Saints go marchin’ in

January 02, 2001 11:47 AM
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The NFL playoffs began last weekend with all four home teams winning. Surprisingly, three of the four home teams were underdogs, a clear indication of the parity that has marked the NFL this season.

Now the two top seeds in each conference return to action following their byes. All four match-ups are intriguing.

Early on Saturday, New Orleans brings its gutty offense and a defense that has been their strength all season but has struggled down the stretch into Minnesota. The Vikings’ powerful offense has also struggled late in the season. Later in the day, Miami takes an opportunistic offense and a tough defense into Oakland. The Raiders have been as dominant a home team as any team in the league. On Sunday, we’ll again be treated to a pair of division contests, much as we were last Saturday in the wild card round.

If these can approach the excitement of last week’s division games, the games and the point spread decisions won’t be decided until very late. Baltimore travels to Tennessee in a match-up of teams from the physical AFC Central division that rely more on the running game and defense than outstanding quarterback play. The nightcap features a pair of NFC East rivals. Neither had even a .500 record last season, much less made the playoffs. Yet one will be playing next week for a trip to Tampa and the right to win Super Bowl XXXV.

After last week’s wild card round, the Super Bowl odds were adjusted with just one of the remaining eight teams, Miami, a significant longshot at 12-1. Tennessee is the 2-1 favorite, with Oakland close behind at 3-1 and Minnesota at 4-1. Baltimore, with probably the top defense in the league, is priced at 5-1. The New York Giants, top seed in the NFC, are 7-1 along with New Orleans. Philadelphia is 8-1. Those odds are from the Stardust and will vary throughout the city.

Here’s a look at each of the four divisional playoff games.

New Orleans (+8) at Minnesota (Over/Under 50) ”” The Saints have a chance to become the fifth different NFC West team to make it to the NFC championship game in the last five seasons if they can pull off the upset at Minnesota. In yet another indication of just how parity has taken over the NFL, New Orleans won seven of eight road games this season while winning just four of nine at home (including last week’s playoff win over the Rams). The Vikings have had a strong home field under coach Dennis Green and were nearly perfect this season, losing only once at the Metrodome in their home finale against Green Bay. New Orleans has to be concerned about the play of their defense. After seven games this season, it’s ranked first in the league, allowing just 229 yards per game. By season’s end their rank dropped to No. 8 and their average yards allowed increased to 296.

The rushing stats have declined only slightly since Williams was replaced by several runners, the most recent being veteran Terry Allen. Brooks isn’t at too much of a disadvantage since his QB counterpart, Daunte Culpepper, is making his first playoff start in just his second season in the NFL, his first as starter. Minnesota has the edge at RB with Robert Smith and at WR with both Randy Moss and Chris Carter. The Saints’ ability to stay close to the Vikes may be suggested by their huge edge in turnover margin, +12 to ””11. The Vikings should win this game, although the Saints are playing with confidence and believe that they will (not can) win.

Look here, however, is for a high-scoring game with both defenses vulnerable to surrendering the big play. The indoor venue takes weather conditions out of the equation. The play is on the OVER.

Miami (+9) at Oakland (42 1/2) ”” Indianapolis coach Jim Mora remains winless in six career playoff games, including a pair with the Colts, after Indy was unable to hold a 14-0 halftime lead at Miami last week. Miami QB Jay Fiedler was very shaky in the first half, tossing three interceptions and struggling to move the offense. A repeat of that effort in this game will find Miami behind by much more than two touchdowns.

Oakland has now won six straight home games, each by at least 18 points, although none of those wins came against teams that made the playoffs. Miami has played well on the road, winning six of eight, including their last five away from home. RB Lamar Smith had a career day in last week’s overtime win against the Colts. He must have a strong game against the Raiders if Miami has a chance to win. Oakland led the NFL with an average of 154 rushing yards per game, which enabled QB Rich Gannon to excel at the passing game. Oakland also had the fifth best rushing defense (Miami was No. 14). That suggests Smith may not have the kind of game Miami needs.

Oakland’s defense is also aggressive, especially with the lead. This game might make for an attractive halftime bet on the Raiders if they’re ahead by more than a TD at the half ”” or on the UNDER if Miami is in the lead after 30 minutes. The compelling aspect of this game is in Oakland’s ability to not turn the ball over (they lost just 20 all season) and the Miami defense’s ability to cause them (they forced 41 turnovers during the regular season).

Unfortunately for Miami, their one-dimensional offense (only 160 yards per game passing) plays into the ability of the Oakland defense to take chances, knowing their offense can overcome any mistakes. Despite Miami’s better numbers on defense, they just don’t have the playmakers Oakland has. The Raiders are playing with confidence and should get a convincing win here. The play is OAKLAND.

Baltimore (+5 1/2) at Tennessee (34) ”” This has all the indications of being a classic chess match between two very similar teams. Both rely on defense to keep them in games. Both use a physical ground game to wear down opposing defenses and control the clock.

The surprising news for Baltimore is that, despite all the problems their offense had in scoring during mid-season , the Ravens scored only 16 fewer points during the season than the Titans did. Of course, Baltimore did score a number of defensive and special teams touchdowns, but they count just the same.

This shapes up as a physical war of attrition, likely to be decided late. Getting more than four points in a game that could easily be decided by a field goal looks too attractive to pass up. The play is on BALTIMORE.

Philadelphia (+4 1/2) at New York Giants (33 1/2) ”” Kudos to QB Donovan McNabb and his Eagle teammates. The defense smothered Tampa Bay in last week’s wild card win. The offense was efficient enough to produce three touchdowns despite gaining just 277 yards of total offense.

That’s the only good news for Philadelphia. The Giants’ two wins over playoff teams were both against the Eagles, by 15 and 17 points. In fact, the Giants have won eight in a row over the Birds, all under current coach Jim Fassell. Both teams’ offensive strength is their running game. The Giants are much healthier at that position. Giants’ QB Kerry Collins is a better pure passer than McNabb, but McNabb’s rushing ability makes him a threat with every snap of the ball.

In the final analysis, the sustained success the Giants have had over Philadelphia suggests either a match-up edge, a coaching advantage or a combination of both. The play is on the NEW YORK GIANTS.

 NFL CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS

Saturday Favorite Line O/U Underdog

9:30 a.m. MINNESOTA —7 49.5 New Orleans

1:15 p.m. OAKLAND —9 42 Miami

Sunday Favorite Line O/U Underdog

9:30 a.m. TENNESSEE —5 34 Baltimore

1:05 p.m. NY GIANTS —4 34 Philadelphia

Home team in caps