NFL dives into playoffs

December 26, 2000 11:55 AM
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The NFL’s second season begins this weekend with the playoffs’ wild card round. With so many playoff teams and seedings not decided until the final two weekends, these playoffs shape up as unpredictable. A convincing case could be made for each of the 12 combatants to make it to the Super Bowl.

Early revised odds to win the Super Bowl have Oakland the 5-2 favorite. Tennessee and Minnesota are co-second choices at 3-1. Defending Super Bowl champion St Louis is next at 4-1, with Philadelphia a surprising fifth choice at 5-1. The Eagles may be so highly regarded because they were a fashionable long shot at the start of the season and some of the sports books have significant exposure on the Birds. The top seed in the NFC, the New York Giants (who swept the season series from Philadelphia) are 8-1. NFC West champion New Orleans is next at 12-1. Note that the Saints are the fifth different team to win the NFC West title in the past five seasons. All four previous division champs made it to the NFC championship game.

Baltimore and Tampa Bay are attractively priced at 15-1. The longest shots are Denver, Indianapolis and Miami, each priced at 20-1. Those odds were posted at the Stardust on Sunday night, but will vary around town. At the Mirage, for example, Baltimore is just 5-1. Oakland is 7-1. St. Louis is 6-1. In this season of relative parity, it will be well worth your while to shop around at as many sports books as possible. The differences in future odds can be quite significant.

The better teams are clearly in the AFC, whose six teams combined for a 69-27 record this season (assuming Tennessee defeated Dallas on Monday night), compared to a 64-32 record compiled by the six NFC playoff teams. Interestingly, not a single division champion repeated from last season (although both New Orleans and the Rams had identical 10-6 records). Half of this season’s playoff teams are repeaters from 1999 (Miami, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and St Louis).

Here’s a preview of the four wild card games this weekend.

Saturday, Dec. 30

Indianapolis (+1) at Miami (Over/Under 42): These teams split a pair of decisions during the regular season, with the road team winning each time. Indianapolis won in Miami just two weeks ago in what was a "must win" game for the Colts. In fact, the Colts have won three in a row, all needed to make the playoffs following their 7-6 mark before the streak. The Big Three ”” QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison ”” all had solid seasons and came up big in last week’s win over Minnesota. After winning the AFC East last season, Indy was eliminated by Tennessee in their first playoff game. That made coach Jim Mora 0-5 in playoff games. (He lost all four while coaching New Orleans.)

Miami has clearly faded over the last month, suffering defensive breakdowns and struggling on offense. QB Jay Fiedler continues to struggle with injuries. The running game had declined. The Colts outgained Miami in both games this season and clearly have more momentum. But their defense remains a concern ”” although it must be noted that Miami scored just 30 points and gained just 525 total yards in their two meetings, both well below Indy’s defensive averages for the full season. This clearly indicates a match-up edge for the Colts’ defense against the Miami offense. Road teams won three of ten games in last season’s playoffs and have won almost that same percentage of playoffs over the past dozen years.

The preference is to take the small number and look for the Colts to pull the minor upset and advance to the next round. The play is on INDIANAPOLIS.

St. Louis (-6) at New Orleans (55): This is one of the rare but not unprecedented first-round playoff games that matches a pair of teams that finished the regular season by playing one another. In fact, this will be the sixth such immediate rematch since 1990. In the five previous rematches, the team that won the season finale won three of the five wild card games.

Not much guidance from history. New Orleans has been as much of a remarkable story as St. Louis was in 1999, though the Saints haven’t been nearly as explosive. They’ve overcome the losses of QB Jeff Blake and RB Ricky Williams and had numerous injuries to their defense, their strength all season. There’s reason for concern, however, as New Orleans’ defensive numbers slipped greatly the last half of the season. Last week, they allowed the Rams to both run and pass for over 200 yards and had difficulties against the better offenses they’ve faced, especially those of Denver and Oakland.

Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, no road team was favored by more than a field goal. The Rams are favored by twice that number. Last week, they were favored by from just 3 to 4 points in what was a "must win" game for them. The Saints had already clinched the division crown. Now this is a "must win" game for both teams.

The Rams’ edge in experience consists of just last season, although they won it all. Defensively, the Rams are down considerably from 1999. Last season they allowed just 242 points during regular season. This year, that rose to 471 points ”” almost double! Offensively, they scored just 14 more points after being on a significantly greater pace through the first half of the season.

But their defense has shown some steady improvement. It allowed New Orleans just 269 yards of offense last week. St. Louis also had to overcome the loss of QB Kurt Warner and RB Marshall Faulk for several games.

All in all, the Rams just have more firepower. Keep in mind that both teams were the same 10-6, with the Saints winning the division title on the basis of a better divisional record. Which means St. Louis performed better against non-division foes, especially those from the AFC. But laying almost a TD on the road with a team whose defense is as vulnerable as the Rams’ can be dangerous. Rather, the shootout that failed to materialize last week may indeed occur in this game. The play is on the OVER.

Sunday, Dec. 31

Denver at Baltimore or Tennessee: As we go to press, the specific match-up has not yet been determined, although with Tennessee a prohibitive favorite over Dallas on Monday night. Most likely, Denver will be in Baltimore to take on the Ravens. Last week, Baltimore set an ignominious record by being outgained by the most yards in NFL history (382) in a winning effort. The Ravens used a pair of punt returns for touchdowns against the Jets plus a 98-yard interception return for a TD to defeat the aggressive Jets, who needed to win to make the playoffs.

It was clearly Baltimore’s poorest defensive effort of the season, allowing the Jets to pass for almost 500 yards despite forcing six Jets turnovers. But there’s reason for concern now that the Ravens’ pass defense has been successfully exploited. Denver might have to rely once again on Gus Frerrotte at QB, with Brian Griese re-aggravating his injury in last week’s win over San Francisco. And Denver’s running game figures to be limited by Baltimore’s excellent defense against the run.

Weather conditions can also be a concern in late December, especially the wind. Denver can be aggressive on offense. They’re well balanced, so expect them to challenge Baltimore’s defense early. Denver’s own defense has been vulnerable to the pass. Both teams excel in turnover margin ”” Denver +19, Baltimore +23.

Denver should be getting about a FG in this game. While their recent playoff experience and Mike Shanahan’s coaching give them an excellent shot at the upset, the better play may be to expect a high- scoring game. The play here is on the OVER. Should Tennessee fall to Dallas on Monday night and host the Broncos in this game, look for a much tighter game, with UNDER the preferred play in a game Tennessee is more likely to win, drawing on experience from last season.

Tampa Bay (-2) at Philadelphia (34½): Despite losing in overtime at Green Bay last week, Tampa Bay showed great character in battling the elements and overcoming the jubilation from their win the Monday night before over St Louis. Yet they still remain winless in cold weather. The conditions are likely to be just as cold in Philadelphia. But the Bucs can take solace from last week’s effort. Their defense came up big in the second half. Their offense came back from a 14-0 deficit and could have had the win but for a missed 40-yard FG at the end of regulation by normally reliable Martin Grammatica.

Philadelphia’s resurgence is yet another remarkable story such as we’ve seen over the past few seasons. The Eagles went from 5-11 in ”˜99 to 11-5 this season, largely on the strength of the improvement in overall play of QB Donovan McNabb. His passing stats weren’t overly impressive, but his leadership was quite evident, as was his ability to make the big play.

The Eagles also overcame the loss of RB Duce Staley, whose hot start to the season got the Eagles headed in the right direction early, most notably his huge effort in Philly’s season-opening rout of Dallas. In what may surprise many readers, the Eagles allowed fewer points than did Tampa Bay, while the yards each team allowed were almost identical.

Both teams have played very well defensively all season. This game might find points at a premium. Tampa Bay had an excellent turnover margin of +18. Philly was almost neutral at +2. Tampa Bay has the edge in recent playoff experience, but both teams come into the playoffs as "go with" teams. Unfortunately, they’re facing one another. The play is on the UNDER.

NFL WILDCARD PLAYOFFS

Saturday

Favorite

Line

O/U

Underdog

9:30 a.m.

MIAMI

—1 42

Indianapolis

1:05 p.m.

St. Louis

—6 54

NEW ORLEANS

Sunday

Favorite

Line

O/U

Underdog

9:30 a.m.

TENNESSEE

—6 39

Denver

or

BALTIMORE

—4 39

Denver

1:05 p.m.

Tampa Bay

—2 34

PHILADELPHIA

Home team in caps

NFC Bye game: New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings

AFC Bye game: Oakland, Tennessee or Baltimore