Division Playoff News and Notes

Division Playoff News and Notes

Elite Eight
B. Edwards

And then there were eight. Twenty-four NFL teams are now on vacation, while an octet of squads are prepping for conference semifinal matchups this weekend.

Seattle and Green Bay will collide Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern at Lambeau Field. Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Packers as eight-point favorites with a total of 40½. As of early Monday, most books had adjusted the number to 8½.

With Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren and Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre both closing in on the finish line of a pair of distinguished careers, it’s only fitting that they meet again, possibly for the final time.

Favre’s best days as a Packer were during Holmgren’s seven-year tenure as head coach from 1992-1998. They went to two Super Bowls together, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 1996. But Holmgren bolted for Seattle following the 1998 campaign to become the director of all football operations.

Since then, Favre has been unable to reach another Super Bowl, but this season is his best chance in a decade. Holmgren led the Seahawks to a runner-up finish behind Pittsburgh two seasons ago, but this year could be his last hurrah.

This is a rematch of a 2003 playoff game that went into overtime. You remember, the game when Matt Hasselbeck announced during the coin flip that Seattle “wanted the ball and was gonna score.” Of course, Al Harris picked off Hasselbeck minutes later and danced into the end zone to lift the Packers to a 33-27 victory.

However, the Seahawks did cash tickets as 7 ½-point underdogs that day. They also took the money in Saturday’s 35-14 win over Washington as three-point home favorites.

The other NFC matchup is Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern at Texas Stadium, where Dallas will play host to the New York Giants. LVSC opened the Cowboys as 8 ½-point favorites with a total of 48.

The early money came in on the Giants, causing betting shops to move to 7 ½ as of Monday morning. The G-Men advanced to the next round by winning 24-14 at Tampa Bay as three-point underdogs. It was the first postseason victory for New York since beating Minnesota 41-0 in the 2000 NFC Championship Game.

New England will square off against Jacksonville on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. LVSC opened the Patriots as 11 1/2-point home favorites with a total of 51.

The Jaguars blew a 28-10 third-quarter lead at Pittsburgh, but they got a last-minute field goal from Josh Scobee to take a 31-29 triumph. The Steelers covered the spread as 2 1/2-point underdogs. The 'over' continued to produce in Jacksonville games, improving to 10-0-1 in their last 11 contests.

This is a rematch of a 2005 playoff game in Foxboro. On that night, the Patriots collected a 28-3 win as 7 1/2-point favorites.

San Diego advanced to play Indianapolis by recovering from a nightmare first half to pound Tennessee in the second half en route to a 17-6 win. The Chargers, who trailed 6-0 at intermission, hooked up their backers as 10-point 'chalk.'

LVSC sent out the Colts as 7 1/2-point favorites, but that number quickly moved to eight or 8 1/2. The total opened at 47 1/2.


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Re: Division Playoff News and Notes

Gates hurts toe; questionable vs. Indy
January 6, 2008

Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Chargers Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates was taken off the field on a cart after injuring a left toe late in the second quarter of Sunday's playoff against Tennessee.

Gates slipped after catching a short pass from Philip Rivers and was hit by tackle Tony Brown and linebacker David Thornton. He got up, tried to walk and then sat down to await team trainers.

Gates is questionable for next weekend's playoff game against the Colts.

"He'll be questionable," Chargers coach Norv Turner told ESPN.com. "It might be better than that, it might not be that good."

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Jaguars big underdog this week

The oddsmakers say the Jags have a chance, but public loves the Patriots.

It's not that the oddsmakers don't respect the Jaguars. That they're 13-point underdogs - and going higher - in their playoff game against New England is more a reflection of America's love affair with the 16-0 Patriots.
"The public's going to be all over the Patriots," Robert Walker, sports book director for MGM's 14 Nevada casinos, said from his Las Vegas office on Monday. "They're the biggest story in the NFL. But I think a lot of the pros will see value in Jacksonville."

The double-digit point spread is not uncommon for the Patriots, who were favored by more than 20 points in several games this season. New England won 11 games by more than 12 points, including seven by more than 20 and two by more than 40. The fervor has subsided somewhat after the Patriots failed to cover the spread in the last three regular-season victories.

The perception that the Jaguars (12-5) are generally under the radar no longer applies, said Walker, who noted that bettors pushed Jacksonville from a 1-point underdog to a 3-point favorite in their wild-card playoff game at Pittsburgh. The Jaguars won 31-29, nearly blowing a 28-10 lead in the second half.

Had the Jaguars not allowed the Steelers back in the game, the line for Saturday night's game against the Patriots would be lower, said Sean Van Patten of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which sets the opening point spread for most casinos.

"If they would have continued and beat Pittsburgh the way they did in the first half, I could see 10 or 101/2 for this game," Van Patten said. "The line is a lot about what happened in the second half of that game."

Still, Vegas oddsmakers say they expect many of the professional handicappers to go against the tide and take the Jaguars.

"Personally, I think they have a chance to win," said MGM's Walker. "It's hard to say a team matches up well against a team that's 16-0, but I think Jacksonville matches up against them as well as anybody. New England, Indianapolis or Jacksonville representing the AFC in the Super Bowl wouldn't be a shock to me."

Walker, who sees the line climbing to at least 131/2, says it's too bad the Jaguars play in the ultra-competitive AFC with New England and Indianapolis.

"They'd probably be the favorite to make it to the Super Bowl if they were in the NFC," Walker said. "My perception is they're better than anyone else other than the top two."


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Three intriguing underdogs could spoil oddsmakers' bets

This much we know after the first week of NFL playoffs: Vegas oddsmakers are standing firm with their plan to make the AFC representative a 12-point Super Bowl favourite.

That opinion is based primarily on the theory of New England and Dallas earning their spot in Phoenix the first Sunday of February.

If the theory becomes fact, it will make for long, pre-Bowl weeks of obsessing over the Patriots, of course. But it also offers strong incentive to pay attention to the present.

Following a wild-card weekend that exceeded expectations in terms of quality, the divisional round should take that up a notch with at least three intriguing underdogs.

There will be enough focus on the Patriots, who shouldn't have much trouble with the Jacksonville Jaguars in Saturday night's prime-time contest at Foxborough.

The Pats have been the story since Week 9 when the watch for a perfect season unofficially began. It's difficult to fathom what could possibly be left to say about them in four weeks.

The Jags were full measure for a strong effort Saturday night in Pittsburgh but don't get carried away in thinking they have a chance in New England.

The Steelers were a mediocre opponent who couldn't match up physically yet they still almost pulled off a stunning comeback.

As tough as the Jags can be, they won't push around the Patriots like they did the Steelers. Other than his 32-yard run for the first down to set up the winning field goal, quarterback David Garrard struggled on Saturday night.

That makes him the type of fresh meat New England coach Bill Belichick likes to feed to his defence, a big reason why the Jags opened as 11-point underdogs, a number that is likely to climb higher.

The other AFC match of divisional weekend is flying under the radar but may be best of the four this weekend.

It has been easy to forget that the Indianapolis Colts are the reigning champs and as such, the last team to beat New England in last year's AFC championship.

Before they get another shot, though, the Colts will have to put back the San Diego Chargers, a team that may be the most dangerous to come out of the wild-card round.

Granted they were weak in the first half of yesterday's 17-6 win over the Tennessee Titans, probably the biggest reason they opened as 8 1/2 -point underdogs last night.

But when LaDainian Tomlinson is allowed to run, the opposition has a handful.

In a Week 10 meeting in San Diego, the Chargers squeaked out a 23-21 victory.

And don't forget 2005, when San Diego marched into Indy and spoiled the Colts bid for an undefeated season.

Both of the NFC contests have upset potential, especially if you buy into the theory that both Dallas and Green Bay are overrated.

First the Cowboys, who are early 7 1/2 -point picks over their NFC East rival New York Giants. The Giants made surprisingly easy work of Tampa Bay yesterday a week after pushing the Patriots to the brink in the regular season finale.

In those two games, the G-man have seen huge maturation of quarterback Eli Manning. Through his first 15 games this season, Manning coughed up 27 turnovers (20 interceptions and seven lost fumbles.)

In his last two, Manning has turned it over just once while throwing six touchdown passes.

The Giants pass rush made life miserable for Tom Brady and Jeff Garcia and will give Tony Romo all he can handle in Dallas. At 8 1/2 points, the Packers are even bigger favourites over the Seattle Seahawks, who looked solid knocking off the Redskins Saturday, especially on defence.


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Opening Line Playoff Report

Anticipating heavy play on NFL favorites this weekend, bookmakers have taken a preemptive strike on their early numbers. They’ve moved Green Bay, New England and Indianapolis higher than what oddsmakers suggested should be the opening numbers.

For instance, the oddsmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants sent-out an opening number on Seattle-Green Bay of Packers -7. The number immediately shot up to -9 at some books.

“They’re (bookmakers) going from seven right to the next key number of nine,” said Mike Seba, a senior linesmakers for LVSC. “They’re skipping 7½, eight and 8½. “It’s a strategy they’re using.

“They’re taking a stand with favorites. It’s so tough for teams that won this past weekend to go on the road and win against a rested team.”

It’s clear the house wants to be on the side of the favorites this week. They know the public is going to be looking to back rested home favorites. They also know that Indianapolis, Dallas, New England and Green Bay are all public teams.

Seba said he though LVSC was shading the favorite when it sent out New England -11½ versus Jacksonville. The line, though, was up to a solid 13 Monday afternoon.

“We were thinking that a handicapping number was 9 ½ or 10,” Seba said. “So we thought we were inflating it. We want to be on the high side of these favorites.

“But as it turns out we didn’t inflate it enough. It has to be less than 14. So 13 could be the right number. If it got to 14, it would quickly come down because you can’t lay 14 to Jacksonville.

“Jacksonville has been playing so well. The Jaguars are one of the few teams that could give the Patriots trouble.”

Some bettors were hoping to lay seven with Indianapolis against San Diego. No chance of that. LVSC’s recommendation was Colts – 7½. Sportsbooks were at 8½ or 9 Monday morning on the Colts.

The Chargers have won and covered in their past seven games. But San Diego may be without Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who suffered a toe injury Sunday against Tennessee and is ‘questionable.’

“It’s tough to make the line higher than 7½ considering how well the Chargers are playing,” Seba said. “If he (Gates) were healthy, the line would be 7½.”

Those betting the Colts also may be factoring in the team’s first meeting during Week 10 in San Diego. The Chargers picked off Peyton Manning six times and returned a kickoff and punt for a touchdown. The Colts came into that matchup extremely banged-up and had to play in the rain.

Still, the Chargers only won by two points when Adam Vinatieri missed two field goals, including a 29-yarder with 1:31 left that may have given the Colts the victory.

“You might be able to draw conclusions from that game, but a lot has changed since then,” Seba said. “The Chargers know they can play with Indianapolis. They beat them at Indianapolis two years ago (26-17). The value definitely might be with the ‘dog.”

The Giants-Cowboys line was the toughest one for the LVSC oddsmakers to make, Seba said. LVSC ended up sending out Cowboys -8½. Some places opened it shorter at -7. The line settled in at -7½ Monday afternoon.

The Cowboys are 2-0 against the Giants this season, defeating them 45-35 at home and 31-20 on the road. Dallas, however, has failed to cover its past four games. The Cowboys are averaging just 10.6 points during their last three contests.

The Giants played one of their finest games of the season during Week 17 in losing 38-35 to New England. The Giants followed that up by upsetting Tampa Bay as a three-point playoff road underdog, 24-14.

“I think 7½ is a good number,” Seba said. “The Giants are coming in on a roll and Dallas isn’t playing well. But the injuries the Giants have suffered eventually have to catch up to them. The Giants will run out of gas. It may happen here.”

Seba said LVSC’s opening line recommendation was factoring in Terrell Owens. Oddsmakers are anticipating he’s going to play. Owens had suffered a high ankle sprain on Dec. 22 in a victory against Carolina.

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Injury Watch: T.O., Madison injuries are Giant factors

Terrell Owens has a gimpy ankle. Antonio Gates bent his left big toe backward last week. Marvin Harrison hasn't been able to play on his balky knee since Oct. 22.

By this time of the season, everyone is hurt. Even kickers get out of bed a little slower in the morning. Seven of the Elite Eight teams have a key starter who is questionable for this weekend's playoff game. As scary as it sounds, the undefeated Patriots also are the league's healthiest right now. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Here is an early look at the injuries that could change the course of the playoffs:

New York Giants at Dallas

WR Terrell Owens (ankle), Cowboys. Coach Wade Phillips rested some offensive linemen in the regular-season finale as a measure of prevention. And really, every offensive lineman is pretty sore by this time of the year. That happens when a bunch of abnormally large men beat on each other for three hours every Sunday.

The Owens injury, however, can't be overemphasized. The reason tight end Jason Witten and complementary receiver Patrick Crayton get so much love from Tony Romo isn't because they run interference for him on Mexican vacations. It is the threat of Owens.

Owens is one of the few receivers who is equally dangerous on downfield and underneath routes. He is fast enough to run past safeties, and uses his body like an NBA rebounding champ to make tough catches in traffic. He really changes the way a defense plays. Just having him on the field will make a big difference, no matter whether he gets to wave his touchdown towel.

If T.O. can't go, New York will blitz more and play single coverage against the remaining Cowboys' wide receivers outside. Veteran Cowboys No. 2 quarterback Brad Johnson, who has had success against the blitz over his career despite a lack of Romo-like mobility, has said Romo is exceptional in helping to extend the pass protection. With Cowboys deep threat Terry Glenn set to be back, taking risks and leaving cornerbacks exposed might prove disastrous for the Giants.

Romo can dink and dunk with the best of them. In a T.O.-less offense, feature back Marion Barber might be the key, as both a runner and a receiver, to make New York open up its defense and play more conservatively.

CB Sam Madison (abdominal strain), Giants. Madison leads the Giants in interceptions, and to shut down the Cowboys' offense, the Giants have to find a way to shut down the Romo show. Romo has eight touchdown passes against the Giants in two games this season.

The Giants have been known for their terrific pass rush this season, and their league-leading sack total is good reason. As a result, New York's defensive backs are the ones taking the heat when things don't go well. Madison's ballhawking has been one of the few bright spots in the secondary.

But it isn't that simple. Teams with an exceptional pass rush need to cover well enough for their rushers to even get to the quarterback. Otherwise he will have thrown the ball long before Michael Strahan or Osi Umenyiora unloads. They work together. Good coverage, good pass rush. No coverage, no pass rush.

Playing with a hobble, ineffective Madison (or without him altogether) will make it that much harder for the feared New York pass rush to be effective against the nimble Romo.

C Shaun O'Hara (knee), Giants. Other than a handful of games in his career, Eli Manning has taken his snaps from O'Hara. And O'Hara might not be able to play in the biggest game of Manning's short career.

Dallas has dominated the Giants twice this year. But, the Giants' offense, specifically the rushing attack, has performed well against the Cowboys, rushing for 100-plus yards in each game. Manning threw for five touchdowns against Dallas, too, this season. Those performances came with O'Hara calling the blocking schemes at the line and helping to double-team Dallas' defensive tackles.

The Giants need O'Hara to play and stabilize the pass protection for their streaky quarterback.

San Diego at Indianapolis

TE Antonio Gates (toe), Chargers. San Diego is looking to beat Indianapolis for the second time this season. The last time around, the Chargers played well, the Colts didn't and the game came down to a missed Adam Vinatieri field-goal attempt. This time around, San Diego will need to score a ton of points to win.

To do that, the Chargers need Gates. The offense revolves around running back LaDainian Tomlinson, but without the threat of Gates working downfield the Colts can play Tomlinson with an extra defender near the line. The Chargers need that defender, likely Colts safety and defensive player of the year Bob Sanders, to worry about Gates.

The Colts contained Tomlinson on Nov. 11, keeping him in check at 3.6 yards on 21 carries. Gates was held to only three catches for 26 yards. The Chargers need significantly better production Sunday.

WR Marvin Harrison (knee), Colts. Coach Tony Dungy would prefer to save Harrison for the AFC championship game. If the suddenly surging Chargers play Indianapolis tough, Dungy could be forced to use Harrison.

The Colts are desperate for Harrison, though. Quarterback Peyton Manning has learned to survive without his security blanket. Manning made one-time Harrison sidekick Reggie Wayne look like a Hall of Famer this season.

Backup tight end Ben Utecht (shoulder) and slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez (foot) are both expected to play Sunday. If the Colts have a healthy Wayne and Joseph Addai, Manning has more than enough arrows in his quiver for redemption against the team that forced him into the worst game of his life.

Seattle at Green Bay

WR Deion Branch (calf), Seahawks. It is expected to be cold Saturday, but not Ice Bowl cold. That will make it tough for Branch to get his calf loosened up. Branch is Seattle's best downfield threat, and he helps the team even when not catching passes because he stretches the defense.

Seattle doesn't need Branch's catches as much as it needs his presence to discourage the blitz. Without the threat of getting beat downfield, the Packers' already impressive defense will put even more pressure on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

Packers cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris can cover the other Seattle receivers man-to-man without fear, allowing coordinator Bob Sanders to blitz more frequently. Seattle will have to counter with more wide-open formations and/or maximum-protection schemes.

RG Jason Spitz (quad), Packers. Left guard Junius Coston (calf) was placed on injured reserve this week. And normally, his injury and Spitz's quad injury wouldn't be considered significant. They are not the linchpins of the line.

Packers quarterback Brett Favre has relied upon good interior pass protection this season to allow time to throw downfield. If Favre doesn't have that protection, it's a big deal because Favre is far less effective while throwing on the run.

Fortunately, Ryan Grant emerged out of nowhere (well, the Giants' practice squad) as a prime-time running threat. That takes pressure off Favre. Again, Grant's success is derived from the blocking success up front.

The Packers had some quality depth, but that is gone with Daryn Colledge needing to slide into the lineup at left guard. If Spitz can't play Saturday, then backup tackle Tony Moll will need to play.

Seattle has been blitzing like crazy of late, and has above-average linebackers doing it. If the Packers can't keep Lofa Tatupu & Co. out of the backfield, it might give Favre flashbacks of the two nightmarish outings against Chicago, or worse -- Dallas. If that happens, Favre would need to go almost exclusively to the short passing game, which seems to frustrate him.

Jacksonville at New England

DT John Henderson (hamstring), Jaguars. Henderson aggravated a hamstring injury early in last week's wild-card game and was ineffective thereafter. Coach Jack Del Rio says the injury is insignificant, but the Pittsburgh guards handled Henderson pretty easily when he did play.

If Henderson can't play, the dropoff won't be noticeable until his backup, veteran Grady Jackson, gets tired. Jackson, like Henderson, can occupy multiple blockers to keep the linebackers clean. However, Jackson lacks the stamina to play the full game.

The Jacksonville defense is one of the better units in the NFL, but it will need everybody to play -- and play well -- to slow one of the greatest offenses in league history.


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Re: Division Playoff News and Notes

Divisional playoffs on horizon in NFL action

Jacksonville at New England

The Jaguars will head to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots, who rolled through the regular season as the first team to go 16-0. Jacksonville held on for a 31-29 win at Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round. The Jaguars gained only 239 yards, but four Pittsburgh turnovers gave Jacksonville a hard-fought victory. Patriots QB Tom Brady was recently named NFL MVP after setting a record for touchdown passes, but make no mistake: the Patriots are a well-rounded team who can beat you in a number of ways. The Patriots are currently listed as 13-point home favorites in this contest, and they have beaten the Jaguars in four of their last five meetings.

San Diego at Indianapolis

The Chargers will travel to the RCA Dome to clash with the Colts, and San Diego played a fantastic defensive game in their 17-6 win over Tennessee on Sunday. The Chargers held the Titans to 248 yards and forced two turnovers. However, they lost star tight end Antonio Gates to a toe injury and he may not be available for this huge game. The Colts should have injured receiver Marvin Harrison back in the lineup, and also have safety Bob Sanders, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. The Colts are listed as 9-point home favorites in this battle, having won three of their last five meetings with the Chargers, but San Diego beat the Colts 23-21 at home in Week 11.

Seattle at Green Bay

The Seahawks will venture to Lambeau Field to meet the Packers, and this is a special place for Seattle coach Mike Holmgren who won the Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1996. The Seahawks returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a 35-14 home win over Washington on Saturday, making up for an average performance from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The Packers have surrounded quarterback Brett Favre with some young playmakers, primarily rookie back Ryan Grant, and they also have one of the league’s underrated defenses. The Packers have won three of their last five meetings with the Seahawks, and they come in as 9-point home favorites.

New York Giants at Dallas

The Cowboys welcome the Giants to Texas Stadium, and New York played some of their best football of the season in a 24-14 win at Tampa Bay. Eli Manning was extremely effective, and the New York pass rush made life difficult for the Buccaneers. The Cowboys are hoping that their bye week gave receiver Terrell Owens a chance to heal his sprained ankle, but quarterback Tony Romo has plenty of other weapons to utilize. The Cowboys are 7.5-point home favorites, and they have won three of their last five against their NFC East rivals including both meetings this season.

BetJamaica Odds
Jacksonville: +13
New England: -13 (O/U 48)

San Diego: +9
Indianapolis: -9 (O/U 46)

Seattle: +9
Green Bay: -9 (O/U 40)

New York Giants: +7.5
Dallas: -7.5 (O/U 47)


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