NFL’s final dance could be slow one

Jan 17, 2001 3:03 AM

And then there were two. The NFL’s final dance will be held a week from Sunday in Tampa. The New York Giants return to the scene of one of the most thrilling Super Bowl finishes in history.

The Giants will face, as expected, a team from the vicinity of the nation’s capital. No, not the pre-season favorite Washington Redskins. Rather, a team within an hour’s drive of the Redskins ”” the Baltimore Ravens ”” will take on the Giants.

The game will mark a battle for football’s premier prize between two good friends and members of the NFL’s "old guard" — Giants’ owner Wellington Mara and Raven’s owner Art Modell. For Modell, it will be his team’s first trip to the Super Bowl. Mara’s Giants will be trying to win their third Vince Lombardi Trophy.

When the Giants and Baltimore Ravens take the field for Super Bowl XXXV, it will have been ten years and one day since Buffalo’s Scott Norwood tried a game- winning field goal in the final moments that went "wide right" and preserved New York’s 20-19 victory in Super Bowl XXV.

That remains one of the lowest scoring Super Bowls in the past two decades, with the 39 total points equaled last year when St. Louis defeated Tennessee, 23-16. Over the past 20 seasons, only one other Super Bowl produced fewer points. In Super Bowl XXIII, Joe Montana led San Francisco to a last-minute, come-from-behind win over Cincinnati, 20-16.

An initial evaluation of this season’s participants suggests a low-scoring game. In fact, the game opened up with a posted Over/Under total of 34 points ”” an all-time low in Super Bowl lines. In a statistical oddity, seven of the prior 34 Super Bowls produced fewer than 34 points ”” and they all occurred in consecutive Super Bowls from III through IX. Since Super Bowl X in 1976, the fewest total points scored in any Super Bowl were 36 in the aforementioned SB XXIII.

Next week, I’ll have a prediction for this year’s contest along with some thoughts on the numerous proposition wagers available throughout the city. One of the reasons Super Bowl fever continues to grip Las Vegas is the growth of those propositions.

Many sports books have several sheets of propositions that cover virtually every play of the game, from which team will receive the opening kickoff to which player will score the first touchdown to whether or not there will be a score in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and even whether or not there will be overtime. For the record, none of the previous 34 Super Bowls has gone to overtime, although several have come close, including last year’s game. Cynics might argue the point that this year’s game has an excellent chance of going beyond 60 minutes ”” tied at 0-0!

Within moment of clinching their win over the Oakland Raiders last Sunday, the Ravens opened up a 1-point favorite over the Giants. By the time the books had closed Sunday evening, the Ravens had been bet up to a 3-point favorite at many books. The early sentiment for Baltimore is likely a reaction to their outstanding defensive performances thus far in the playoffs.

In defeating Denver, Tennessee and Oakland, the wild card Ravens have held three of the best teams in the NFL to 16 points. That’s not an average of 16 points but a total of 16 points. Against Oakland and Denver, they faced two of the best offenses in the league. The support for the Ravens says the early bettors don’t believe the Giants have an offense remotely comparable to that of Oakland or Denver. Of course, that’s what backers of the Minnesota Vikings thought last week as well.

The Giants’ 41-0 thrashing of the Vikings was as impressive a playoff game as has been seen in many years. It was total domination. New York outgained Minnesota in total yards (518 to 114), had 31 first downs to just 9 for the Vikes. But perhaps the most incredible statistic from last week’s game is that the Giants ran 82 offensive plays to just 41 for Minnesota.

The game was decided within the first three minutes. The Giants impressively marched down the field on the game’s opening possession, chewing up yardage in huge chunks and getting a big play 45 yards RD pass from Kerry Collins to Amani Toomer. The Vikings fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Giants scored a TD on the very next play.

Minnesota was down 14-0 before QB Daunte Culpepper and the offense took their first snap from center. That lead enabled the Giants’ defense to be extremely aggressive. They never let up all afternoon. Minnesota couldn’t establish any rhythm and looked totally confused and off balance. They were shut out for the first time since early in the 1991 season. It was the first time they’d been held to fewer than 10 points in their last 80 games, dating back to mid-1996.

Baltimore’s win over Oakland was more closely contested, but also seemed to turn on a single play. Early in the second quarter, facing a third down and 18 yards to go situation from his own 4-yard line, Raven QB Trent Dilfer found Shannon Sharpe on a short pass over the middle. Sharpe slipped by several would-be tacklers and raced 96 yards for the longest post-season touchdown in NFL history.

It turned out to be the game’s only TD, the play that enabled Baltimore’s defense to dictate the flow for the rest of the game. It further helped Baltimore’s cause when they knocked Oakland QB to the ground, severely injuring his shoulder. It clearly affected Gannon’s ability to throw the ball. He was replaced for a significant amount of time by backup Bobby Hoying, who’d seen virtually no action this season. Baltimore’s win was not nearly as dominant as was the Giants’ over Minnesota, but the defensive performance by the Ravens was every bit as impressive.

Next week, we’ll analyze Super Bowl XXXV and offer a prediction and thoughts on the many proposition wagers that will make Super Bowl Sunday one of biggest party events of the year, rivaling only New Year’s Eve.