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Archive for Saturday, January 5, 2008

Washington taking momentum to Seattle

January 5, 2008

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The Washington Redskins enter the weekend's NFL wild-card playoff round buoyed by the momentum of four straight must-win victories and the emotion of playing for one of their slain stars.

They also have one of the toughest tasks, traveling cross-country on a short week to play a team with plenty of postseason experience. And at a stadium that for the last few seasons has been one of the toughest in the NFL for visitors.

Yet the Redskins go to Seattle today supremely confident that the emotion from the death of Sean Taylor and the play of quarterback Todd Collins, who went 10 years without a start until this season, will continue to carry them.

Washington was 5-7 and seemingly out of contention when the 36-year-old Collins took over for the injured Jason Campbell against Chicago and carried the Redskins to victory. He made his first start in a decade in a win over the Giants, then directed the team to wins over Minnesota and Dallas to get into the playoffs as the NFC's sixth and final seed.

"Todd opens things up for everybody," says running Clinton Portis, who averaged 102 yards rushing the final three games. "You never know who's getting the ball now. So if you think you're on the route that's not coming to you, you'd better go full speed, because Todd will hit you right upside the head with the ball."

The Seahawks (10-6) have far less momentum.

They clinched the weak NFC West on Dec. 9 and lost two of their final three as they rested regulars and prepared more for the postseason than for the games at hand. They had to go cross-country, too - to Atlanta - but they didn't invest much effort there, losing 44-41 in a meaningless game.

One thing they accomplished was rushing the ball better. The five-game winning streak that put them in position to rest was largely the result of Matt Hasselbeck's passing. Those last three games were used to try to improve the running game, which finished 20th overall in yards gained.

"It couldn't get any worse," says running back Shaun Alexander, who was the league MVP for his heroics in 2005, the season of the Seahawks' trip to the Super Bowl. "So we're doing little things and taking steps."

Jacksonville (11-5) at Pittsburgh (10-6)

The Jaguars have been designated as the AFC's "scary" team for a while now. Until they rested starters in the final game, they won six of seven and the one loss was 28-25 in Indianapolis, when they put a scare into the Colts but were hurt by two replay reversals.

The Jaguars won 29-22 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 16, another reason why bettors turned them from one-point underdogs into three-point favorites entering this game.

Pittsburgh is without Willie Parker, who was leading the NFL in rushing when he broke his leg in St. Louis two weeks ago. QB Ben Roethlisberger has a sore ankle, star safety Troy Polamalu has been hurting all season, and the Steelers are thin at other positions.

No excuse, according to Mike Tomlin.

"Whoever hoists that Lombardi Trophy in a month or so will have had injury issues and will have found ways to overcome it," the Steelers' rookie coach says. "We don't dwell on that. It's as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. The healthy guys play and the standard of expectation doesn't change."

New York Giants (10-6) at Tampa Bay (9-7)

Like the Washington-Seattle game, this involves one team with momentum and one without it. The Giants, who could have rested players, instead played them in an effort to keep New England from finishing unbeaten. They lost 38-35 after leading by 12 points in the third quarter and getting three starters hurt: CB Sam Madison, C Shaun O'Hara and LB Kawika Mitchell.

But they think they gained more than they lost and are encouraged by their 7-1 road record this season. The Giants, along with the Seahawks, Colts and Patriots, are the only four teams to make the playoffs three straight seasons, but they are 0-2, as is QB Eli Manning.

One of those losses was in Philadelphia last season, where the winning QB was Jeff Garcia, whom the Giants now face in Tampa. Garcia also beat New York in a memorable 2003 playoff game in San Francisco, rallying the 49ers from a 38-14 deficit to a 39-38 win.

The Bucs rested players in their last two games after clinching the NFC South with two weeks remaining and are portraying themselves as huge underdogs.

Tennessee (10-6) at San Diego (11-5)

The Chargers lost three more games this season than last. But they are favored to win this playoff game, something they didn't do last season, one of the reasons Marty Schotttenheimer was fired despite a 14-2 regular season.

This is a rematch of a Dec. 9 game in Nashville won 23-17 in overtime by San Diego, which trailed 17-3 in the fourth quarter. There was a lot of chippy stuff in that one, including a personal foul on LaDainian Tomlinson and fines levied by the league against two Titans and one Charger for dirty play.

"We're going to try to stay focused this week and not get caught up in the locker room trash talk and just focus on ourselves," says Tennessee center Kevin Mawae, one of those fined.

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