Ah, the beauty of the NFL playoffs.

When it comes to the postseason, pro football has it figured out. Twelve teams vie for Vince’s trophy, and only one hoists it. Of the four major pro sports leagues in the United States, only the NFL has its championship bracket tweaked to such perfection. The NBA and NHL let too many teams into the playoffs, allowing clubs with losing records a chance to play long past their bedtime.

Major League Baseball, it can be argued, allows too few, leaving out teams that could have a major impact. College football’s BCS mess tempts me to argue that the NFL’s postseason is the best at any level, but the magic that is March Madness prevents me from doing so. In any case, the NFL’s playoff games, though not always thrillingly close, always provide the viewing audience with a good storyline and a matchup between two legitimate postseason ball clubs.

That said, this year’s playoff storylines, at least in the first round, seemed recycled.

Oakland and the Jets played each other for the second week in a row. Philadelphia and Tampa Bay not only replayed the previous week’s game, but also their wild card matchup of last season. The Ravens, after nudging their way into the playoffs, smothered Miami with an eerily familiar defensive effort. The only thing that seemed fresh was the game between Green Bay and San Francisco, and that turned out to be the same old tale of outsiders’ impotence on the frozen tundra. In keeping with the weekend’s deja vu theme, here are my redundant thoughts on “Wild Card Weekend.”

Philadelphia 31, Tampa Bay 9: In last year’s playoff game, the Eagles smothered the anemic Buc offense en route to a 21-3 shellacking of Dungy’s boys. In Week 17, though very few starters played for either team, the Buccaneers lost again, this time by a score of 17-13. The teams play again one week later, and what do the Bucs do? Why, lose of course. Though coach Tony Dungy’s defense did have problems containing Randall-reincarnation Donovan McNabb, the loss has to be blamed on Tampa’s offense, which, despite a rash of signings in the past few years, continues to let the team down. As a result of the defeat, it has been widely rumored that Dungy will be fired and replaced by the effervescent Bill Parcells. The win sets up the Eagles for a shot at Dick Jauron’s surprising Bears, winners of the NFC Central.

Oakland 38, N.Y. Jets 24: By beating Oakland at home in Week 17, the Jets earned a playoff berth and, you guessed it, a rematch with the Raiders. Round two, however, went to the Silver and Black, who were ravenously (but not quite Raven-ously) hungry for revenge. While Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice put on an aerial show, the Raiders running game finally got into a rhythm. The nail in the Jets’ proverbial coffin came when Charlie Garner, the fastest member of Oakland’s many-headed backfield (in case you’re wondering, the ugliest of the many heads belongs to ever-bleeding Jon Ritchie), sprinted 80 yards for the score. Ironically, Garner should have quit running as soon as he picked up the first down, as his quick strike allowed the Jets a glimmer of hope. That hope was snuffed out by the Raider defense on their own goal line, as they hung on to the victory and advanced to face the Patriots.

Green Bay 25, San Francisco 15: Going to Green Bay for the playoffs? Kiss your season goodbye. That’s what a promising 49er team had to do on Sunday, as Brett Favre proved once again that being from Mississippi does not prevent you from playing beautifully on the frozen tundra. As long as you’re wearing a “G” on your helmet, that is. Despite the loss, 49er fans should take heart; if not for a fluke interception, Mariucci’s Men would have been the first to win on Lambeau’s icy postseason turf. As long as he stays with the Niners, I have the feeling this won’t be the last time we’ll see Ex-Yalie Eric Johnson ’01 in the playoffs.

Baltimore 20, Miami 3: If I were Brian Billick, this is what I would tell much maligned Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac: “Play like Trent Dilfer.” He did it on Sunday, and the Ravens earned Billick his fifth consecutive playoff victory, just one shy of Joe Gibbs’ NFL record. Grbac’s stats may have looked abysmal, 12-18 for 133 yards, but he played perfectly in one crucial regard; he didn’t commit any turnovers. With the Ravens’ D backing him up, all Grbac has to do is hold on to the ball, and they will win. Unfortunately for Grbac, that will be a lot harder to do against Pittsburgh’s voracious defensive corps this weekend.

Round Two Predictions —

Philadelphia at Chicago: As much as I’d like to side with fellow Eli Dick Jauron’s Bears, I have a bad feeling about this one. The Eagles defense isn’t on par with the Bears, but it’s close, and Donovan McNabb is an awfully slippery guy.

The Verdict: Eagles 17, Bears 14.

Oakland at New England: I picked Oakland to go to the Super Bowl, and I’m sticking with them. They look like they’ve finally rebounded from their season-ending three-game losing skid.

The Verdict: Oakland 28, New England 17.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: This is a tough one. Pittsburgh looked tough all season, but the Ravens are the kings of crunch time. In order to protect the NASCAR-promoting ghost of Joe Gibbs for my Redskin-loving roommate, I’ll hop on the Bus and pick the Steelers.

The Verdict: Pittsburgh 16, Baltimore 13.

Green Bay at St. Louis: Brett Favre is so gutsy, I’d like to pick him every week. But just as Lambeau means sure victory for the Pack, the AstroTurf palace that is the TWA Dome means a whole lot of hurting for Rams opponents. Plus, the Packers’ defense is not on the short list of squads that can come close to shutting down Marshall and friends.

The Verdict: St. Louis 42, Green Bay 27.