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NFL REGULAR-SEASON FINALES

Matchups serve a twist

These wild-card games should have Johnson and Owens smiling, Belichick bracing and Eli Manning looking within himself.

January 01, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

It's the league's worst run defense vs. Larry Johnson.

A broken-down pass defense vs. Terrell Owens.

Bill Belichick vs. the coaching monster he created.

And Eli Manning vs. himself -- and the hottest team in the NFC.

The first round of the NFL playoffs is set, and the wild-card games feature some intriguing matchups, plus a few mis-matchups.

Dallas receiver Owens, for instance, will be lining up against a Seattle defense that's likely to be missing two key members of its secondary. The Seahawks lost starting cornerback Kelly Herndon on Sunday to a broken ankle. The starter on the other side, Marcus Trufant, was already out with a sprained ankle.

Neither team is on a roll. The Seahawks won Sunday but had lost three in a row before that. The Cowboys made the playoffs despite losing their last two games and three of their last four.

"We are definitely going in backward from the way we wanted to," Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said after Sunday's 39-31 loss to Detroit, just the third victory of the season for the Lions. "We may not scare anyone right now."

Owens still has the ability to scare defenses. He caught six passes for 117 yards Sunday, including one for a 56-yard scoring play, and he's headed back to the scene of his most bizarre scoring celebrations. Back when he was playing for San Francisco, in a Monday night game against the Seahawks, he crossed the goal line, pulled a Sharpie from his sock and autographed the football.

As for Kansas City's Johnson, his signature move is pasting would-be tacklers to the turf. He finished the season with 1,789 yards rushing, second to San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, and set an NFL record with 416 carries.

That sound you hear is stomachs groaning in Indianapolis, where the Colts will spend the week trying to figure out how to keep Johnson contained. Theirs is the league's worst run defense by far, almost 30 yards a game worse than No. 31 St. Louis.

Meanwhile, after four losses in six weeks, Indianapolis is beginning to return to form on offense. Peyton Manning threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns Sunday in a 27-22 victory over Miami. It was a welcome burst for a team that won its first nine games before coming unglued and blowing its chance for a first-round bye.

"The idea, obviously, is to be playing some of your best football in the month of January," said Manning, who has two league most-valuable-player awards but zero Super Bowl appearances. "It's what we've kind of talked about."

There's no talk going on between New England's Belichick and his former student, Eric Mangini, first-year coach of the New York Jets. The two will face each other Sunday for the third time this season, when the Jets play at Foxborough.

The AFC East rivals split their series this season, with each team winning on the road. The Jets posted a 17-14 victory at Gillette Stadium in early November, a game punctuated by a halfhearted, no-look postgame handshake between Belichick and Mangini.

"I just grabbed Bill's hand and his forearm and pulled him in and said, 'Great job!' " an exuberant Mangini recounted. "He didn't say anything. Just 'Huh?' "

Talk about clueless: The New York Giants have fallen apart since roaring to a 6-2 start. Heading into their finale at Washington, which they won, the Giants had lost six of seven and watched Eli Manning plunge like the New Year's ball at Times Square.

Through his first eight games, Manning was especially clutch in the fourth quarter, with six touchdowns, just two interceptions, and a lofty passer rating of 108.2. But in the next seven games, those fourth-quarter numbers did a flip-flop. He had one touchdown, six interceptions and a 36.9 rating.

On Sunday, the Giants play at NFC East champion Philadelphia, where the Eagles have made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons behind the dazzling play of quarterback Jeff Garcia, who replaced the injured Donovan McNabb.

It was backup A.J. Feeley who handled the duties at quarterback Sunday for the Eagles, who didn't even need to beat Atlanta to clinch the division title thanks to Dallas' loss. But the Eagles won anyway, picking up their fifth consecutive victory after a hope-sapping 5-6 start to the season.

"We're a little bit like zombies," Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid said Sunday. "We're back from the dead."

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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