Steelers get the nod, 20-13
Remember the last time I picked a Pittsburgh Steelers' post-season game?
It was when the Steelers were hosting New England in last year's AFC championship game and I said there was no way Pittsburgh, a whopping nine point favorite, was going to get upset by the Patriots.
Even Lee Flowers, the Steelers' mouthy safety, was quoted as saying he would have bet his whole season's salary that Pittsburgh wouldn't lose the game.
You know what happened.
Kordell Stewart threw three interceptions, the Pats' Troy Brown returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown after the Steelers' Troy Edwards had been penalized on the preceding play to nullify Josh Miller's 64-yard punt and the Pats scored another touchdown on a 49-yard return after Kris #Brown's 34-yard field goal was blocked. The result was a stunning 24-17 New England win followed a week later by another Patriot surprise when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal on the game's final play to knock off 14-point favorite St. Louis, 20-17, in the Super Bowl.
Eleven months later,the Steelers are back in the playoffs as the biggest favorite in the opening round at 71/2 over Cleveland.
Things are a lot different this year, however.
For starters, Stewart is no longer doing that for Pittsburgh. Brown opted to kick for his hometown Houston Texans. Miller is on the injured list and linebacker Earl Holmes, Pittsburgh's leading tackler a year ago, is now wearing a Cleveland uniform.
Tommy Maddox may have finally ended Stewart's career in Pittsburgh by going 8-3-1 as a starter and breaking three team passing records in the process.
Although Maddox threw 16 interceptions and was sacked 26 times, he did throw for 20 touchdowns and over 2,800 yards.
The Browns, meanwhile, have to counter with Kelly Holcomb - who's started only three games in seven years in the NFL - since Tim Couch broke his leg in the regular season-ending win over Atlanta.
Although Cleveland may have an up-and-coming star in No. 1 draft pick William Green, who averaged 90 yards a game in the second half of the season,the Steelers have the edge in the rushing game with the trio of Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.
There's no way Cleveland's pass receiving corps of Quincy Morgan, Kevin Johnson and Dennis Northcutt matches up with Pittsburgh's trio of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and rookie Antwaan Randle El.
While Pittsburgh may have a big advantage offensively, the Steelers could be in trouble on defense where two of their top players, cornerback Chad Scott and linebacker Kendrell Bell, are definitely not 100 percent and both are questionable.
Nonetheless, the Steelers should win 20-13.
In the other first round games, I'll go with the New York Jets by 10 over Indianapolis, Green Bay by eight over Atlanta and San Francisco by three over the New York Giants.