The New England Patriots had a week away from the playoff spotlight, so they might have slid to the back of some folks' minds.
But the oddsmakers didn't forget. They made the Patriots 13-point favorites for their first playoff game, at home Saturday night against Jacksonville. The Jaguars earned a trip to Foxborough by beating Pittsburgh 31-29 last week after losing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead.
For a month now, the Jaguars have been considered a team equipped to give the Patriots a game, built for northern climes in January because they can rush the ball. Last Saturday night, the most important run came from quarterback David Garrard, who went 32 yards on fourth-and-2 to set up Josh Scobee's winning field goal.
But otherwise, running was a problem for the Jaguars.
l strength.
That won't work against the Patriots, who set an NFL record this season with 589 points - almost 37 a game. In other words, to beat New England, you have to outscore it, something Jacksonville isn't equipped to do.
And listen to Jack Del Rio gush.
``I think it's probably the greatest collection of talent in coaching that's ever been assembled. I think they've got really an all-star cast. I think you've got some certain Hall of Fame players,'' the Jacksonville coach said this week. ``You've got a whole slew of all-stars and Pro Bowl-type guys and the coaching staff is very strong. We've got a lot of respect for what they've been able to accomplish, not only this year, but over the last five or six years.''
Sounds like he doesn't expect to win.
He's probably right.
PATRIOTS, 33-17

New York Giants (plus 7 1/2) at Dallas
The Giants may have the best shot of all the road underdogs.
They have an eight-game road winning streak that started after an opening night loss at Texas Stadium. And they have momentum from a three-point loss to New England and an impressive playoff win in Tampa.
New York also is peaking at a time when Dallas is sluggish and its most dangerous offensive weapon, Terrell Owens, is a question mark with a high ankle sprain.
``Not that we're guaranteed to win this game, but if you play him you have to wonder if he'll be available down the line,'' Wade Phillips said this week, adding that his star receiver's status is a game-time decision.
Both QBs, Eli Manning and Tony Romo, have had success in the two meetings this season, won by Dallas 45-35 at home and 31-20 in the Meadowlands. Romo's mobility has been a major factor, causing problems for New York's league-leading pass rush in both games.
This will probably be closer than the spread, which is always a bit of an overload toward America's team. (As was the Pro Bowl voting).
A tentative pick ...
COWBOYS, 29-27

San Diego (plus 8 1/2) at Indianapolis
Throw out the wacky game in the San Diego rain in which Peyton Manning threw six interceptions and Adam Vinatieri missed an easy field goal that could have won the game for the Colts.
Instead, look back to the game these two played in the RCA Dome in 2005, when the Chargers ended the Colts' 13-0 run. They won 26-17 because they succeeded in getting pressure on Manning from Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Igor Olshansky and others.
Like the Cowboys, the Colts didn't play very hard in their final regular-season game, meaning their regulars have had a two-week break. The Chargers came alive in the second half last week against Tennessee.
Will Indy be rusty?
Not enough to lose.
COLTS, 26-17

Seattle (plus 8) at Green Bay
One of the overlooked aspects of winter weather is that it neutralizes defensive speed as well as offensive speed.
That could be to the detriment of the Seahawks, who used the defensive speed to their advantage against the Redskins last week. If Patrick Kerney, for example, finds it hard to get traction, the Seahawks may have trouble pressuring Brett Favre.
Beyond that are Seattle's road problems. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home but just 3-5 on the road. That's not just a one-year situation. It's been a pattern for a long time for Seattle, going back to the days at the ultra-loud Kingdome.
Yes, Mike Holmgren is used to coaching at Lambeau Field. But Green Bay has been a level above all the NFC challengers except Dallas.
PACKERS, 21-16
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LAST WEEK: 2-1-1 (Spread) 3-1 (straight up)
REGULAR SEASON: 127-121-8 (spread); 170-86 (straight up)

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