NFL’S FINAL FOUR

January 09, 2001 7:19 AM
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In college basketball it’s known as March Madness. In the NFL perhaps January Jubilation is an appropriate moniker for the games to be played this weekend. The NFL’s version of the Final Four has been determined and Baltimore travels to Oakland for the AFC Championship Game while the New York Giants host Minnesota in the NFC’s title game. The winners of these games this Sunday will meet in Tampa on the 28th of this month in Super Bowl XXXV. One thing we know for certain is that we will have a pair of different teams in this season’s Big Game as both St Louis and Tennessee have been eliminated from the Playoffs. In fact, of the group of four teams that remain the last Super Bowl appearance was by the New York Giants who won Super Bowl XXV back in January of 1991. That was the famous ‘Wide Right’ Super Bowl won by the Giants over Buffalo 20-19 as Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood’s attempted game winning field goal in the waning seconds sailed to the right. That game was also in Tampa but was played in the "Big Sombrero". This season’s Super Bowl shall be played in the recently opened Raymond James Stadium.

The revised Super Bowl odds don’t offer much value for those who may have waited until now to make Super Bowl wagers. At the Stardust Oakland is the solid favorite at even money, followed by the Giants (2-1), Minnesota (3-1) and Baltimore (also 3-1). At the Mirage Oakland and Minnesota are co-favorites at 3-2, with the Giants at 7-2 and Baltimore at 4-1. Given that Minnesota is favored over the Giants to at least make it to the Super Bowl, the Stardust odds of 3-1 are the most attractive of those listed.

There are similarities and contrasts in this week’s Championship games. Both games feature one team that has a strong offense and an opponent whose strength is defense.

Here’s a look at both games which will be played this Sunday.

Minnesota (minus 1) at NY Giants (Over/Under 41½) — The Vikings rebounded nicely from the three game losing streak that marked the end of the regular season with a solid win over New Orleans. The Vikings controlled that game basically from the start and perhaps there was some overreaction to their losses down the stretch. One of their losses in November was at Green Bay in the rain when Antonio Freeman made a spectacular catch in overtime (that was somewhat duplicated last week by New York’s Jason Sehorn’s interception of a Donovan McNabb pass). Their season ending loss at Indy had no impact on the Playoff seedings. They match up well against the Giants with their WR duo of Chris Carter and Randy Moss, a pair of weapons Philadelphia did not have last week. Minnesota’s concern is their defense, although it played well against the Saints. The Giants’ strengths are their defense and an offense that rarely makes mistakes. Last week’s three turnovers was unusual but does point out that the Giants need to play error free football more than do other teams to have a chance to win. The G-men did not score an offensive touchdown last week and managed just 237 yards of total offense. The defense was spectacular in limiting the Eagles to just 186 total yards and also causing three turnovers. The Giants can run the ball although RB Tiki Barber appeared hampered by his broken arm and Ron Dayne was less effective late in the season than back in September. Minnesota is clearly much better balanced on offense with QB Daunte Culpepper maturing each week and he played very well last week despite a banged up ankle. RB Robert Smith showed he can be a factor catching the ball out of the backfield even when the defense keys on his running threat. And that will be a problem for the Giants who had trouble this season when facing an offense similar to Minnesota’s when they were defeated soundly, on this field, by St Louis. But before getting too excited about the Vikings’ chances note that this will be their first game outdoors since they won at Dallas on Thanksgiving. The more inclement and cold the weather the more it favors the Giants both in terms of familiarity and style of play. Minnesota did play a more difficult schedule this season. But the Giants have the greater momentum, having won six straight games. The Giants also have the edge in turnover margin, + 7 vs. Minnesota’s - 9. In a game in which you essentially need to just pick the winner, the preference is for Minnesota based largely on their better ability to gain yardage in what should be a tightly contested game and the much better balanced offense. Sure, their defense is a concern but the Giants don’t have enough quality skilled players to consistently exploit the Vikings’ vulnerabilities. The play is on MINNESOTA.

Baltimore (plus 5½) at Oakland (37½) — The Ravens showed that their earlier win over Tennessee was no fluke. Despite a limited offense, the Ravens used outstanding special teams play and their great defense to make the big plays in a tight game and eliminate the defending AFC Champion Titans from the Playoffs. In one of the ugliest displays of offense in postseason history, Baltimore amassed just 6 first downs and 134 yards of total offense in advancing to face Oakland. Baltimore showed how important big plays at key times can be. Tennessee had over 300 yards of offense plus 23 first downs against the Baltimore defense but managed just one touchdown — which came early in the game. Oakland’s offense was only slightly less ugly in defeating Miami last week. The Raiders gained just 267 yards in shutting out Miami 27-0. The key was Tory James’ interception return for a touchdown when it appeared Miami was going to take an early 7-0 lead. It totally changed the game’s complexion and enabled the Raiders’ defense to be very aggressive. Much like Miami, Baltimore has a one dimensional offense that relies on the run. Raven QB Trent Dilfer has made the occasional big play but has more often made mistakes. The Raiders have a well balanced offense and a mobile QB with Rich Gannon making big plays. Baltimore’s strength is clearly their defense which led the NFL against the rush. Oakland led the league in rushing offense which makes this matchup very intriguing. The Raiders have been dominant at home as we’ve pointed out repeatedly. They’ve now won seven straight at home by a minimum, not an average, of 18 points. They are playing with great confidence and their win over Miami was less ‘emotional’ than was Baltimore’s win over a division rival. That may also be a factor that favors Oakland since the Baltimore defense was very familiar with the Tennessee offense but is not too familiar with Oakland’s. Neither coach has an advantage and both are considered amongst the best in the game. This game also presents an interesting contrast with Baltimore favoring a slower pace so they don’t fall behind and have to rely on the passing of Dilfer. Oakland prefers a faster pace, hoping to keep the Ravens’ defense off balance and forcing them to play from behind. It’s hard to go against the Raiders’ record of success at home this season. Having had a Bye two weeks ago is also an advantage for Oakland although the Raven’s regular season Bye came in early December. Baltimore’s +25 turnover margin is impressive, but Oakland is right there at +20. In the final analysis Baltimore’s likely inability to take advantage of a below average Oakland pass defense suggests the Raiders will be able to go downfield. Oakland is also better at overcoming mistakes. The play is on OAKLAND.

NFL CONFERENCE championships

Sunday

Favorite

Line

O/U

Underdog

9:30 a.m.

Minnesota

–1

41½

NY GIANTS

1:15 p.m.

OAKLAND

–6

38  

Baltimore

Home team in caps