First-round magic: There's almost no better coach than Joe Gibbs when it comes to winning first-round playoff games. He's 7-1 dating to his first tenure. While those were with different teams, the man in charge is who was most important. The best thing Gibbs has done, and did in the past, is surround himself with good coaches and good players. Nothing has changed.
Mood of the team: Unbelievable confidence. But there's not an ounce of cockiness. No one is predicting anything; no one is making boasts. They respec the Bucs and that's the first step toward making sure you're prepared. The confidence has been evident all season long, not just in this five-game winning streak. They act no different than they did before. But when you listen to them, there's no doubt in their minds they're going to win. Again, it's not something that's said but it's just in the way they speak. It's there; trust us.
Road warriors: The Redskins have won three straight road games, but they'll need to play better to win at Tampa Bay. They played a rookie QB making his first start in St. Louis; they played at one-dimensional Arizona and beat a battered Philly squad. That's not to take anything away from them because to win three road games in a row is an accomplishment. But don't let that be fool's gold. They can't open the way they did in Philly; they can't turn the ball over the way they did in Arizona. If they play the way they did in the first meeting, minus the turnovers, this game will be over midway through the fourth quarter.
X factor: What a change Sean Taylor has made in his demeanor. Gone is the angry young man of last season when he didn't trust anyone, at least in the media. Some days, I don't blame him. But Taylor has started to mature; it's not just in his dealings with the press, but it's in the way he handles his job. It's a welcomed sight. But, more than anything, his game has matured. Taylor does things no other safeties can do and it gives the Redskins an edge. Look at how he was used against the Giants. In a dime set, Taylor was used as a middle linebacker, giving them someone with speed to cover, but also size to stop the run. Plus, it would at least momentarily throw off QB Eli Manning. A QB always looks at the free safety and they also must find Taylor. This makes it a little harder to read what Washington's defense might do.
Changes: Taylor and DT Cornelius Griffin did not face Tampa Bay the first time around. Think they'll make a difference? It's no coincidence that since Griffin returned from his injury, he and DT Joe Salave'a have completely stuffed the run (though Philly opened too many holes last week). Those two scrap hard, making it tougher to double end Phillip Daniels, resulting in more sacks.
Naturally: Receiver Edell Shepherd, who burned Washington for three catches, 87 yards and a touchdown, has managed just one catch for four yards since that game. Unbelievable.
Matchups: LT Chris Samuels and DE Simeon Rice have a long history and both have won their share of battles. Rice's speed and long arms make him tough to handle and Samuels has struggled at times against speed rushers. He's a Pro Bowler? Time to prove it. But we don't doubt he'll have success against him on the ground.
Another to watch: How much impact will Derrick Brooks make? He played with a hamstring injury last time, when Clinton Portis rushed for 144 yards. He's healthy, but was that the only reason for Portis' big day? Don't think so. The Redskins' athletic linemen did a good job creating seams. Even with Randy Thomas out that should continue as they use quicker players such as the tight ends and H-backs to help create cutback lanes.
Caddy: Rookie running back Cadillac Williams did not have a good game in the first meeting, rushing for 20 yards on 10 carries. But he was also coming off a few injuries. He's healthy now and averaging more than 90 yards in his past seven games. Then again, Griffin's return to health might negate Williams.
Beware: Receiver Joey Galloway. With Shawn Springs out or at best limited, Galloway must be handled by either Walt Harris or rookie Carlos Rogers. Harris was burned in the first meeting, partly by allowing too much cushion. Rogers' sin is being too aggressive. There's nothing wrong with that, but a veteran wideout can often take advantage of that. Galloway had a huge game and is having a fantastic season.
What the offense must do: The same darned thing it's done the past five games, control the ball and hit a few big plays. The good thing about Santana Moss is that he only needs to touch the ball five times or so to have a major impact on a game. Moss has had great success on the slip screen. Clearly, teams know it's coming so don't be surprised if they add a few twists. One twist is throwing it to other players, such as H-back Chris Cooley. But that play is harder against a fast defense such as Tampa Bay's.
What the defense must do: Force Chris Simms to win the game. Simms is starting his first playoff game. Though he's performed well of late -- or, at least, he isn't making a lot of mistakes -- that should help Washington. But they never got to him in the first meeting. Too oftent their blitzes were met with max protection, leaving the Redskins with no pressure and solo coverage deep. It proved to be a bad combination. Against Dallas, the Redskins were able to blitz when the Cowboys didn't use max protection and drop back when it did. They need to ''guess'' right again.
Prediction: There's no way I'm picking against the Redskins. It's not about being homerish; it's about reading the vibes. And they're all good. Plus they have the veteran quarterback and Tampa doesn't. In a tight game, that should make the difference. It won't be high scoring like last time; the result will be different, too. Redskins 17, Bucs 14.