Friday, January 6, 2006

Lost in the fuss over playoff matchups and the departures of eight coaches was the collapse by the Atlanta Falcons, an NFC finalist last season. After a 6-2 start, the Falcons lost six of their final eight games, beating only lightweights New Orleans and Detroit.

Atlanta failed to top 11 points in three of its final five games. Michael Vick carried once for no yards in the finale against Carolina and finished with a 73.1 passer rating, 25th in the NFL — right between backups Josh McCown and Brooks Bollinger.

The NFL’s top running offense managed two yards or fewer on 20 of 31 carries in the 16-3 defeat at Chicago that eliminated the Falcons from playoff elimination.

“We’re front-runners,” complained Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler after that loss. “It seems like our identity is we’ve got to get up on people for us to believe that we can go out there and control a game.”

Playoff back story — Each wild-card game has a little history.

The Redskins return to Tampa Bay, the site of their last playoff game in the 1999 season. The matchup between Washington’s Joe Gibbs and the Bucs’ Jon Gruden is just the fourth opening round game to match title-winning coaches. The others were Miami’s Don Shula vs. Cincinnati’s Paul Brown (1973), Gibbs vs. Chicago’s Mike Ditka (1986) and Seattle’s Mike Holmgren vs. Miami’s Jimmy Johnson (1999).

“That’s a nightmare right there,” Redskins H-back Mike Sellers said of the 14-13 loss in 1999. “A [52]-yard field goal to go to the NFC Championship game, a botched snap. It’s something that I really, really, really don’t want to re-live.”

Carolina’s John Fox was New York’s defensive coordinator when the Giants last went to the Super Bowl in 2001. End Michael Strahan and cornerback Will Allen are the only active Giants who played for Fox.

“I’m very thankful to the late Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch for the opportunity they gave me,” said Fox, who ran the NFL’s top defense for the 1997 Giants. “It’s hard to believe — because they were both very, very healthy when I was there — that they’re not on this earth anymore. Without the two of them, I’m not sure I’m sitting here.”

Largely on the advice of Tisch and Mara, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson hired Fox, who took a day off from practice to attend Mara’s memorial service. He tried to do the same for Tisch’s service but poor weather cancelled his connecting flight.

Jacksonville visits New England, where it lost the 1996 AFC Championship game in just its second season. Receiver Troy Brown, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest and kicker Adam Vinatieri were with the Patriots then. Receiver Jimmy Smith is the only Jaguar left from that contest. Jacksonville beat New England at home in a 1998 wild-card game. Thirty Patriots players have Super Bowl rings. One Jaguars player does.

“Any players that haven’t been in the playoffs need to do everything they’ve done before and more to try to prepare,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has enough rings to fill an entire hand. “You can’t simulate a playoff game in practice. You can’t simulate it anywhere.”

Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have been division rivals since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, but they’ve never met in postseason. However, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis worked for Steelers coach Bill Cowher from 1992 to ‘95, leaving after Pittsburgh lost its last Super Bowl to Dallas.

Cowher said the Steelers are underdogs despite being 3-point favorites and a sparkling 13-3 road record the last two seasons.

“You go on the road, you’re an underdog,” he reasoned.

“We’re underdogs every time we step on the field,” countered Lewis, whose team made the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

After Cincinnati’s 38-31 victory in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson bragged, “It’s time for a change. It’s like going from a black and white TV to a color TV. It was Pittsburgh. It’s Cincinnati now and it’ll probably be that way for awhile now.”

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis answered back this week: “He’ll get a chance to prove it come Sunday.”

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