- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

The NFL once played a game that went by many names. Initially, it was officially called the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl, named for the NFL commissioner who died in 1959. It also was referred to as the Runner-Up Bowl, and Vince Lombardi had his own name for it — “a rinky-dink game.”

The game, played from 1960 to 1969, was for the teams that finished in second place in their conferences.

You might be able to call the NFL playoffs this season the Bert Bell Benefit Playoffs because everyone besides the team in New England is playing for second place.

The Patriots will complete their undefeated season and win the Super Bowl. Please spare the speculation that they looked vulnerable in some of their close wins near the end of the season. Every team has down games over 16 games. Very few still win those games.

And no one outcoaches Bill Belichick in the playoffs. Lombardi may always be the standard for NFL coaches, but Belichick has to be in the same breath. For all the talk about the great Bill Parcells and how he has won everywhere, the fact is that in three of the stops where he had the most success — the Giants, Patriots and Jets — Belichick was there with him. Parcells’ second Super Bowl win, the 20-19 victory over Buffalo in 1991, was all Belichick and his game plan to stop the explosive Bills offense. Note that Parcells had the least success of his career in Dallas — without Belichick.

But the Patriots aren’t playing this weekend, getting a first-round bye, and, hey, you know what they say about second place? The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing, so here’s who will win and lose in the first round this weekend:

Jacksonville over Pittsburgh — This may be the hardest pick of the first round because it goes against the home team. Despite their swoon in the latter part of the season, the Steelers had the best defense in the league, allowing just 258.6 yards a game. But the Steelers are limping in, with a porous secondary and the loss of their stud running back, Willie Parker. His replacement, Najeh Davenport, has done well, but there is a reason he played behind Parker — he isn’t as good.

The Jaguars beat the Steelers already in Pittsburgh 29-22, and they can control the game with the dual running attack of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, like they did when they ran for 216 yards against Pittsburgh. And Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio gets the slight edge in coaching, just based on experience, completing his fourth year as the Jacksonville coach, compared with rookie Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin. Jaguars 24, Steelers 17.

Tampa Bay over New York — In boxing, the smart money says that you never project a valiant losing effort by a fighter into a win the next time around. So while the Giants fought the good fight in the final game of the season in a 38-35 loss to the Patriots, there is really no momentum to carry over when you lose. It’s still a loss, and the Giants lost more than the game. Several players — including cornerback Sam Madison and center Shaun O’Hara — were hurt and may not play tomorrow. They also will be without tight end Jeremy Shockey, who broke his leg against the Redskins in Week 15.

This is still a team that is always on the edge of breaking apart, under a coach it can barely tolerate in Tom Coughlin and a quarterback with a fragile psyche and questionable decision-making in Eli Manning.

Compare that with a coach who has won a Super Bowl in Jon Gruden, with a veteran, rested team led by a quarterback who exudes confidence and clutch play in Jeff Garcia. If that team is playing at home, as they are, they win this game. Tampa Bay 30, New York 20.

San Diego over Tennessee — The Chargers drew the easy card in the first round in the lackluster Titans,who have big quarterback problems — whether it is the limping Vince Young or the decrepit Kerry Collins, who would be crushed by the Chargers’ defense. The Titans do have a strong, physical defense, and could punish LaDainian Tomlinson and make life difficult for the inconsistent Philip Rivers at quarterback, but probably not enough for their offense, which had trouble against the Colts backups, to put points on the board. San Diego 21, Tennessee 13.

Chargers fans should enjoy this gift because it ends next week. San Diego is one of the frauds of the playoffs, a team that observers point out finished strong, with a 7-1 record. But they had a soft schedule and went just 2-3 against playoff teams this year. Norv Turner nearly ruined this team right out of the box. The soft schedule saved him — the seven wins at the end included just one against a playoff team — the Titans, a 23-17 win.

And last, but first on the playoff schedule today is the most improbable one — and will result in, of course, an improbable outcome, Washington over Seattle. No one in the NFC has come further or played better than the Redskins, and only a fool would get off this steaming hot team. They have changed the one thing that haunted them for much of the year, thanks to quarterback Todd Collins — they don’t beat themselves anymore. And if they don’t beat themselves, they can beat the Seahawks, even in Seattle.

The weather report calls for rain, which puts a crimp in quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s passing game, and their running game is weak, particularly going against the Redskins’ tough run defense. Washington seems to have all the ingredients for a strong playoff run — a tough defense, a strong running back, and a quarterback who doesn’t commit turnovers. It is a formula that could carry them past Seattle and beyond — perhaps even for a chance to play for second place. Washington 27, Seattle 22.

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