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Wild Card Weekend on tap as playoffs begin

(Jan. 3, 2006) -- Seven new playoff teams. One that has won three of the past four Super Bowls. Four clubs that won 51 of their 64 games this year.

Who knows what histrionics these teams have in store!

The football universe starts to find out this Saturday and Sunday as Wild Card Weekend kicks off the 2005 NFL playoffs, signaling the final turn on the "Road to Forty" expressway that leads to Super Bowl XL in Detroit on Feb. 5.

"What the regular season does is get you to the playoffs," says the quarterback of one of those new playoff teams, Eli Manning of the New York Giants. "Now you see what you've really got."

So far, the 12 2005 playoff teams have accomplished a great deal:

Combined, they have the most victories of any playoff field ever -- 138. And their combined winning percentage (.719, 138-54) is the highest in a playoff field in 28 years -- since 1977 (.732, 82-30).

The wild-card storylines:

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (10-6) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
STORYLINE: Rematch of the "Go-For-It" Game

On Nov. 13 in Tampa, these two waged a 71-point, 729-point slugfest that ended when the Bucs went for the win with 54 seconds left rather than the tie in a 36-35 victory. RB Mike Alstott bulled it in after the Redskins had blocked an extra-point attempt but were called for offsides.

The Bucs won five of their next seven games, the Redskins lost two more, then finished the year with five victories in a row. Washington head coach Joe Gibbs has his team in the playoffs in only his second year back in the NFL (after it made them only once after he retired at the end of 1992).

"A lot of us coaches have stolen from Joe Gibbs," says Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. "The way he presents his offense and runs his football team is quite impressive."

Key matchup: Two 1,000-yard running backs -- Washington's Clinton Portis (NFL No. 4; 1,516 yards) vs. Tampa Bay rookie Cadillac Williams (No. 13; 1,178), behind only OL this season with the same five starters at each position.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (12-4) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-6) STORYLINE: Last team to beat the Patriots in the playoffs? The Jaguars!

That was seven years ago, in a 1998 wild-card game (25-10) in Jacksonville when the Jaguars were coached by Tom Coughlin, now leading the NFC East champion Giants, and the Patriots by now-USC coach Pete Carroll.

Since that meeting, the Patriots have won nine consecutive playoff games under head coach Bill Belichick, including, of course, three of the past four Super Bowls. They seek an NFL record 10th in a row Saturday (Green Bay, 1961-62, 1965-67).

The Jags -- with more wins this year than the Pats -- are on their own hot streak, winning eight of their past nine. They expect starter Byron Leftwich (ankle) to return at quarterback.

"We're going against the defending champs," says Jacksonville safety Deon Grant. "You can't ask for anything more than that. If we go up there and stay focused and play our game, we'll take care of them."

The Patriots' second-ranked NFL passing game -- stoked by league passing-yardage leader Tom Brady (4,110) goes against the Jaguars' seventh-ranked pass defense.

Cold-weather tidbit: Jax is 2-0 in its past two cold-weather games (below 30 degrees) -- last Dec. 4 at Cleveland (28 degrees) and on Dec. 19, 2004 at Green Bay (12 degrees). "We're from north Florida," kids TE Kyle Brady.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5) at NEW YORK GIANTS (11-5) STORYLINE: Matchup of two explosive offensive forces, but defense could tell the tale

Two of the most exciting offensive performers in the NFL this year -- both Pro Bowl selections -- will be on the field. Giants RB Tiki Barber -- with three of the NFL's five 200-yard rushing games this season -- led the league in scrimmage yards (2,390). Panthers WR Steve Smith tied Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald for the NFL lead in receptions (103), topped the league in receiving yards (1,563), and tied Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison for the most TD catches (12).

But … both teams have solid defenses, particularly on the line. The Giants -- led by ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora -- rank third in the NFL in sacks by the DL (34½), followed by Carolina (33), bulwarked by ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. (Indianapolis' DL tops the NFL with 41½ sacks, followed by Miami with 35.)

Like old times: the Panthers' John Fox is one of five former Giants defensive coordinators who are now NFL head coaches, along with Bill Belichick, Mike Nolan, Bill Parcells and Marty Schottenheimer

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-5) at CINCINNATI BENGALS (11-5) STORYLINE: The lone divisional matchup of the weekend, and are these "neighbors" ever ready!

About 300 miles separate these two Ohio River cities and their teams like the other's place -- at least this year. The Steelers won (27-13) in Cincinnati on Oct. 23, and the Bengals won (38-31) in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4.

"We love this matchup with Pittsburgh," says Cincy QB Carson Palmer. "They love playing us. It's always a great, competitive game. It gets your mind ready. When you've got Pittsburgh coming in, you've got to get focused."

If it's cold or rainy or snowy, that focus may well stay primarily on the ground, and the teams are fine on that front. Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson finished No. 7 in NFL rushing (1,458) and Pittsburgh's Willie Parker No. 12 (1,202).

In the air, you've got the top QBs in the league in TD percentage -- Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, both with a 6.3 mark. Their main receivers have scored 17 (Pitt's Hines Ward, 11 and rookie Heath Miller, 6) and 16 touchdowns (Cincy's Chad Johnson, 9 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 7).

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