After a strange and unpredictable regular season, the National Football League playoffs are now set. The excitement begins Saturday with what I call Wild Card Weekend. All the wild card teams plus the lowest division winners are in action this weekend, while the top two division winners in each conference get the week off.
Here are my predictions for the first round. Super Bowl odds are in parentheses.
— Buffalo (25/1) at Tennessee (8/1) – Buffalo head coach Wade Phillips has stunned the country by announcing Rob Johnson as his starting quarterback. Johnson looked good in his only start of the season last week, but Doug Flutie was the one who led the Bills to the playoffs in the first 15 games. Phillips’ decision can’t help but divide the team to some extent. But that’s not the main reason I like Tennessee in this game.
The Titans went undefeated in their new stadium this year, due in part to their loyal and rabid fans, and have covered five in a row at home. Tennessee -5.
Over/Under – Buffalo has the No. 1 defense in the NFL and three of its five starting linemen are banged up, which might get some people leaning toward the Under. But Tennessee has been scoring more and more lately, and Johnson just might be the answer for Buffalo’s offense. Over 38 1/2.
— Detroit (50/1) at Washington (10/1) – The good news for Detroit is that ex-Redskin Gus Frerotte starts at quarterback, because not only does Frerotte have a chip on his shoulder for being cut by Washington, but Frerotte broke the Redskins’ 18-game winning streak over the Lions with a 33-17 victory in Detroit earlier in the season.
The bad news is that Detroit hasn’t won at the Redskins since 1935 when they were the Boston Redskins, including an 0-19 record at Washington. Also, the Lions really limped into the playoffs with four consecutive losses, and as expected, Washington running back Stephen Davis will play, although in a limited role. Washington -6 1/2.
— Dallas (40/1) at Minnesota (5/1) – Since Dallas is playing Minnesota instead of Washington on Sunday, one might think that the Cowboys are disappointed. After all, Dallas beat the Redskins both times this season, including a 38-20 drubbing in their latest meeting. But last year Dallas had beaten Arizona twice during the regular season only to lose to the Cardinals on Wild Card Weekend.
I feel Dallas is quite content playing the Vikings. In fact, the Cowboys have some unfinished business to attend to in Minnesota. As we all should remember, in a Monday night game Nov. 8, Dallas led the Vikings 17-0 when running back Emmitt Smith broke his hand. With five minutes to go before halftime, Smith had 140 yards rushing on 13 carries, and was on pace to shatter Walton Payton’s single game record of 275, if not the 300-yard barrier. Later in the game, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman suffered a concussion and the wind came out of the Cowboys’ sails as they lost 27-17.
Dallas clearly has an advantage with its powerful offensive line against a smallish Minnesota defensive front. The Cowboys’ problems will come from trying to stop the Vikings’ potent aerial attack, although Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss is the first to admit that his team is “not there yet” when it comes to winning a championship.
Dallas’ 8-8 record is deceiving, as only St. Louis, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Buffalo had better points for and against differentials. Stat of the week – Dallas has never lost a playoff game when Smith rushes for 100 yards. Smith should easily get his 100 yards so the Cowboys should come up with the upset victory in a high-scoring affair. Dallas +7 1/2 and Over 46 1/2.
— Miami (40/1) at Seattle (25/1) – The NFL decided to save the worst for last this weekend in a battle of teams that both finished 1-5 during the regular season. It appears that the winner of this game will just go on to lose the following week.
Both teams have problems running the ball, which are compounded due to the injuries to Seattle’s Ricky Watters and Miami’s J.J. Johnson, although both are expected to play. I think both defenses are good enough to keep this game close and interesting. Under 39 is my pick in this game.
— Super Bowl – I have no choice but to stick with my preseason pick and favorite team, Dallas, although it certainly won’t be easy. The logical choice is St. Louis in the NFC. I’ll pick Tennessee in the AFC in a mild upset. Heart pick: Dallas over Tennessee. Head pick: St. Louis over Tennessee.
Note: Catch me and my colleague Alan Rogers on the second half of Sportstalk with the Pearl tonight at 9 p.m. on Channel 10.