Pigskin and Twine

I was scheduled to begin my second season as a Sports Central college hoops columnist today, but I'm having a hard time turning the page on the NFL season. I guess that's what happens when your team is three games away from immortality.

Anyway, a few notes on this weekend's divisional games before a quick rundown on the state of college hoops.

All four home teams in this weekend's NFL divisional playoff games have opened as more than a touchdown favorite. Dallas is at -7.5 over the Giants, Green Bay -8 over Seattle, Indianapolis -8.5 over San Diego, and New England -11.5 over Jacksonville.

You could make a case all four dogs have a good shot at covering, if not winning outright.

The Giants have won eight road games in a row, while Dallas hasn't played a meaningful game in a month. The status of Terrell Owens' ankle will be questioned all week, and with good reason. Without a healthy T.O., the Dallas offense is good, but not great. The Giants would be able to use more man coverage on the outside, giving them greater flexibility in defending Jason Witten in the middle. With a healthy T.O., the coverage has to slant, opening holes for everybody else. Plus, Owens is Dallas' main deep threat. If he can't stretch the field, the Cowboys won't be able to make as much use of their play-action game.

The question with Seattle isn't so much their offense against the Packers defense, but whether the Seahawks' front seven that caused so much havoc for the Redskins can accomplish the same feat with Brett Favre and the Packers. Within the miracle season of Favre (and you'll be hearing about that a whole lot this week), this one truth remains evident: when pressured, he will make dumb decisions that result in interceptions. It's been that way his entire career. Why would he change now? How the Pack offense handles Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson will determine the outcome of this game.

Of the four, I'd probably give the Chargers the lowest odds in pulling the upset this weekend. They may have beaten the Titans, but it was far from an impressive showing. Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and the rest of the Titans' defensive front manhandled the Chargers' offensive line at times. LaDainian Tomlinson only ran for 42 yards on 21 carries. And now they may be missing Antonio Gates after yet another cheap shot by the dirty Titans. (Shades of Bobby Wade taking out Rodney Harrison's knee last year. Oddly enough, that benefited the Colts, as well.)

Anyway, now the Chargers leave sunny San Diego for the "We Don't Pump in Crowd Noise" Dome in Indianapolis. And instead of a hobbled Vince Young, it's Peyton Manning on the other side of the line. Can they win? Yes. Any given Sunday, as they say. Will they? No.

Jacksonville. At first glance, it looks like a bad matchup for New England. The Pats have shown one weakness this season, and it's stopping the run game. Anybody who watched Willis McGahee run for 138 yards and a touchdown in early December knows the Jags' duo of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew presents a tremendous challenge for New England. If Jacksonville can control the clock with Taylor and Jones-Drew, then use its incredibly physical defense to frustrate the Pats' offense, the Jags can pull the upset.

With that said, Jacksonville winning this game would mean the following: David Garrard and Jack Del Rio beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a playoff game in Foxborough. Of all the arguments that can be made in either direction, that is the biggest difference between these two teams: Hall of Fame QB and Hall of Fame head coach at home vs. good QB and good head coach. I just can't get past that.

Also, I don't think the Jags can cover Randy Moss. The Colts' Reggie Wayne had a combined 17 receptions for 289 yards and a TD in two games. Denver's Brandon Marshall had 7 catches for 133, Houston's Kevin Walters 12 for 160, Tampa's Joey Galloway six for 115 and a TD, New Orleans' Marques Colston 10 for 159, and Pittsburgh's Hines Ward 10 for 135 on Saturday. The Jags were 4-3 in those seven games, losing twice to Indy, 29-7 and 28-25, and to the Saints 41-24. With Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Ben Watson, and Laurence Maroney, the Pats have more than enough weapons to score in the 30-point range. Is it realistic to expect the Jags to match that?

One other point, and I hate to say it, but if ever there were a game in which officials would throw a few calls toward the home team, it would be this one. A Pats/Colts AFC Championship Game would be a record-setter for the league and its television partners. A Pats-Packers/Cowboys Super Bowl would break all records, for hype and ratings. If you believe in such things (we know the Ravens do), the Jags could be facing a little bit more of an uphill battle. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it bears watching.


On to college hoops with 15 things you should know:

15. The Arizona State Sun Devils are for real. They've got wins over LSU, Xavier, and Oregon already, and are a very legit threat to beat Arizona tomorrow night if Wildcats freshman point guard Jerryd Bayless doesn't play (questionable with a knee sprain). Herb Sendek is coach of the year in the Pac-10 right now.

14. The Atlantic 10 may well place four teams in the NCAA tournament. Rhode Island is 14-1 with a win at Syracuse. Dayton is 12-1 with wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh. Xavier is 12-3 with wins over Indiana, Kansas State, Virginia, and Auburn (by an average margin of 23). And Massachusetts is 11-3 with wins at Syracuse and Boston College. I don't think all four will get in (my guess is UMass falls off), but three is a very likely possibility.

13. The chemistry with O.J. Mayo just isn't there for Tim Floyd and the USC Trojans. With the Washington schools in L.A. this weekend, followed by a trip to Pauley, then up to the Oregon schools, SC, already 0-2 in conference, is in danger of getting buried early.

12. All you need to know about the Missouri Valley is this:

Drake 12-1 (3-0)
Illinois State 11-3 (3-0)
Indiana State 8-5 (3-0)
Northern Iowa 10-4 (2-1)
Creighton 10-3 (1-2)
Wichita State 8-6 (1-2)
Missouri State 8-7 (1-2)
Southern Illinois 6-8 (1-2)
Bradley 7-8 (0-3)
Evansville 5-8 (0-3)


11. North Carolina's Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington may be the best backcourt I've seen all year. And Tyler Hansbrough is a beast. For some reason, I always forget this.

10. Kent State is a 12-5 upset waiting to happen.

9. Iowa is going to upset some people before it's said and done. New coach Todd Likliter, in his first year after leading Butler to the Sweet 16, has the Hawkeyes playing inspired.

8. Texas A&M is going to win 25+ games and land a top-three seed. Their only remaining regular season games against teams currently ranked in the top 25 are a home-and-home with Texas and the regular season finale at home against Kansas.

7. There's not a single trustworthy team in the entire Big East. Notre Dame PG Tory Jackson is still up and down. Syracuse was sorely lacking in depth before losing Eric Devendorf for the year. The Louisville guards can't shoot. Pittsburgh has been hit hard by injuries to Mike Cook and Levance Fields. Villanova is relying too heavily on Scottie Reynolds, and it's showing. West Virginia is weak inside, meaning they can only win if their outside shots are falling. As weak as West Virginia is inside, they just out-rebounded Marquette 30-22, raising questions about the Golden Eagles' ability to compete in the post. As 34 percent, Connecticut is the worst three-point shooting team of the conference's contenders. And Georgetown hasn't found its replacement for Jeff Green as the guy to take and make the big shot.

The Big East is still going to pack the bracket with seven or eight teams, but I don't know who out of that pack you could say with any degree of confidence will be playing past the Sweet 16.

6. The notion of Memphis going undefeated is ludicrous. Conference USA has way more depth this year than in the past few years. That's not to disparage the Tigers, but the undefeated talk is retarded at this point in the season.

5. Things aren't going to get any easier for Kentucky. They still have two against Vanderbilt, two against Tennessee, two against Florida, and one each against Arkansas and Mississippi. It could be a struggle just to finish .500 in a very disappointing first year for Billy Gillispie.

4. Vandy freshman center Andrew Ogilvy is getting all the pub in the Commodores' 15-0 start, but don't forget about senior Shan Foster, who has hit an incredible 53 percent of his 122 three-point attempts. Foster leads the SEC in scoring at 21.1. Ogilvy is second at 19.3.

3. Don't sleep on Ohio State.

2. Tennessee was good before they got J.P. Prince back. Now, they're just incredible. Their February 23 game at Memphis may be a Final Four preview.

1. Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas, and UCLA are your four one seeds. I still like Tennessee and Indiana to the Final Four with the Tigers and Bruins. Memphis is still the pick to win.

Seth Doria is a writer based out of St. Louis. For the only daily column that mixes sports, politics, and entertainment news in one, visit The Left Calf.

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