Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home Field in Playoffs May Be On Line Today

On this Sunday before Christmas, the NFL's playoff picture is coming into focus, although there are still some berths to be assigned.

In the AFC, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have clinched spots in the playoffs so three others are still undecided. In the NFC, the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals are definitely in, leaving four spots to be determined.

However, there are two games being played today that should go a long way toward determining who gets home-field advantage through the playoffs — Pittsburgh (11-3) at Tennessee (12-2) in the AFC, and Carolina (11-3) at the New York Giants (11-3) in the NFC.

Pittsburgh at Tennessee

It's supposed to be windy in Nashville today, and neither quarterback has been leading the league so I don't expect either team to throw the ball a lot.

The QBs have nearly identical ratings. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has an 80.2. Tennessee's Kerry Collins has a 78.7. Roethlisberger averages about 30 yards passing more than Collins, and he has four more TD passes as well as a slight edge in pass completion percentage.

But Roethlisberger can be turnover-prone — he has thrown nearly twice as many interceptions as Collins, and he's lost five fumbles.

Hines Ward is Pittsburgh's leading receiver, and he can reach 1,000 in receiving yards if he averages 68 yards per game in the final two contests. Ward also has more receiving TDs than anyone else playing in the game — his nearest competitors are Tennessee's Justin Gage, who has five, and teammate Santonio Holmes, who has four.

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson is second in the league in rushing yards with 1,159, more than 500 yards ahead of Pittsburgh's leading rusher, Willie Parker, who has missed some playing time with a knee injury. Johnson has eight rushing TDs; his teammate, LenDale White, has pitched in 700 yards and 14 TDs. For Pittsburgh, Mewelde Moore has tried to pick up the slack during Parker's absences, contributing 537 yards and four TDs.

Personally, I'm inclined to think defense will dominate the game.

On defense, several of the AFC's sack leaders will be featured in the game. Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison is second in the AFC in sacks with 15, and he needs only one more to break Mike Merriweather's 24-year-old team record for a season. Another Steeler linebacker, LaMarr Woodley, is tied for third in the AFC with 11.5.

Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is seventh in sacks with 8.5, and his teammate, defensive end Jacob Ford, is 11th with six — half a sack ahead of Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Smith. And Smith is only half a sack ahead of teammate Lawrence Timmons.

Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior is tied for fourth in the league in tackles with 112. Harrison is the only other defensive player in the top 20 in that category — he's 19th in the league with 85 tackles.

Both teams need to be wary of the opposing secondary, but Tennessee seems to have more defenders that need to be avoided.

Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu shared the league lead in interceptions with Baltimore's Ed Reed when the weekend began, but Reed picked off two passes against Dallas last night. So Polamalu is now second in the AFC with seven.

Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Michael Griffin have five interceptions apiece, and safety Chris Hope has four.

Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed has made nearly 90% of his field goal attempts, and Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas has been one of the league's best all season, making 90.3% of his field goal attempts and connecting on every PAT. But the wind in Nashville today could cause problems for both.

About an hour before the noon (Central) kickoff in Nashville, the temperature is 29° (with a wind chill of 19°), which is nearly today's forecast high of 30°. A west-northwest wind of 15 mph is expected, with gusts possibly reaching 25 mph. But it's expected to be sunny — no precipitation in the forecast.

My Prediction: Tennessee 20, Pittsburgh 17.

Carolina at New York Giants

The Giants rate a slight edge in the QB category.

New York's Eli Manning is ninth in the NFC in QB rating with 86.4. Carolina's Jake Delhomme is 11th, with 82.0. The two are separated by less than 100 yards in passing yardage (with Manning holding the lead), Manning is sixth in the league in passing TDs with 20 (Delhomme has 14) and they're close in completion percentage (Manning has completed 60.3%, Delhomme has completed 58.9%).

As far as turnovers are concerned, Delhomme has thrown more interceptions (12) than Manning (10), and they're about even in fumbles lost (Delhomme has lost three, Manning has lost two).

But the Panthers have the top receiving targets. Carolina's Steve Smith has made 70 receptions for 1,240 yards and six TDs. His teammate, Muhsin Muhammad, has 54 catches for 764 yards and four TDs — but he's also dropped seven passes this season.

The Giants are also led in receiving by a receiver named Steve Smith, but, on 52 catches, he has less than half the yardage (530) his Carolina counterpart has and has managed only one touchdown. Amani Toomer has a few more yards than Smith (537) and four times as many TDs on 44 receptions.

Carolina's DeAngelo Williams is fourth in the NFC in rushing with 1,229 yards. The Giants' Brandon Jacobs recently crossed the 1,000-yard barrier and stands at 1,002, Williams' teammate, Jonathan Stewart, has 751 yards. Jacbos' teammate, Derrick Ward, has 733.

Williams and Stewart have combined for 23 rushing TDs so far this season. For the Giants, Jacobs has scored 12 touchdowns but Ward has only two.

On defense, the Giants have the edge in sacks, and the Panthers have a decisive advantage in tackles. Carolina' Julius Peppers and New York's Justin Tuck are in a battle for fourth in the NFC in sacks. Peppers has 12.5, Tuck has 12.0. The Giants' third-year defensive end, Mathias Kiwanuka, has 8.5 sacks, which matches his total for his first two years in the league, and defensive tackle Fred Robbins has 5.5.

Peppers is tied for second in the league in forced fumbles with five. Tuck has three. Five other players, from both teams, have two each.

Carolina linebacker Jon Beason leads the NFC in tackles with 122, and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis is tied for 11th with 97. None of the Giants are in the top 20 in tackles.

Neither secondary has been overly impressive against the pass. Beason leads Carolina with three interceptions, and cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster lead the Giants, with three each.

New York kicker Jon Carney has made 29 of 31 field goal attempts (93.5%) as well as all 35 of his PATs. Carolina's John Kasay has been even more accurate, hitting on 24 of 25 field goal attempts (96%) and all 39 of his PATs.

But the kicking game could be affected by a wicked wind tonight.

East Rutherford, N.J., is expected to have snow until about mid-afternoon today, but the Giants and Panthers won't kick off their game until after sunset — and, by that time, it's supposed to be partly cloudy. During the daylight hours, the temperature is supposed to reach 36°, but the night-time low is expected to be in the teens.

Whether the temperature is actually that low during the game, it will probably feel that cold — if not colder. Forecasters say it will be breezy tonight, 22-24 mph, with gusts as high as 48 mph.

My Prediction: Carolina 13, New York 10.

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