Complete Game Listing
New York Jets (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)
St. Louis Rams (9-8) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Minnesota Vikings (9-8) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Indianapolis Colts (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-2)
New York Jets (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 18th meeting. Steelers lead series 15-2. The Steelers have won six straight against the Jets in Pittsburgh, where the Jets have never won.
2004 RANKINGS: Jets: offense 12th (3rd rush, 22nd pass); defense 7th (5th rush, 14th pass). Steelers: offense 16th (2nd rush, 28th pass); defense 1st (1st rush, 4th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Both offenses are powered by their running games. For the Jets to have any success against the league's second-best run defense, QB Chad Pennington will have to prove early on that he has the arm strength to push the ball down the field. If not, the Steelers will stack the box and make life miserable for RB Curtis Martin. The Steelers offense will use a two-headed monster in RBs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. The Jets have the pass rush to make rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger uncomfortable, but they have to stop the running game first and create long passing situations.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers lead the all-time series 15-2, and have won both previous meetings in Heinz Field. This is the first postseason meeting. ... The Jets are 0-6 all-time in Pittsburgh and 0-10 in the state of Pennsylvania. ... The Steelers are 23-17 in the postseason while the Jets are 8-9.
PREDICTION: Steelers 20-16
--QB Chad Pennington returned to practice Thursday after missing the day before with flu symptoms. He is expected to make close to a full recovery and play on Saturday against the Steelers. Considering he'll only be a few days removed from the illness, Pennington may be slightly weakened. It's doubtful it would affect his play much of at all.
--DT Dewayne Robertson practiced Thursday after bruising his knee the day before. He will play Saturday.
--LB Eric Barton was fined $7,500 by the NFL for his late hit on San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees - in the head - at the end of regulation in last Saturday's wild card game. Barton, whose gaffe gave the Chargers new life and allowed them to tie the game, will appeal.
--QB Quincy Carter is attending to his sick mother in Georgia and is not expected back by Saturday's game. Second-year player Brooks Bollinger will be the backup quarterback against the Steelers.
--QB Brooks Bollinger, having taken first-team snaps earlier this week when Chad Pennington was out with a stomach virus, moved up as the backup because Quincy Carter won't be able to make Saturday's game. Ricky Ray will be the emergency quarterback.
--WR Brock Ralph was signed by the Jets to a future contract.
-- LB Kendrell Bell has a "significant" fever, coach Bill Cowher said, and missed his second straight practice. The Steelers downgraded him to questionable on Thursday. He has played in only three games this season.
-- LB Joey Porter, who missed Wednesday's practice with the flu, returned to practice Thursday and will start Saturday.
-- CB Chad Scott will play in the nickel and dime defenses against the Jets.
-- WR Plaxico Burress has shown his old burst in practices this week and no longer is bothered by the hamstring injury that kept him out of five games.
-- RB Verron Haynes will return to his role as the team's third-down back. He led all Steelers back with 18 receptions this season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Safety Erik Coleman hit the rookie wall about Week 12, dead tired and looking so bad his teammates knew exactly what he was going through. Getting home and crashing, Coleman would sleep through the night out of pure physical and mental exhaustion.
That changed a few weeks later - one part diet, one part rest and a whole lot of playoffs.
"I'm starting to feel pretty good again. I think I'm passed the phase of my body feeling bad. I've got my second wind," said Coleman, a fifth-round pick who has started every game this season and totaled four interceptions and nine passes defended in the regular season. "When you get to the playoffs, it's just a burst of energy. You get refreshed because it's so exciting. The playoff atmosphere is crazy."
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the Jets' first-round pick and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, has kept himself clear of the rookie wall by letting that playoff adrenaline flow even during the regular season.
"It's because we've been winning and even when we did get into a slump we were fighting for our playoff lives," said Vilma, who has more tackles in his last seven starts (60) than he did in the previous seven (59), with 13 tackles against San Diego in last week's wild card win. "There was no time to be tired and think about what a long season it's been. I've never been in this situation before and I'm enjoying it."
Vilma tapered his workload down as the season went on. Resting more and staying off his feet. Instead of running errands at night, he stayed at home, propped his feet up and watched a movie.
Players who look like they're dragging at the end of the season get reminders from teammates that they've got to hold out just a little bit longer.
"If you see them hurting or their body hurts you just got to keep them out there and let them know, `hey we've got a couple more games and we've got to win these games,'" cornerback David Barrett said.
It looks as though Bill Cowher will start Jerome Bettis on Saturday against the New York Jets. There has been a debate all week whether the Steelers should start Duce Staley or Bettis.
"I have an inclination," Cowher said on Thursday, but would not reveal it.
Bettis has been the healthier of the two in the second half of the season and by far the best runner. In the past nine games, Staley has 123 yards rushing and Bettis has 812. Both have practiced this week and shared the duties at halfback but Cowher likely will go with his hottest back.
"It's good to have both Jerome and Duce healthy at this time of year, no question," Cowher said. "It's a nice situation to have.
"We have been able to obviously function with really the four backs that we have had."
The Steelers climbed from the No. 31-ranked running team last year, their all-time low, to No. 2 in the NFL this season.
"We probably made a better commitment to it this year," Cowher said.
St. Louis Rams (9-8) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston
SERIES: 73rd meeting, and first in the post-season. The Rams lead the series 46-24-2 and had won seven in a row before the Falcons' win on Sept. 19.
2004 RANKINGS: Rams: offense 6th (25th rush, 4th pass); defense 17th (29th rush, 11th pass). Falcons: offense 20th (1st rush, 30th pass); defense 14th (8th rush, 24th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The battle of the game will be the Rams' offensive line vs. the Falcons' defensive line. St. Louis' line has slowly improved, but the Falcons have high-motored pass rushers who will force QB Marc Bulger into turnovers if they can get in his face. The Falcons have a stout run defense, so Bulger could be forced to make plays in several third-and-long situations. The Falcons' offense begins and ends with the running game. St. Louis doesn't stop the run well at all, but it can afford to commit extra run defenders until QB Michael Vick proves he can move the ball through the air. If Vick and RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett are having their way on the ground, the Falcons can grind it out and wear the Rams defense out by the second half.
FAST FACTS: The Rams lead the series 46-24-2 and had won seven straight before Atlanta's victory in Week 2. The teams have never met in the post-season. ... This is the Falcons' first home playoff game since 1998, when they won the NFC West and advanced to the Super Bowl with home wins over San Francisco and Minnesota. ... Atlanta was 7-1 at home this season. ... The Rams' win over Seattle was the team's first playoff success on the road since moving to St. Louis in 1995. ... The Rams became the 11th team in 16 instances since 1970 to sweep a season series and then beat the same team in the post-season. However, this was just the second time the feat was accomplished on the road.
PREDICTION: Falcons 24-23
--WR Isaac Bruce has soreness in his groin, the result of an injury suffered Saturday against Seattle, and did limited work in practice Thursday. Bruce will play Saturday against Atlanta.
--LG Tom Nutten twisted his injured knee near the end of practice Thursday, but it should not affect his availability for Saturday's game against Atlanta. Nutten did not practice Wednesday, but participated in most of the snaps Thursday.
--DL Tyoka Jackson did not practice again Thursday because of an ankle injury, but coach Mike Martz has not ruled him out of Saturday's game yet. Martz said Jackson is much better than he was earlier in the week and that there's still a chance he could play against the Falcons.
--DT Jimmy Kennedy, who didn't practice Wednesday because of a sore foot, worked Thursday, although on a limited basis. Kennedy will play Saturday against Atlanta.
--WR Mike Furrey was back at practice Thursday after missing Wednesday because his wife went into labor. However, the labor was a false alarm, and the couple's child was not born.
--RB Arlen Harris, questionable because of a hamstring injury, was in uniform and practiced Thursday.
-- TE Alge Crumpler has had a solid week of practice, but it's hard to say whether he'll be 100 percent effective for the Falcons Saturday night against the Rams, or if he'll have his usual stamina. He hasn't played since spraining his right knee Dec. 18 against the Panthers, although he has been practicing for a couple weeks.
-- NT Ed Jasper, who missed the Falcons' final four regular-season games with a broken left hand, is expected to return to the lineup Saturday night against the Rams. He has been pleased with the way his hand has held up in practice the past two weeks, and he's feisty as all get-out.
-- CB Kevin Mathis, who was inactive for the Falcons' regular-season finale Jan. 2 at Seattle with a sprained shoulder, will almost certainly return to the starting lineup Saturday night against the Rams. He'll also move into his normal nickel back position in obvious passing situations, when former starting RCB Jason Webster will man the RCB position.
-- FB Luke Lawton, whom the Falcons signed last week off the Bills' practice squad after George Layne became the third Atlanta FB to go on injured reserve in three weeks (with a broken jaw), may be active Saturday night when Atlanta plays the Rams. Fred McCrary, who joined the team last month, will start, but given the way Atlanta fullbacks have been going down, the team probably wants to make sure another FB is available.
-- QB Michael Vick admitted that like his teammates he has been amped up this week. "I don't think it'll wear off until the first snap is snapped," he said. "Until you get it going, there's a lot of anticipation and excitement."
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Rams have won three straight games and scored at least 20 points in all of them. That is in contrast to some of the team's poor performances this season when they failed to score more than 17 points. When the Rams scored 17 or less this season, they won just two of six games, and those were wins over Arizona and San Francisco.
Coach Mike Martz points to "settling in on the offensive line" as a big reason for the recent offensive improvement.
"Having that calm down in there has been a key factor," Martz said. "Everything we do is predicated on what they do up front."
Blaine Saipaia will start his sixth straight game this week at right tackle, while Tom Nutten has kept the left guard position stable, despite playing on a bad knee. The Rams will need a strong performance from the line to do what they hope to achieve against the Falcons. Saipaia's matchup with defensive end Patrick Kerney will be watched closely.
Saipaia said, "He just seems like a really big motor guy. A strong guy that keeps coming. So I've really got to be staying on him and staying with him until the whistle blows. I'd say that their defense is relentless. I think they just rely on their tenacity."
Said Martz, "They've got good people up front. They're big, physical guys who get off the ball quickly. They do a great job of penetrating, bull rushing, and changing things up."
Quarterback Marc Bulger was sacked five times when the teams played on Sept. 19, but the game was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter when the Falcons scored 17 unanswered points. One touchdown came when defensive end Brady Smith got around left tackle Orlando Pace, looped behind Bulger and managed to hit his arm as the quarterback was throwing. The ball popped in the air, and Smith caught it for a touchdown.
"They go hard every play," Bulger said. "They're 'downhill' players - they go straight up the field. They have linebackers that come downhill. That's what they bank on - that you're not going to be able to hold the ball long enough. You see Philly and New England, it gets confusing sometimes. But they (the Falcons) won't confuse you. They pretty much line up and say these four guys are going to beat your five blockers."
Recalling the first game, Martz said, "They lined up and whipped us, and whipped us good."
However those matchups end up Saturday will likely determine the outcome.
The Falcons (11-5) and head coach Jim Mora believe they've covered their bases for Saturday night's playoff game against the Rams.
They know they need to count on their league-leading rushing attack. They know they need to slow the Rams' potent passing attack. They know it'll help a great deal if they can force St. Louis (9-8) into turnovers, which the Rams are prone to have problems with.
They just want to get on with it.
Last weekend's bye helped everybody heal, but it has also created anxiety.
"It will almost be two weeks since we played, so there is an anxiety factor that we all feel," Mora said. "There is an edginess to it. I'm sure the fans feel it. We just want to get going."
"You know the old saying, 'Hurry up, and go nowhere?" That's what we're doing," said defensive lineman Ed Jasper, who's expected to start Saturday night in the Georgia Dome against the Rams. "We're tired of hitting ourselves. Everybody is so ready to play, everybody is feeling good."
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