By Skip Bayless
Page 2

I've just stepped up and survived 1,867 playoff clichés and 758 brain-cell killing beer commercials flying out of my TV like blitzers during four very interesting, very different wild-card weekend games.

Yet my mind is spinning the way Eli Manning's still must be.

Eli Manning
It was not a day to remember for Eli Manning.

Am I crazier than that loser in the commercial who wears Snickers bars like a toupee, or was the NFC playoff bracket seeded upside down? Should Carolina and Washington be the top seeds? Could the Panthers win next weekend in Chicago? The Redskins in Seattle?

Yes and yes.

And no, I didn't just save a bunch of money by switching to Geico.

When Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer was lost to a torn knee ligament after throwing his first pass -- I'll give Pittsburgh's Kimo von Oelhoffen the benefit of the doubt and call it an accidental dirty hit -- I did want to use my Staples Easy Button and make the Steelers use backup QB Tommy Maddox the rest of the game. The Bengals would have won if Palmer hadn't been carted off.

In fact, you can bet Palmer's stunning injury prompted private sighs of relief in Indianapolis. Palmer's nuclear capability would have posed a slightly greater threat to Indy in Indy than Pittsburgh will next Sunday or New England will in the AFC championship game.

Yes, New England will win next Saturday in Denver. I know that because of the heavily promoted ABC sitcom, "Jake in Progress." Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer can still be a painfully funny work in progress.

Of course, you can counter with another hot new ABC show, "Emily's Reasons Why Not." You can argue that the Patriots lost in Week 6 at Denver, 28-20, and that they weren't all that convincing at home Saturday night in finally putting away Jacksonville. But you'll be wrong.

So hop aboard the Coors Light "Love Train" and let the O'Jays and I take you for a nostalgic ride back through the memorable moments of this past weekend …

Redskins 17, Bucs 10. Professional gamblers have a saying when they lose a bet on a game: "I was on the right side." Meaning, they handicapped the game correctly and their team should have won or covered the spread.

The Tampa Bay Bucs should have won at home on Saturday night.

But they didn't.

The Redskins managed merely 120 total yards -- the lowest total ever for a winning team in an NFL playoff game. Running back Clinton Portis -- their driving force -- was in and out of the game with sore shoulders. Safety Sean Taylor -- their defensive enforcer -- was ejected for spitting at the Bucs' Michael Pittman.

And the Redskins' Derrick Frost -- perhaps punting with one eye closed because it had been gouged as he attempted a tackle -- shanked his most crucial punt out of bounds after it traveled only 14 yards, giving the Bucs one last chance all the way up at their 46-yard line with 1:05 left.

The Bucs should be playing in Round 2. But they aren't.

That's because something's going on with these 'Skins. Something weirdly wondrous. They're definitely riding the Love Train, with Capt. Destiny driving.

That's six in a row for Joe Gibbs' guys. Just when you've decided they're not any good, they win again. Their offense can be shockingly explosive, and it can set records for ineptitude. But again and again, the Redskins make all the right live-to-play-another-day plays.

The main reason the Redskins won on Saturday was that their defense held the NFL's offensive rookie of the year, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, to just 49 yards on 18 carries. And they didn't just strip the ball from Williams -- Sean Taylor made a sensational full-speed pickup of the fumble and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown.

Bucs first-year starter Chris Simms didn't throw a single bad-idea, bad-throw interception. But two of his passes were tipped and intercepted -- including one from his 46 with 1:05 remaining. Cornelius Griffin got a hand on that one. As Capt. Destiny would have it, the carom headed straight into Marcus Washington's hands. Ball game.

Simms' offense had chance after chance, including a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 at Washington's 19-yard line with about 7½ minutes left. On third and 1, the 'Skins got even for that Mike Alstott touchdown that shouldn't have been, which beat Washington during the regular season. This time: Alstott, no gain.

On fourth-and-1, it was as if Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams knew the play. His guys didn't bite on the play fake, and linebacker Marcus Williams made a beeline into the flat to snuff the intended receiver, Jameel Cook. Best defensive strategy of the weekend.

Edell Shepherd
It's a whole new ball game if Edell Shepherd can hold on to this ball.

Yes, with three minutes left, Simms threw a beautiful rainbow that Edell Shepherd should have caught. But he didn't.

These are the breaks you get when a playoff run is meant to be.

These sixth-seeded 'Skins, who beat Seattle in Washington, will win in Seattle if (1) Portis' shoulders heal enough for him to play the entire game; and (2) Taylor is fined, but not suspended, for spitting. He should only be fined.

On Saturday, Tampa Bay's defense was playing nearly at its 2002 Super Bowl level. The 'Skins will pile up far more than 120 yards in Seattle.

Patriots 28, Jaguars 3. Perhaps you thought it was "just" Jacksonville, with coach Jack Del Rio obligated to go back to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who has barely recovered from a broken ankle suffered six weeks ago. Perhaps you thought the Jaguars would have put up a little better fight if Del Rio had stuck with backup David Garrard, who played with a starter's poise and toughness in Leftwich's absence.

But I thought Jacksonville was the most underrated and under-the-radar 12-4 team I can ever remember. Del Rio's defense roughed up Tom Brady's offense in ways no team has in January. Brady was sacked four times. The Patriots fumbled four times -- but were fortunate enough to recover them all.

New England was lucky to be leading 7-3 at halftime.

Yes, Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch dropped a touchdown bomb near the end of the first half. But that can happen when you've had to work so hard for two quarters to get open. Jacksonville's defense is very solid and very good.

But New England's just might be a little better -- even without Tedy Bruschi.

That's what impressed me about this game. Of course, Bill Belichick's ministry of misinformation told the TV people that Bruschi would play despite his calf injury. He warmed up, but didn't play a down.

I doubted New England could beat Jacksonville without him.

But a rising star continued to leap out of your TV screen in the Patriots' injury-ravaged secondary. Cornerback Asante Samuel doesn't have Ty Law's hands, but he's starting to shut down the opposition's best threat the way Law used to for New England, and he certainly packs more of a tackling wallop than Law.

Each time it looked as if Leftwich was heating up, Samuel broke up another pass intended for Jimmy Smith, Jacksonville's best receiver. Smith wound up with just three catches for 30 yards.

Samuel's bait-and-switch maneuver -- running five yards with Smith, then wheeling into the path of Reggie Williams and intercepting Leftwich -- resulted in the 73-yard touchdown return that made it 28-3.

The Patriots are still good enough to win in Denver. But not in Indianapolis.

Panthers 23, Giants 0. Do not blame the NFL's first home playoff shutout since 1980 completely on Eli Manning, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.

Also blame it on the Carolina Panthers, who suddenly are playing the most dominating football in the NFC.

Yes, this is Team Schizo, which sometimes looked like the Don't-Care-olina Panthers in November and December. How can a team go from back-to-back home losses in December to a 23-0 win over an explosive Giants offense at Giants Stadium? Serious talent, that's how.

When quarterback Jake Delhomme doesn't turn into Jake the Flake and gun sling interceptions, his fifth-seeded Panthers can beat anyone, anywhere. They were an NFC-best 6-2 on the road, where they seem to be more focused than at home.

Away, maybe, they aren't as distracted by their cheerleaders.

But for all of the New York media hype about Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, the Panthers have the best defensive end in football, Julius Peppers. For all the hype about all the Giants' offensive weapons, the Panthers have the most dangerous receiver in football, Steve Smith.

The Giants' Tiki Barber blamed the loss on poor coaching. Yes, John Fox and his staff had a better game plan. But more important, the Carolina coaches had better players playing at a higher level. The Panthers took away Tiki and blanketed Eli's receivers.

The Giants were beaten every way you can be. Manning looked like a rookie again -- but that can happen against this defense. Manning is still right on schedule. He'll learn. He'll be a star.

But this is a very different Carolina team than the one that lost 13-3 in Chicago on Nov. 20. These are the "good" Panthers. The best-in-the-NFC Panthers.

Carson Palmer
The Bengals need a healthy Carson Palmer next season.

Steelers 31, Bengals 17. Sometimes, it's just not meant to be.

On his first pass of the game, golden-armed Carson Palmer stepped into an instructional-video deep throw to his fastest receiver, Chris Henry. The completion went for 66 yards. But on it, both Palmer and Henry were lost with knee injuries.

Kimo von Oelhoffen isn't a dirty player. But he made a borderline dirty play, stumbling off a block and diving at Palmer's planted left leg. Could von Oelhoffen have slightly pulled up or slightly changed course so he could just grab Palmer's leg instead of throwing a shoulder into it? Probably.

Still, it was a perfectly legal hit -- that shouldn't be legal. There has to be a way to protect the most valuable player on the field from an unprotected blind-side shot on a planted leg. Maybe a 20-yard penalty for shots taken at a quarterback's knees after the pass has left his hand?

With Jon Kitna replacing Palmer, it was just a matter of time until the Steelers figured out they should just blitz every play. After playing an inspired, get-even-for-Carson first half, the Bengals turned back into the Bungles.

The Steelers were laughing it up on their sideline midway through the fourth quarter. They should enjoy it while it lasts. Eli's big brother awaits.

You know, the one in all those MasterCard commercials.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.