Today's games

January 11, 2003

Today's games

AFC divisional round

Pittsburgh (11-5-1) at Tennessee (11-5)

Time: 4:30 p.m.

TV: chs. 13, 9

Line: Titans by 4

Steelers offense vs. Titans defense: Quarterback Tommy Maddox has rallied the Steelers from 11- and 17-point deficits in each of the past two games, but he might have trouble coming back against the Titans. In his previous game at Nashville, he forced too many throws downfield and was intercepted three times, leading to two touchdowns. The key matchup is athletic Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle against receiver Plaxico Burress. Tennessee forces teams to go over the top of its defense. The Titans drop a safety down to stuff the run and Pittsburgh can't play smash-mouth with declining running back Jerome Bettis. The Steelers will try to keep some balance with Amos Zereoue, who is a shiftier runner and better receiver out of the backfield. Tennessee will have a better chance of containing Zereoue if defensive end Jevon Kearse (foot) can play.

Titans offense vs. Steelers defense: Tennessee will spread out Pittsburgh with three or four wide-outs, trying to capitalize on the Steelers' thin secondary and opening better lanes against a stout run defense. In the last meeting with Pittsburgh, the Titans went to an open backfield 16 times, with quarterback Steve McNair going 13-for-16 in those situations. The Steelers will likely try to shut down receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Frank Wycheck, forcing Tennessee to beat them with Drew Bennett and Justin McCareins. Pittsburgh's secondary will get a boost with the return of cornerback Chad Scott (broken thumb), who is expected to play with a cast. Without Scott, the Steelers have allowed 17 yards per completion in the past two weeks. The Steelers will probably have to go with rookie inside linebacker Larry Foote instead of Kendrell Bell (ankle), but they have enough talent in the front seven to contain inconsistent Titans running back Eddie George.

Special teams: The Steelers have the big edge in the return game. Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El could make an impact for the second straight week since the Titans have already surrendered three punt returns for touchdowns this season. Tennessee hasn't had such success, failing to produce a punt or kick return for a touchdown during the regular season.

Coaching: Under coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers have lost eight of their past 10 against the Titans/Oilers and have never won a road playoff game (0-2). But Cowher has a quarterback who matches his toughness in Maddox and has challenged his players to be more physical. Titans coach Jeff Fisher has gotten his team back in the playoffs for the first time since the meltdown to the Ravens in the 2000 divisional playoffs. With Tennessee rested and healthy, Fisher won't have any excuses for a similar breakdown.

Pick: The Titans don't have the weapons to exploit Pittsburgh's weak secondary and they will have a tough time trying to manhandle the Steelers for a second straight time. As always, fear the backup quarterback in the AFC playoffs. Maddox, along with the Steelers, will leave Nashville still standing. Steelers, 20-17.

- Jamison Hensley

NFC divisional round

Atlanta (10-6-1) at Philadelphia (12-4)

Time: 8 p.m.

TV: chs. 45, 5

Line: Eagles by 7 1/2

Falcons offense vs. Eagles defense: The Falcons advance the ball on the whims of QB Michael Vick, who was daring and electric in an upset of Green Bay last week. The Packers' depleted defense was overwhelmed by Vick's speed, but the Eagles won't be. They have good team speed on defense and players who can finish. The Eagles likely will attempt to confuse Vick with a variety of looks, disguising coverages and blitzes. To counter the Eagles' pressure, the Falcons probably will have Vick sprinting out to cut down the number of rushers who can reach him. The Eagles also have a big edge in the secondary, where their three Pro Bowl defenders should blanket the Falcons' receivers. Vick will have to buy his receivers more time with his feet, and that's the challenge that faces the Eagles' blitz. They will be more aggressive than the Packers were. Whether the Eagles get to him will largely determine whether Atlanta can hang in the game. If Vick gets time, he has the arm to hit receivers deep down the field and is capable of coming up with big plays in the passing game.

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