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Déjà vu All Over Again

Manning, Colts ready for a Law-less encounter with the Brady Bunch

Brett Favre? Thanks for playing. Jake Plummer? Hit the showers. Drew Brees and Matt Hasselbeck? The fourth green is ready and waiting.

The Wild-Card weekend has drawn to a close, eliminating four pretenders to the throne in Green Bay, Seattle, San Diego and Denver. Now the real fun begins as the heavyweights of the AFC and NFC lick their chops and prepare to face off in a weekend sure to be filled with endless chatter about high-profile invalids (Ty Law, Terrell Owens), fleet-footed field generals (Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick) and running backs tough enough to earn big, intimidating nicknames like Edge and The Bus. Oh, and there's a receiver by the name of Moss whose skills as a game-breaking playmaker are surpassed only by his talents as a tawdry mime. What's not to love -- besides New York's chances of tearing open the Steel Curtain?

The picks:

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (-9)
New York's woes under center have gone from bad to worse as Chad Pennington, hampered by a strained rotator cuff since November, missed practice this week with a stomach virus. Meanwhile, backup QB Quincy Carter left the team's Hempstead, NY, headquarters to be with his ailing mother, leaving third-stringer Brooks Bollinger to take snaps with the first-team offense at practice. Not exactly a recipe for success. Then again, neither is playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh, where the Heinz Field faithful will provide a deafening soundtrack to an easy win over the lagging Jets. Pennington threw three interceptions in his first meeting with the stingy Pittsburgh secondary, a 17-6 drubbing in the friendly confines of Giants Stadium. In the Steel City, where Big Ben Roethlisberger and company have gone undefeated since a Week Two loss to the Baltimore Ravens, New York will find its air attack grounded while its run defense endures a steady pounding courtesy of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Final score: Pittsburgh 27, New York 10.

St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons (-7)
The Rams (9-8), who have scored 79 points in three consecutive victories, drew the ideal opponent for Wild-Card weekend: the Seattle Seahawks, an unmistakably soft bunch who dropped two embarrassing contests to St. Louis during the regular season. The ride stops in Atlanta, where Mike Martz's high-flying offense will face a well-rested Falcons secondary (thank you bye week!) and lightning-quick quarterback Michael Vick. The Rams will put up points, to be sure -- Marc Bulger, Torry Holt and rookie rushing sensation Steven Jackson will see to that -- but Martz's caution-to-the-wind play-calling will prove his team's undoing against Atlanta's talented cornerback tandem of DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster. Final score: Atlanta 27, Rams 21.

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (-9)
No T.O. spells trouble for a once-feared Philadelphia offense that is now being carried on the tired shoulders of Donovan McNabb. Don't be surprised if his knees buckle under the weight of all those Super Bowl expectations in the City of Brotherly Love. Here's the upset of the week. Final score: Minnesota 28, Philadelphia 12.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-2.5)

"You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death." – Agent Smith in The Matrix

Make no mistake, the Patriots hear it. It's the sound of a distant bandwagon drawing closer, the sound of a drunken kicker mouthing off to the press, the sound of football experts around the country rattling off the names of injured stars who made invaluable contributions to New England's Super Bowl runs in 2001 and 2003. It's also the sound of Indy fans crowing about Peyton Manning's 49 touchdowns, the three-headed receiving monster of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, and the resurgence of Edgerrin James. Sure, the Colts will be missing half of their vaunted sack tandem with situational pass rusher Robert Mathis sidelined with a sprained knee, but how will the Pats stand up to Manning's golden arm without cornerbacks Ty Law (three INTs in last year's divisional playoff match-up with Indianapolis), Tyrone Poole and defensive tackle Richard Seymour? Good questions, and here's the answer: Bill Belichick. Does he "own" Manning, as some pundits have suggested? Hardly. Does he have the personnel and the game-planning skills to beat Tony Dungy's Colts in chilly Foxborough, where Manning is 0-5 against his most frustrating foes? You bet. The porous Indianapolis defense still has to stop Tom Brady -- something they've never done before -- and if history has taught us anything, it's that the Brady Bunch rises to the challenge, however improbably, when January rolls around. Final score: New England 38, Indianapolis 35.