Poupart's picks: Wild-card playoffs

The playoffs begin this weekend, and for the fourth consecutive season they will be conducted without the Dolphins. But we have the distinct impression that will change in 2006. For now, let's look at this year's first round.

Saturday, January 7

Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5): The Bucs won a shootout when the teams met at Raymond James Stadium in the regular season, but there won't be nearly that many points scored this time. Both defenses are very good and the Bucs have the advantage of playing at home, but the biggest key in this contest is Washington has Mark Brunell at quarterback and Tampa Bay has Chris Simms, who will making his first playoff start. There's the difference. Washington, 20-16.

Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6): Look at those records again. Yes, the Jaguars actually were two games better than the Pats. Then why is it that very few people are giving Jacksonville a chance in this one? Maybe it's because they haven't beaten a good team in a long time. But that's because their schedule was much tougher early in the season. The truth is Jacksonville has the defense to make life difficult for the Pats. They just don't have the offense. And somehow you get the feeling the Pats will find a way to get it done even if they get outplayed. New England, 20-17.

Sunday, January 8

Carolina (11-5) at N.Y. Giants (11-5): A very interesting matchup here. The biggest issue in this game is Eli Manning, who wasn't very impressive down the stretch for the Giants. Tiki Barber finished the season on a tear, but it's hard to see him running wild against the Panthers. On the flip side, the Giants defense has missed injured linebacker Antonio Pierce badly. Yes, the Giants are at home, but Carolina simply is a better team right now. Carolina, 27-20.

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5): The Steelers are a chic pick in this one because they have won four in a row while the Bengals dropped their last two. But the Steelers' last three wins came against non-playoff teams, while Cincy rested their starters for most of their finale at Kansas City. So that logic goes out the window. The real issue here is whether the Bengals can stop the Pittsburgh running game and whether the Pittsburgh defense can stop the Bengals passing game. This has the makings of a really good one. Cincinnati, 27-24.

Last week's record: 9-7

Season record: 177-79

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