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It's here! Wild Card Weekend kicks off

(Jan. 2, 2007) -- Sports' ultimate reality show is ready for its grand finale.

The NFL playoffs are here with its hard reality: Win and you go on, lose and you go home.

"Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs!" says New York Jets running back Leon Washington. "It feels good to say it."

It feels good -- no, great -- for all 12 clubs in the 2006 playoffs. They earned it through 17 hard weeks of competition, surviving with honors:

  • The cumulative winning percentage for all 12 clubs is .672 (129-63). Eight of the 12 teams won at least 10 games.
  • Many of the clubs enter the playoffs on a roll. San Diego has won 10 in a row -- the third team since 2000 to begin the playoffs with that lengthy a streak (2003, New England, 12; 2004, Pittsburgh, 14). Baltimore has won nine of its last 10, New England six of its last seven, the New York Jets five of their last six, and Philadelphia five in a row.
  • It is a "fresh face" playoffs, with seven clubs -- Baltimore, Dallas, Kansas City, New Orleans, New York Jets, Philadelphia and San Diego -- making the final 12 after missing out last year. It is the 10th consecutive year that at least five clubs accomplished such a feat.
  • It's a solid playoffs, led by teams that have been consistently good over the years, with winning percentages of .600 or more over the past five seasons -- Indianapolis (.750), New England (.738), Philadelphia (.663) and Seattle (.600).
  • It's a resilient playoffs. Three of the teams -- Baltimore, New Orleans and Philadelphia -- went from "worst to first" in their divisions, winning their divisions after finishing last in 2005. It is the first time in history that three teams achieved such a turnaround, and fifth time since 2000 that two teams did it.

So, 25 years after "The Catch" (Montana to Clark) in the 1981 NFC Championship Game (Jan. 10, 1982) and 20 years after "The Drive" by John Elway in the 1986 AFC Championship Game (Jan. 11, 1987), who knows what the NFL playoffs have in store.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4), Saturday on NBC (4:30 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: KC's LJ vs. Indy's DL.

That's Larry Johnson, who set a league record for carries this season (416; and finished No. 2 in NFL rushing with 1,789 yards) against an Indianapolis defense that finished 32nd in the league against the rush. "We've got to get ready for him," says Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who confronts his old assistant head coach in Tampa Bay -- Chiefs coach Herm Edwards. "He's a great back. We'll have our hands full."

Of course, that will go both ways. The Chiefs' 18th ranked pass defense will go up against the league's No. 2 passing offense directed by the NFL's leading passer this year, Peyton Manning (101.0), and abetted by Indy's two 1,000-yard receivers, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The duo has 21 TD catches between them, most for any team's top two receivers in 2006.

Dallas Cowboys (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (9-7), Saturday on NBC (8 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: Matt vs. DeMarcus.

Of course, that's not the only key matchup of the game -- you've got Dallas RBs Julius Jones (1,084 yards) and Marion Barber (14 rush TDs, third most in the league) against 2007 Pro Bowl LBs Julian Peterson and Lofa Tatupu -- but it may be pivotal.

The Seahawks and QB Matt Hasselbeck have operated behind an OL in injury flux this year, and have surrendered the most sacks of the 12 playoff teams -- 49. The Cowboys come off a loss to Detroit in which they used a four-man front that helped produce five sacks. Three came from starting Pro Bowl LB DeMarcus Ware, who tied San Diego's Shaun Phillips (11.5) for the second-most LB sacks this season.

"The NFC East is a very physical division," says Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren. "When you play Dallas, you know you've got to deal with their defense. They are capable of not giving up any points."

Of course, Dallas can't over-commit, or RB Shaun Alexander -- with an NFL-best string of 64 games with a run of 10 yards or more -- can burn them.

New York Jets (10-6) at New England Patriots (12-4), Sunday on CBS (1 p.m. ET) STORYLINE: You guys again, Part I.

The first of two Sunday East Division playoff matchups (see Giants-Eagles below). And it's the rubber game in each, with each winning at the other's place. A total of 10 points separated the Jets and Patriots this year, with New England winning 24-17 in September in New Jersey, and New York 17-14 in November in Foxborough.

This one's got a lot of storylines aside from the Jets' Eric Mangini-Pats' Bill Belichick head-coaching connection. Like, what does Jets defensive coordinator Bob Sutton concoct to negate QB Tom Brady, who is 10-1 in the playoffs and has thrown only five pickoffs in those 11 games -- for a 1.36 interception percentage, lowest in playoff history.

Or can the Patriots handle the constantly shifting and adjusting offense -- including the no-huddle -- of Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer? All that motion is helped by WRs Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles, who tied for second in the league in third-down receptions (29) with six TDs between them.

New York giants (8-8) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6), Sunday on FOX (4:30 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: You guys again, Part II.

First, there was that 17-point Giants comeback win in overtime in Philly in September. Then Jeff Garcia 's 19-yard TD pass to give the Eagles a 36-22 win in December. Now comes the '06 tiebreaker.

The Eagles are hot, and the Giants seem to have heated up at just the right time. Philly, under QB Garcia (who replaced an injured Donovan McNabb on November 19), is on a five-game win streak. A lot of the credit for that goes to RB Brian Westbrook, who has averaged 102 yards per game since November, not including in Week 17 when his load was lightened once the Eagles had won the division.

New York's Week 17 win over Washington was sparked by a vintage Tiki Barber rushing production, this one a team- record-setting 234-yard, three-TD night. Barber finished fourth in the league with 1,662 yards, but the Eagles, led by LB Jeremiah Trotter, limited him to 126 yards in this season's two meetings.

New York, New York!: This is the fifth time in the history of the Jets and Giants that the teams have appeared in the same playoffs (1981, 1985, 1986 and 2002).

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