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How it shapes up
Published January 2, 2006
JAGUARS AT PATRIOTS: Though they won't say it, the Patriots most likely prefer Jacksonville to Pittsburgh.
Yes, they've beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh in their past two meetings - on the road in the AFC Championship Game last season and 23-20 in Week 3 this season. But the Jaguars played a relatively weak schedule and unlike the Steelers have few players with postseason experience.
Jacksonville also has been playing with backup quarterback David Garrard for the injured Byron Leftwich. Leftwich's status for the playoffs remains in question and he will be rusty if he comes back.
The key for the Patriots has been the return of Richard Seymour, one of the league's best defensive lineman. The Patriots had won six of seven before their 28-26 loss Sunday to Miami.
PANTHERS AT GIANTS: Even with a spate of late-season injuries, the Giants will be hard to beat at home. The Meadowlands could also neutralize an advantage for Carolina - Steve Smith against New York's suspect secondary - because it's hard to throw deep in the January winds at Giants Stadium.
"Our team feeds off the crowd, and we have been able to energize the crowd with our performance," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "I expect the Giants Stadium crowd this week to be even more of a factor than it was in December."
Because of those winds, the game might be won on the ground.
If that happens, give the edge to Tiki Barber of the Giants, one of just three running backs ever to have three 200-yard rushing games in a season and the league leader in total yards from scrimmage.
STEELERS AT BENGALS: These teams split the season series, each winning on the road.
The Steelers, favored by a point despite being on the road, won 27-13 at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 27, but lost 38-31 at home on Dec. 4. Since then the Steelers have won their past four to make the playoffs as the sixth and last-seeded team in the AFC.
This is another game with a huge contrast in playoff experience.
The brash young Bengals have almost none. The Steelers have a wealth of it; this is their 10th playoff experience in the 14 seasons Bill Cowher has coached the team.
"We play them twice a year and we know them," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We'll take our chances going to Cincinnati. ... It's not going to be easy, but we're more comfortable with them."