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THE BLACK TABLE'S ANNUAL FOOTBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW.

 
   
   
  This always is the most bittersweet time of year for football freaks. You can't help but be excited by the prospect of the NFL playoffs, which typically features the most dramatic football action of the year. An entire year of preparation can be botched by one guy screwing up for half a second on one play.

But there are, of course, only 11 of these games, and then football embarks on its long hibernation, leaving us to ponder various front-office machinations and draft minutiae during our long sleepless nights. So while you can't wait for these days to arrive, you're sad when they are here. This kind of sounds like college graduation.

These playoffs will be defined largely by the state of Pennsylvania, and since it couldn't determine the presidential election, I guess this is the next-best thing. On the rugged, blue-collar end of the state, you have the tough, physical Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off the quietest 15-1 season in NFL history. Back on the eastern end, you have the Philadelphia Eagles, defined by their three consecutive NFC Championship Game losses and now playing without Terrell Owens, their most dynamic playmaker (and a damn fine actor).

If these teams play as they are capable, the other 49 states and District of Columbia don't have to tune in on February 6 to see the Super Bowl from Jacksonville. But I don't see that happening. Here is what I do see happening, which, in the end, likely will have no relation to reality.

Wild-Card Weekend!

 

 
      These two sorry teams from the sad-sack NFC West meet in the first round, ensuring that one of them will be playing in the second. The Seahawks limp in after almost blowing games against Atlanta's second-string and the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams come in having won two in a row and strangely keeping the faith in their coach, Mike Martz. Seattle is a team that many of    
 

us fools picked to go far in the playoffs, and they still have most of that talent. They blew two games against the Rams already this year, but Martz is a disaster in the postseason. Seahawks win.

 

 
      The NFL unfortunately prolonged our misery and allowed the Jets into the playoffs, despite all evidence indicating they have no chance. Herm Edwards and Chad Pennington are better at saying strange things at inopportune times than at winning important games. The Chargers -- surprise! -- have a pretty good team. They easily should have won at Indianapolis two weeks    
 

ago. They have a solid, underappreciated defense that will give the simple-minded Jets offense problems. On offense, they'll cram it down your throats with LaDainian Tomlinson and then chuck a couple TD passes to Antonio Gates. The only question: Will they have to win one or two playoff games for people to accept them as being good? Chargers win.

 

 
      For the second year in a row, the Colts and Broncos meet in the first round of the playoffs shortly after meeting at the end of the regular season. Last year, the Broncos trampled the Colts in Indianapolis, and then the Colts won the rematch 41-10 in the playoffs. The Broncos won again this season, this time in Denver, and figure to have an equally difficult time winning the    
 

postseason rematch. For one, Peyton Manning will be playing at home. Then you have Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, who is bound to throw the game away. And the Broncos defense has struggled at times this year against better offenses, and they do not have the pass rush or cover guys in the secondary to keep up with Indianapolis. Colts win.

 

 
      Kudos to the NFL for not scheduling the Packers to play the Saturday night game this weekend, when everybody could have fawned over the lore of Green Bay's Lambeau Field. They play in the more respectable late-Sunday afternoon time slot, but this is the only one of the four first-round rematches that I see going the same way as the first.    
 

The Vikings are simply crumbling. Various people around the league love to talk about the admirable job Vikings coach Mike Tice has done given the circumstances he has to work through, and go on and on about how he should be brought back. I haven't seen much reason to think Tice is an especially good coach. Sure, the players love him. He's like a buddy to them. But there's more to coaching than being a funny guy, and Tice doesn't seem to grasp that. The owner's cheap and trying to sell the team, so it's Tice for another year. With a playoff loss, though, Minnesota is under .500 for the entire season. Packers win.

The Divisional Playoff Round

 

 
  I'll answer my own question by saying that nobody would doubt the Chargers if they beat Pittsburgh. But I can't see that happening. They gave the Colts all they could handle, but Indianapolis, in a way, is a one-dimensional team. It takes a special effort to stop that one dimension. The Steelers are solid and rugged all the way around. We'll hear endless talk about        
 

whether their rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, can handle postseason pressure. And if it were up to him to win … maybe not. The Steelers will love having an extra week off and when they return, they'll just hand off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. If that doesn't work? Then they'll wait to get a big defensive or special teams play and win that way. There are too many ways for Pittsburgh to win and not enough ways for the Chargers to stop them. Steelers win.

 

 
  The NFL might have passed on Lambeau Field at night, but Michael Vick in prime time? Forget it. Put me in the camp of people who think that a solid defensive team can give the Falcons all they can handle. They have impressive rushing stats because of Vick, not their running backs, and they have basically no passing game that you have to commit extra defenders to trying        
 

to stop. Problem is, Green Bay's defense stinks -- and it has stunk for two years now -- and it is the biggest reason they're not playing for Super Bowls in Brett Favre's later years. The Packers have a fat run-stuffer named Grady Jackson. He clogs up the middle of the field, usually takes up two blockers and occasionally makes a tackle. The sight of him trying to pursue Vick will be moderately amusing. Falcons win.

 

 
  I keep picking all the favorites to win these games, and that clearly has to stop. And so it will: I'm taking the underdog Seahawks here. This would be a calamity for the Eagles, but it also will take a minor miracle because, frankly, Seattle is not that good. But I think they can score 28 points, and I don't think Philadelphia can. Without Terrell Owens, the Eagles' offense stinks. People        
 

seem to love the idea of Brian Westbrook carrying the day. Remember, Westbrook was hurt during last year's playoffs. But that Eagles team had Staley and Correll Buckhalter. That's about even. Plus, coming in off a two-game losing streak in which they scored a total of 17 points, the team's mind-set can't be positive. I would be fairly surprised if this really happened; I just don't see how Philadelphia scores. Seahawks win.

 

 
  The time finally will come for the Colts against the Patriots. They almost rallied against New England in last year's AFC title game, and two important things are different this year. Two key Patriots defenders (Ty Law and Richard Seymour) will be limited in this game. Both should play, but not at 100 percent. Also, all the uproar about strictly enforcing illegal-contact rules came about        
 

largely because of last year's title game. That gives a distinct advantage to the Colts offense, which can be functional enough even in horrible weather thanks to Edgerrin James. For the first time in four thrilling games between the teams over 14 months, New England loses. Colts win.

Championship Weekend

 

 
      There really is no "dream" matchup in the NFC, especially with T.O. gone for the Eagles. Anything involving Vick usually is a good thing, and this year is the kind of opportunity the Falcons need to take advantage of. They are a flawed team and probably always will be, as long as Vick takes up so much salary-cap space. With the NFC's big dog out of the way, and playing at    
 

home, the Falcons have to pounce. And they will. Again, Seattle's defense will be the problem. It simply doesn't have the manpower to stop Vick. The Seahawks almost blew a game in the last week of the season against many of Atlanta's subs. How will they fare in Atlanta against the Falcons' best? Falcons win.

 

 
      The problem with the way the Colts are set up is that they are always vulnerable to that punch in that mouth. Last year it came from the Patriots. And this year, the Steelers are going to be able to get one in. And I should be clear: It's not just a simple punch in the mouth. It's a combination of neutralizing the wide receivers, stuffing the run game and then punching, more    
 

precisely, Manning in the mouth. The Steelers are the best-equipped team (along with maybe San Diego) to do all of that defensively. And their offense also will have an advantage. Playing outdoors will slow down Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney, who presents perhaps the biggest challenge to Roethlisberger. And Bettis and Staley ought not have much trouble running on undersized Colts defensive line. Steelers win.

The Super Bowl

 

 
  Having slogged their way through the rough AFC, the Steelers actually could have a letdown in the Super Bowl. After all: What the heck are the Falcons doing here? But Pittsburgh has not let down all season and does not appear to be the type of team that would do so. Plus, after all that talk about what kind of defense is needed to shut down Vick, the Steelers have a pretty        
 

good group. They have a strong defensive line and fast, ranging linebackers who will make plays all over the field. The secondary easily is good enough to shut down whatever passing game the Falcons hope to mount. Pittsburgh's offense could have a little bit of trouble, but they can keep grinding away at Atlanta's line with the running game. And once the line is worn down, the Falcons' defense will follow. With Vick, things are always exciting, but this game might not be terribly competitive. Steelers win.

 

Matt Pitzer is an editor and fantasy football expert for USA Today Sports Weekly. He chats weekly on the USA Today Web site every Thursday about fantasy football.