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NFL Playoffs!

   by Jim Feist - 01/06/2009

As the playoffs began, those who earned the top two seeds in each conference have a key edge, as they get a bye the first week while watching the others duke it out. Sitting at home this past weekend were the Giants, Panthers, Titans and Steelers. Almost a year ago the odds to win the 2009 Super Bowl were the Patriots at 8-to-5, the Colts 5-to-1, the Chargers 6-to-1 and the Cowboys 7-to-1. None of those teams got a bye and two didn't make the playoffs. The Giants and Steelers were 15-to-1, the Titans 25-to-1 and Carolina 55-to-1.
Gaining the bye is an advantage for teams to not only rest injured players, but to have two weeks to put together a game plan. Since 1990, 28 first and second round seeds have filled 36 Super Bowl slots and the No. 1 and 2 seeds, rested after the bye, have gone 56-16 (76 percent) in their first games in the divisional round.
The No. 1 seeded team in three of the last four years in the NFC (Eagles, Seahawks, Bears) wound up in the Super Bowl. In the AFC it's been a different story, as the only No. 1 seeds to make it have been the 2003 and 2007 Patriots. In 2001 and 2004 the Steelers were the No. 1 AFC seed and fell short, along with the 14-2 Colts and Chargers the previous two years. Here's a look at the four teams that come into this weekend's playoff games rested with home field.

Panthers: (12-4 SU, 8-7-1 ATS): Carolina coach John Fox prefers a balanced offense and this group exemplifies that, ranked 10th in total offense, third in rushing with 152 yards on the ground per game. They upgraded with rookie RB Jonathon Stewart joining RB DeAngelo Williams for a powerful one-two punch, plus giving QB Jake Delhomme (15 TDs, 12 INTs) an extra target, bringing back WR Muhsin Muhammad alongside star WR Steve Smith (1,421 yards).
It's the defense that is the great unknown, ranked 18th overall, nowhere near the powerful unit that the 2003 Carolina NFC Champs were. Also, the Panthers have been dominant at home (8-0 SU, 5-2-1 ATS), but just 4-4 SU, 3-5 ATS on the road. They would love a rematch with the Giants, after losing a 34-28 OT game at NY December 21st. Carolina is on a 7-2 run over the total.

Giants (12-4 SU, 11-4-1 ATS): The Giants weren't respected as defending champs at 15-to-1 odds entering this season. Their remarkable run last year appeared to be a fluke, plus they lost two key defensive linemen, one to injury and one to retirement. However, they proved that this team is for real, with balance on offense, great depth, and an attacking defense. The Giants rank 7th in total offense, first in rushing with 157 yards per game, and 5th in total defense.
QB Eli Manning (21 TDs, 10 INTs) keeps getting better and they have a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Is their defense ready to dominate again? NY is on a 5-2 run under the total. They don't have the late season momentum from a year ago, on a 1-3 SU, 2-2 ATS run, but have a bye, something they didn't have last year.

Titans (13-3 SU, 10-6 ATS): Tennessee started 7-0 SU/ATS and finished up 6-3 SU, 5-4 ATS. QB Chad Pennington got much of the headlines leading Miami from 1-15 to the playoffs, but how about veteran journeyman Kerry Collins? He didn't dazzle, with 12 TDs, 7 picks, but was a game manager, taking over for flaky Vince Young and leading Tennessee to the top spot in the AFC.
This is a run-first offense, ranked 7th in rushing behind rookie RB Chris Johnson (1,228 yards, 4.9 ypc) and LenDale White (773 yards). The defense has a ferocious pass rush, ranked 7th overall. They hope to have Albert Haynesworth back for the playoffs after missing the final two games. The Titans beat a lot of bad teams, but they also went 4-1 against playoff qualifiers, beating the Steelers (31-14), Colts (31-21), Ravens (13-10) and Vikings (30-17). The lone loss was to the Colts in the meaningless finale (23-0).

Steelers (12-4 SU, 9-7 ATS): Pittsburgh once again was No. 1 in total defense and allowed the fewest points in the league. They battled injuries but came through with the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The offense used to be run-first, but the offensive line isn't as strong and the running back depth was hit hard by injuries. RB Willie Parker (791 yards) averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt on a team ranked 23rd in rushing.
QB Ben Roethlisberger (17 TDs, 15 INTs) was running for his life often (46 sacks) and didn't have a stellar year, but carried the offense that ranks 17th in passing. Big Ben sustained his third concussion in as many years in the finale, so the bye week is a big plus. They were champs just three seasons ago and have held six of the last seven opponents to 13 points or less.

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