, gave Garrard plenty of help.

Jacksonville is among the top 10 in the league in total offense (357.4 ypg, 7th), scoring offense (25.7 ppg, 6th) and rushing offense (149.4 ypg, 2nd). Defensively, the Jaguars are 10th in the league in points allowed at 19.0, and they finished the regular season with a plus-9 turnover differential.

Roethlisberger had an outstanding bounce-back season, connecting on 63.2 percent of his tosses for 3,154 passing yards with 32 TDs and11 INTs. However, one of Roethlisberger’s big security blankets, leading rusher Willie Parker (1,316 yards, 4.1 ypc), was lost for the season with a broken leg in Week 15.

Pittsburgh’s offense was ninth in scoring (24.6 ppg) and third in rushing (135.5 ypg). The Steelers also fielded the league’s No. 1 defense (266.4 ypg allowed), while finishing second in points allowed (16.8) and third in both passing yards (176.5) and rushing yards allowed (89.9). Despite those impressive rankings, Pittsburgh was just plus-3 in turnover margin.

For Jacksonville, the over is 16-5-1 in its last 22 games, 6-0 on the highway, 6-0-1 against the AFC, 5-1 after a SU loss and 5-1 after an ATS setback. For Pittsburgh, the over is 9-2 in its last 11 playoff starts, 13-3 in its last 16 January games and 9-2 in its last 11 playoff contests. Finally, the over is 39-15-2 in the Steelers’ last 56 as a host.

Conversely, the under is 13-6 in the last 19 meetings in this series, though last month’s meeting easily soared over the posted total.

ATS ADVANTAGE: JACKSONVILLE and OVER

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

Today's NFL games

A look at the playoff matchups:

WASHINGTON (9-7) AT SEATTLE (10-6)

* Story line: The Redskins have won four in a row, using the shooting death of Sean Taylor as an impetus to unite. They limited opponents to a league-best 71.8 yards rushing in those four games, and quarterback Todd Collins has been steady with 888 yards passing with five touchdowns and no interceptions during the streak. The Seahawks stumbled down the stretch, losing two of their last three games but resting many starters during those games after clinching the NFC West title. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has had a career year with 3,966 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, but running back Shaun Alexander had only 716 yards rushing and four touchdowns -- his least-productive season since he was a rookie in 2000.

* Injury report: REDSKINS -- Out: QB Jason Campbell (knee); Questionable: WR James Thrash (ankle). SEAHAWKS -- Questionable: WR Deion Branch (calf); Probable: RB Shaun Alexander (wrist), LB Niko Koutouvides (knee).

* Peter Yoon's pick: Washington. The Redskins are the team nobody in the NFC wants to meet in the playoffs this year.


JACKSONVILLE (11-5) AT PITTSBURGH (10-6)

* Story line: The Steelers enter the playoffs having lost three of their last four games, including a home game against the Jaguars on Dec. 16. Pittsburgh has given up averages of 28.5 points and 373 yards a game in that span -- more than 15 points and 140 yards more than the Steelers gave up in their first 12 games. They will also be without injured running back Willie Parker, who was fourth in the NFL with 1,316 yards. That will put extra pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had 32 touchdown passes. The Jaguars were second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 149.4 yards a game, and quarterback David Garrard threw only three passes that were intercepted -- the fewest among quarterbacks who threw at least 225 passes.

* Injury report: JAGUARS -- Out: LB Mike Peterson (hand), RB LaBrandon Toefield (ankle); Probable: CB Aaron Glenn (ankle), DT Grady Jackson (knee), S Reggie Nelson (thigh). STEELERS -- Out: T Marvel Smith (back); Questionable: S Troy Polamalu (knee), CB Allen Rossum (hamstring); Probable: CB Bryant McFadden (ankle), WR Willie Reid (shoulder), CB Deshea Townsend (foot), WR Hines Ward (knee).

* Yoon's pick: Jacksonville. The Jaguars can control the ball with Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew and the rest of their running game.

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Re: NFL Playoffs Saturday

BEHIND THE LINES

Steelers feeling unloved at home

Visiting Jaguars are favored in NFL wild-card game, in part because they won at Pittsburgh last month.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won five Super Bowls and own a rich history of NFL playoff success, yet they are not getting much love for today's NFL wild-card game against Jacksonville.

The Steelers, who won the AFC North with a 10-6 record, are 2½-point underdogs even with the game being played at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.

According to the betting chart on theSpread.com, the Jaguars have received 70% of the bets against the spread.

Why the disrespect? Let's start with key injuries for the Steelers, who will play without Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, defensive end Aaron Smith and two offensive tackles.

Pittsburgh also has a few negative betting trends to overcome. The Steelers are 1-4 against the spread in their last five home playoff games and are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven games vs. AFC teams.

Then there are the streaking Jaguars, who have won seven of their last eight games, including a 29-22 victory at Pittsburgh on Dec. 16. In that game, Jacksonville pounded the Steelers on the ground, rushing for 224 yards behind Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

The Jaguars, who are 11-5 and finished behind Indianapolis in the AFC South, also have a couple of positive betting trends working. Jacksonville has won three in a row over the Steelers and covered the point spread in each game, including the last two played at Heinz Field.

And during the regular season, the Jaguars were 11-5 against the spread, including an 8-2 mark over their final 10 games. Jacksonville is also 5-0 against the spread in its last five games against teams with winning records, and is 6-0 against the spread in its last six games as a favorite.

Last note: The Steelers are 4-0 against the spread in their last four playoff games -- all played in their run to the Super Bowl title in 2005.


The Seattle Seahawks are 3 1/2 -point home favorites over Washington in today's other wild-card game, which features two teams riding strong betting trends.

The Redskins, who were 9-7 during the regular season but won their last four games with Todd Collins at quarterback, are 5-1 against the spread in their last six games as an underdog of 3 1/2 to 10 points.

Seattle, which won the NFC West with a 10-6 record, is 5-0 against the spread in its last five games as a home favorite.

College football

Ray Rice is Rutgers' all-time leading rusher and Ball State's defense finished the regular season ranked 99th in the nation against the run, giving up nearly 200 yards a game.

That's the key reason why the Scarlet Knights are listed as 10 1/2 -point favorites for today's International Bowl in Toronto. According to Wagerline.com's betting trend, Rutgers has picked up 70.45% of the bets against the spread.

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Jags at Steelers
Brian Edwards

Once upon a time, no team had ever won at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Michael Vick and the Falcons changed that in 2002 before Randy Moss shot a moon at Green Bay’s postseason history two years later.

In Pittsburgh’s storied 75-year history, no team has ever beaten the Steelers at home twice in the same season. Jacksonville (11-5 straight up, 11-5 against the spread) will try to pull that trick Saturday night at Heinz Field in the first round of the AFC Playoffs.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened this game as a pick ‘em with a total of 38½. The public has bet the Jaguars into a 2½-point ‘chalk’ role, while the total has been bet up to 39 or 39½. Gamblers can back the Steelers on the money line for a plus 120 return (risk $100 to win $120).
   
Pittsburgh (10-6 SU, 8-8 ATS) ended the regular season with three losses both SU and ATS in its last four games. The slide started with a 34-13 loss at New England and continued with a home loss to Jack Del Rio’s team. The Steelers dodged a three-game losing streak and clinched the division title with a win at St. Louis.

However, the victory over the Rams was bittersweet. Willie Parker, the team’s featured back who rushed for 1,316 yards this year, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Najeh Davenport (4.7 yards per carry) is an able replacement, but he’s more of a bruiser than a break-away threat like Parker.

Therefore, Pittsburgh’s offense will live or die with the passing game in these playoffs, unlike the 2005 team that won the Super Bowl behind a power running game that featured the 1-2 combination of Parker and future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.

Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed a career season after slumping in 2006. The Miami (OH.) product has completed 65.3 percent of his passes with a QB rating of 104.1. Roethlisberger threw for 3,154 yards in 15 games (he rested in last week’s loss to Baltimore), producing a 32/11 touchdown-interception ratio compared to last year’s abysmal 18/23 numbers.

Jacksonville has won three in a row against its former division rivals, including a 29-22 victory as a three-point underdog on Dec. 16. Even better, the Jags have covered the spread in five consecutive games against the Steelers. The expansion team that entered the league with Carolina in 1994 has won 11 of the 19 all-time meetings against the tradition-rich Pittsburgh organization.

Del Rio hasn’t led the Jags to a postseason victory in his five-year tenure, prompting his hot-seat status coming into the 2007 campaign. He set the tone for the make-or-break season with a daring move, releasing former first-round pick Byron Leftwich and turning the team over to David Garrard.

The decision – one that looks like common sense now, but easily could’ve been Del Rio’s undoing – was a stroke of genius. Garrard didn’t throw an interception until November, leading the team to a 9-3 record in his 12 starts. (The East Carolina product missed four games, three with an ankle injury before resting last week.)

“You have to hand it to Del Rio for the QB switch,” VI handicapper Christian Alexander said. “Garrard had been a nice sub, but it isn’t like he had shown himself to be a superior option to Leftwich.

“We knew he’d offer more mobility, but Garrard’s passing that has been the most impressive thing to me. He’s one of only three QBs with a triple-digit QB rating, trailing only Tom Brady and Roethlisberger.”

Despite a less-than-stellar group of wideouts, Garrard threw for 18 touchdowns compared to merely three interceptions.

The Jags have an outstanding ground attack led by veteran RB Fred Taylor, who has run for more than 100 yards in five straight games. Taylor, who ripped the Steelers for 147 yards in the previous meeting, ran for 1,202 yards and five TDs this year. He averaged an eye-opening 5.4 YPC.

Give credit to the Jags, who could’ve easily tossed Taylor aside after Maurice Jones-Drew emerged as a rookie in 2006. However, they stuck with the 10-year veteran and Taylor did his part, producing perhaps his best season at an age when most backs start to decline.

Jones-Drew, who also rested in last week’s meaningless loss at Houston, ran for 768 yards and nine TDs this year. He also had 40 receptions out of the backfield.

When the Steelers won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, they made it to Motown with three straight road wins – at Cincy, at Indy and at Denver. This time around, Jacksonville faces the same daunting task.

Jacksonville linebacker Mike Peterson, who broke his hand in a Week 11 win against San Diego, was aiming for a playoff return but has been ruled “out” this week. Another key defensive player, DT Marcus Stroud, is “out” for the Jags.

Parker isn’t the only injury that has Pittsburgh first-year coach Mike Tomlin concerned. Starting offensive tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith are “out,” in addition to DE Aaron Smith.

The Steelers are in their first home underdog spot since 2004, when they went 2-1 ATS as home ‘dogs. As for the Jags, they cashed tickets in their lone game as road favorites this year.

NBC will provide television coverage at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--The ‘under’ is 13-6 in the 19 head-to-head meetings between these teams. The home team is 14-5 ATS.

--Roethlisberger has a career TD-INT ratio of 84/54.

--The ‘over’ is 9-0-1 in Jacksonville’s last 10 games.

--If we discount last week’s loss to the Texans when a plethora of Jags’ starters resting, they are 6-1 ATS on the road in 2007.

--Dating back to 1985, eight consecutive Bucs-Giants games have gone 'under' the total.

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NFL Playoff Gameday

The NFL Wild Card weekend kicks off on Saturday as the road to the Super Bowl begins with Washington at Seattle and Jacksonville at Pittsburgh.

Washington at Seattle

The Redskins ended the season on a four-game winning streak which propelled them into the postseason. Before their late push, the Redskins looked like a team going nowhere after losing four straight to fall to 5-7 and then having to go through the untimely death of Sean Taylor. Washington looks like a whole different team since Todd Collins seamlessly took over for staring quarterback Jason Campbell. Campbell was having a breakout year before being derailed by a dislocated kneecap. The Redskins’ offense didn’t miss a beat under Collins, who has passed for 888 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in four games.

The Redskins' offensive improvements can also be attributed to a healthy and productive Clinton Portis. Despite the usual injuries that have become commonplace with Portis, he did not miss a game this season and rushed for 1263 yards on 325 carries with 11 touchdowns to stabilize the Washington running game. Santana Moss led Washington with 808 receiving yards and caught three touchdown passes despite battling numerous injuries that caused him to miss two games. Tight end Chris Colley proved to be a reliable target, especially in the red zone, as he recorded 786 yards with eight touchdowns.

On defense the Redskins really started to find their footing late in the season despite a depleted secondary that lost both Taylor and cornerback Carlos Rogers. On the season Washington allowed 19.4 points per game, while during their four-game winning streak they allowed only 13 points per game.

The Seahawks won the NFC West title for the fourth straight year after being the only team in the division to finish with a winning record at 10-6. Seattle won five games in a row at one point this season after relying more heavily on their passing attack instead of their lackluster running game. Matt Hasselbeck had another solid season behind center with a career-high 3966 yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Seattle has a number of reliable receivers for Hasselbeck to throw to, although injuries limited his options throughout most of the season as Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson were the only receivers to play in all 16 games. Engram led Seattle with 1147 yards and six touchdowns, while Burleson has 694 yards and nine touchdowns. Deion Branch was limited to 11 games and is still battling a calf injury that has him listed as questionable this week, while D.J. Hackett made it into only six games but appears to finally be healthy heading into the postseason.

The Seattle running game, which had been one of their strengths in the past, fizzled behind the oft-injured Shaun Alexander. In 13 games this season Alexander rushed for only 716 yards with four touchdowns. Alexander’s troubles have given Maurice Morris a more active role in the offense and he tallied 628 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games this season.

On defense the Seahawks are one of the more underrated units in the league after allowing only 18.2 points per game this season. Seattle’s D is comprised of a number of notable defensive stars including Lofa Tatupu, Marcus Trufant and Patrick Kerney.

The Redskins and Seahawks last met up in the 2006 playoffs when Seattle defeated Washington 20-10 as a 9.5-point home favorite en route to their appearance in the Super Bowl. In this year’s playoff matchup, Seattle is a 3.5-point favorite.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh


The Jaguars returned to the postseason after an impressive 11-5 campaign. David Garrard proved that Jags’ coach Jack Del Rio was right to stick with him after passing for 2509 yards with 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 12 games. The Jaguars' biggest threat on offense is their running back tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Taylor, once injury-prone, remained healthy all season and rushed for 1202 yards with five touchdowns. Jones-Drew was unable to match his rookie numbers, but still impressed while rushing for 768 yards with nine touchdowns.

The Jaguars lack a real No. 1 receiver, but Garrard still has a number of solid options in the passing game. Reggie Williams led the Jags with 629 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Dennis Northcutt had 607 yards with four touchdowns while also being a threat on special teams.

On defense the Jaguars ranked tenth overall after allowing 19 points per game during the season. Jacksonville had hoped to have linebacker Mike Peterson back on the field this weekend, but he remains sidelined with a broken hand.

Pittsburgh stumbled into the playoffs after losing three of their last four games. The Steelers were hit hard by injuries late in the season and enter the playoffs without running back Willie Parker and OT Marvel Smith, while Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward are also hobbled. With Parker out, it will be up to Roethlisberger to keep the offense moving on Saturday. Big Ben is coming off his best season yet after passing for 3154 yards with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Najeh Davenport will replace Parker in the starting lineup, but it’s impossible to replace a back that rushed for 1316 yards and was the league leader before getting hurt.

With Ward expected to play through a knee injury this weekend, Roethlisberger has three go-to receivers in Ward, Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller. Holmes led Pittsburgh with 942 yards and eight touchdowns this season, while Ward recorded 732 yards and seven touchdowns and Miller had 566 yards and seven touchdowns.

Pittsburgh’s defense was one of the best in the league this season and ranked second in points allowed, allowing 16.8 per game.

Back in Week 15, Jacksonville defeated Pittsburgh 29-22 as a 3-point road underdog. Garrard threw three touchdown passes with an interception, while Taylor rumbled through Pittsburgh’s No. 1 run defense for 147 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger had three touchdowns for Pittsburgh while Parker rushed for 100 yards. In the playoff rematch, the Jaguars are a 2-point road favorite.


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