Today's games

January 05, 2003|By Ken Murray

AFC wild card

Cleveland (9-7) at Pittsburgh (10-5-1)

Time: 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Steelers by 8

Browns offense vs. Steelers defense: Cleveland has a couple of unknowns on offense with quarterback Kelly Holcomb and running back William Green. Holcomb, who takes over for the injured Tim Couch, doesn't have the same arm strength but might be a better downfield passer because he is more accurate. But the Browns have to be careful since the Steelers will disguise coverages and come after him with a variety of inside blitzes. Pittsburgh needs to generate pressure since its secondary struggled last week against the Ravens without injured cornerback Chad Scott. The Browns feel confident in their emerging running game, with Green averaging 103.7 yards in the final seven contests. But Pittsburgh has the league's best run defense and held Green to a combined 26 yards in the first two meetings. If inside linebacker Kendrell Bell is limited with an ankle injury, nose tackle Casey Hampton will have to make more plays on the interior. If the Browns can't run, it will put too much of a burden on Holcomb to win the game.

Steelers offense vs. Browns defense: The Steelers would like to get a lead early with big plays from quarterback Tommy Maddox and turn the game over to the running attack. Receiver Hines Ward made nine catches in each of the first two games against the Browns because the Cleveland defense was concerned with double-teaming Plaxico Burress. Ward and Burress combined for 2,654 yards receiving, the most by two teammates in the NFL this season. But Maddox hasn't been sharp in his past five games, throwing eight interceptions and five touchdown passes. Pittsburgh has changed its offensive philosophy into a passing one, but it will try to take advantage of the Browns' up-the-field pressure by handing off to Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue. Cleveland's run defense has been suspect all season, giving up 129.9 yards rushing per game. But the Steelers averaged 3.1 yards per carry in two games against the Browns. A key matchup will be Steelers Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca against defensive tackle Orpheus Roye since Faneca didn't fare well against Roye in the two earlier meetings.

Special teams: The Browns' offense is going to need a jump start from the return teams. Two months ago, Dennis Northcutt ran back a punt 87 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh. The Steelers' coverage teams have been inconsistent all season. The late-season acquisition of kicker Jeff Reed (17-for-19 on field-goal attempts) has proved pivotal especially at tricky Heinz Field. Browns kicker Phil Dawson called Heinz the league's worst field after missing a 45-yard overtime attempt during Cleveland's 16-13 loss on Sept. 29.

Coaching: Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher got his team back into the playoffs by changing quarterbacks and offensive philosophy. Like clockwork under Cowher, the Steelers are finishing strong, winning five of six after a slow start. The Browns' Butch Davis deal with a critical helmet-throwing incident and a volatile quarterback situation to lead the 4-year-old team into the playoffs for the first time. It wasn't easy, though, as most of Cleveland's games came down to the wire. Cowher has had Davis' number so far, winning all four meetings.

Pick: After an up-and-down season, the Steelers are ready to make their statement in the playoffs. The Browns, who have been walking the tightrope all season, are due for a fall. Steelers, 31-16. - Jamison Hensley

NFC wild card

New York Giants (10-6) at San Francisco (10-6)

Time: 4:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: 49ers by 3

Giants offense vs. 49ers defense: For the most part, the Giants cut down on turnovers and became an explosive offense down the stretch. A critical element is the improved play of quarterback Kerry Collins, who threw 13 interceptions in his first 11 games, but only one in the last five. San Francisco's injury-riddled secondary ranked only 22nd in pass defense. With those injuries, the 49ers weren't able to put much pressure on the quarterback, either. The 49ers obviously will try to strip the ball from Giants running back Tiki Barber, who had four fumbles and lost three last week. Barber, averaging 4.6 yards a carry, gives the Giants a nice changeup to Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey in the passing game. Toomer has as many 100-yard receiving games (five) as the 49ers' Terrell Owens.

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