01/12/2006 12:00AM

NFL Analysis: Trends, smends


LAS VEGAS - The NFL divisional playoffs this weekend present an interesting handicapping dynamic.

We have the four wild-card winners from last week - Redskins and Panthers in the NFC and the Patriots and Steelers in the AFC - traveling to face the top two seeds in each conference - Seahawks and Bears in the NFC and the Colts and Broncos in the AFC.

The teams that earned byes haven't played in two weeks, and the x-factor is that most of them also rested starters in the final week or two of the regular season, and so we have to determine whether this scenario helps the team with the rest, or if it's more like rust.

Over the years, rest has done wonders for the bye teams. In the divisional playoff round from 1993 to 2003, the home teams and favorites (which were always one and the same) won 35 of the 44 games (80 percent) and were 25-17-2 (60 percent) against the spread. Two years ago, in January 2004, the bye teams went 2-2 straight up and 0-4 against the spread, but then rebounded last year to win all four games and go 3-1 against the spread. So, over the past 13 years, bye teams are 41-11 straight up (79 percent) and 28-22-2 against the spread (56 percent).

The prevailing trend so far this postseason has been that teams with quarterbacks making their first playoff start (Tampa Bay's Chris Simms, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich, New York's Eli Manning and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer) all lost to teams with quarterbacks that had playoff experience. This week, that doesn't bode well for the Chicago Bears as Rex Grossman is the only quarterback remaining with no postseason experience. Heck, he's only started a total of six games in his NFL career.

Based on the above, conventional wisdom would say to look to this favorites this Saturday and Sunday, while maybe flip-flopping in the Panthers-Bears game because of Grossman's inexperience. However, every game must be looked at independently, and I actually find myself doing the exact opposite. I like the underdogs in all the games except for the Panthers-Bears matchup.

Let's start with Saturday's first game:

Redskins (+9) at Seahawks

The Seahawks went 13-3 and emerged as the odds-on favorite in the NFC, but there are serious doubts about the validity of either. The Seahawks had the advantage of playing in the very weak NFC West division and going 6-0 against the Rams, Cardinals and 49ers. They only faced four playoff teams, beating the Giants (in the game that New York kicker Jay Feely missed three potential game-winning field goals) and the Colts (when Indy was resting all its players) and losing to the Jaguars and these same Redskins, 20-17 back on Oct. 2. I expect this game to be played the same way with the Skins at least covering this number and the game going under 41 points. The Washington defense has been playing great of late and has a good chance to slow down the Seattle attack, which is powered by league leading rusher Shaun Alexander, who was held to 98 yards in the first meeting, with 34 yards coming on one play. I see the Seattle offense having a lot of rust, especially quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, as it has seemed that the only real effort they put forth in the final weeks was to get Alexander the rushing title and the single-season TD record. If the defense can contain Alexander and put pressure on Hasselbeck, the offense won't have to do much, just like in last week's win at Tampa.

PLAY: Redskins for 1 unit and under 41 for 1 unit.

Patriots (+3) at Broncos

Here's a bet I grabbed at Patriots +4 at the Las Vegas Hilton last Sunday, but it still offers value at 3 as I think the two-time defending Super Bowl champs come out of Denver with the outright upset. The Broncos won the regular-season meeting 28-20 on Oct. 16, but that was eons ago. At that time, the Patriots were decimated by injuries, but after the bye week following that loss, they won seven of their next nine (before the meaningless loss to the Dolphins in the regular-season finale) and are playing like a totally different team now, peaking at the right time. The Patriots really proved that last week with the methodical, workmanlike dismantling of a very good Jaguars team. Now, the Broncos, with their strong running game and controlled passing game with a more mature Jake Plummer, should put up their share of points, so I do look for this to go over the total of 44, but the Patriots are in a zone right now and Tom Brady will do whatever it takes to win, whether it's going deep for a big play or just picking apart the defense to set up a game-winning field goal.

PLAY: Patriots for 2 units and over 44 for 1 unit.

Steelers (+9 1/2) at Colts

There is a theme to these picks and it's that I'm taking the team I feel has the better defense. As much as has been written and talked about the Colts' defense this year, the Steelers allowed fewer yards and gave up just 11 more points during the regular season. As with the other three games, these teams also met during the regular season with the Colts winning 26-7 on Nov. 28. But, for as much as the Colts were in total control of the game, it wasn't that lopsided. The Colts did shock the Steelers with an 80-yard Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison touchdown on the game's opening play, but didn't do much the rest of the game. It was the Steelers' offense that didn't do its job, but it looks like coach Bill Cowher has a better handle on how to utilize the plodding Jerome Bettis and fast Willie Parker and the offense is more confident and playing loose as evidenced by the flea-flicker that sealed the win over the Bengals last week. The main reason, however, is that Manning tends to not come up big in big games and with all the pressure he'll get from the Steelers' pass rush and the different coverages, he's bound to make a mistake, especially since we can't be sure if the rest will benefit the Colts or hurt their timing and all the momentum they built earlier in the year.

PLAY: Steelers for 2 units and under 47 1/2 for 1 unit.

Panthers at Bears (-3)

Count me in the Grossman fan club. I picked him up in my fantasy leagues even before he was activated. The reason: in preseason, I saw a spark that wasn't evident with the Bears' offense in recent years. Grossman had a real rapport with Muhsin Muhammad and it was clear from the limited amount he played until getting hurt, that coach Lovie Smith was intent on having Grossman stretch the field with deep passes. That got put on hold, but when Grossman took over for Kyle Orton in the Sunday night game of Dec. 16, it came to fruition as they connected for a 22-yard gain on Grossman's first play. Now, the Bears face the Panthers, Muhammad's former team, and I can't help but think they're going to be connecting a lot despite what everyone is expecting to be a grind-it-out gameplan (believe me, I'll be searching for prop bets on over/under passing and receiving yards for Grossman and Muhammad). The Bears' defense has been the most consistently great throughout the season and it'll definitely come to play, but I see both offenses having some success and being involved in a relatively shootout, though with this extra low total even a 24-17 final score will suffice.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit and over 30 1/2 for 2 units.

Playoff record: 3-5, including 0-3 on 2-unit plays, for a loss of 5.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).