Playoffs will go Patriots' way

ON THE NFL

December 24, 2007|By KEN MURRAY

With one week left in the regular season, all playoff teams think they have a shot at the Super Bowl. But we know better. Here's a breakdown on the field, by seed:

AFC

1. New England Patriots

Strength: Quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, in that order. Randy Moss put the passing game over the top.

Liability: You can control the ball on the Patriots' defense, which ranks 27th in average rush allowed (4.3 yards). A strong offense can keep Brady off the field.

Prognosis: Unless Peyton Manning has a really great day in really miserable conditions in Foxborough, it's hard to imagine anyone keeping the Patriots from their date with destiny.

2. Indianapolis Colts

Strength: Manning's precision passing game, which works best indoors on turf.

Liability: With Dwight Freeney out and several defensive linemen hurting, the Colts aren't going to bring a strong pass rush. That's bad news against the Patriots.

Prognosis: They're still the champs, but it will take the best postseason of Manning's career to repeat.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

Strength: It had been the running game and defense, but Willie Parker is done for the season, and the defense was whipsawed by the Patriots two weeks ago.

Liability: Pass protection for Ben Roethlisberger has been poor to terrible. Take away Parker, and the rush will come harder.

Prognosis: The Steelers lost all their momentum in that 34-13 loss at New England. They might not recover until next year.

4. San Diego Chargers

Strength: LaDainian Tomlinson is still one of the most exciting players in the game, even if coach Norv Turner didn't know that.

Liability: Turner didn't get a handle on his team until midyear, and he hasn't helped quarterback Philip Rivers at all.

Prognosis: The Chargers have only one quality win all season - beating the Colts in Week 10. They earn the No. 3 seed if they beat the Denver Broncos tonight and the Oakland Raiders next week. Beyond that, they're one and done, an upset waiting to happen.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars

Strength: Balance across the board and an inspired Fred Taylor at running back. They play solid defense and have developed a potent offense with quarterback David Garrard.

Liability: It's uncertain whether Garrard can win a shootout once the running game abandons him.

Prognosis: The Jaguars might be the team no one wants to face. They could go back to Pittsburgh to see whether last week's 29-22 win there was a fluke. They probably could win in San Diego, too. And they're almost always competitive with the Colts.

6. Cleveland Browns/Tennessee Titans

Strength: The Browns can score; the Titans are solid on defense.

Liability: Cleveland can't stop anybody, and Tennessee is shaky on offense.

Prognosis: It will be nice for either team to get there, but they're not advancing.

NFC

1. Dallas Cowboys

Strength: They lead the NFC in scoring and keep pressure on the opposing quarterback with one of the NFL's top pass rushes.

Liability: Injuries might undermine their home-field advantage. Tony Romo (thumb) and Terrell Owens (ankle) need to be at full strength.

Prognosis: The Cowboys haven't played a really good game since beating the Green Bay Packers in Week 13. They're certainly not bullet-proof, but this is the NFC.

2. Green Bay Packers

Strength: Brett Favre's passing game is still tough to stop, although the Bears and Chicago's weather did a pretty good job yesterday.

Liability: Without the Packers' ability to establish the run, Favre has to be flawless. He is 0-9 against the Cowboys in Texas, too.

Prognosis: If Ryan Grant can run the ball a little, the Packers could go a long way. Or they might not get out of the divisional round.

3. Seattle Seahawks

Strength: The big-game experience of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and coach Mike Holmgren.

Liability: No running game. The Seahawks have given up on it.

Prognosis: They could win a game, but they're probably not going to get on a roll this season.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Strength: Defense was the vehicle that helped the Bucs make a worst-to-first dash this season.

Liability: Their quarterbacks are pedestrian at best, including Jeff Garcia, who struggles against pressure.

Prognosis: Nice comeback season for Jon Gruden, but the Bucs stop here.

5. New York Giants

Strength: Most intimidating pass rush in football.

Liability: You can never be sure what you will get with quarterback Eli Manning, who is rarely at his best in big games.

Prognosis: Not as good as their talent would suggest, but better than last season. Going nowhere.

6. Minnesota Vikings/Washington Redskins/New Orleans Saints

Strength: Adrian Peterson makes the Vikings a threat, the Redskins are gritty, and the Saints have Drew Brees.

Liability: Without proven quarterbacks, the Vikings and Redskins are hurting. The Saints have only a quarterback.

Prognosis: The survivor of this group is out wild-card weekend.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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