The NFL’s “Second
Season,” the Playoffs, begin this weekend and as has been pointed out in this
column over the past few weeks, this season’s run to the Super Bowl will have
a much different look than did last season’s Playoffs. No less than half the
field and perhaps as many as seven teams (if Baltimore lost to Minnesota on
Monday night) that did not make the Playoffs after the 2000 season will have a
chance to win Super Bowl XXXVI.
In fact, three of the top four seeds are making a return to the Playoffs after sitting on the sidelines for at least the past season. The St. Louis Rams had the best record in the NFL (14-2) and are the only one of the top two seeds in each conference to have made the Playoffs last season.Â The second seed in the NFC, Chicago, returns to the playoffs for the first time since 1994.Â The AFC’s top seed, Pittsburgh, makes their first Playoff appearance since 1997 while second seeded New England returns to postseason play for the first time since 1998.
Las Vegas bookmakers have made the Rams a 6-5 choice to win the Super Bowl. And the top seed in the AFC is the Pittsburgh Steelers at 3-1.
Other returnees after at least a season’s absence include both Green Bay and San Francisco in the NFC and the New York Jets in the AFC. And if Minnesota upset Baltimore on Monday night, Seattle would become the seventh new face in this season’s Playoffs.
It is the uncertainty surrounding the Monday night result that prevents the specific AFC Wild Card matchups from being known as we go to press, although in the following previews all possible matchups will be covered. A Baltimore win over the Vikings sends the Ravens to Miami for the Wild Card round and the Jets would return to Oakland where they clinched their Wild Card berth with a late FG to defeat the Raiders last Sunday. A Baltimore loss would result in the Jets traveling to Miami and Seattle would be in Oakland in what would be a pair of third meetings between Division rivals this season.
The NFC Wild Card matchups are set with Philadelphia hosting Tampa Bay and San Francisco traveling to Green Bay.
St. Louis is still favored to win the Super Bowl, most likely against theÂ Pittsburgh Steelers. Both New England and Chicago are fashionable dark horses but both have played consistently solid football down the stretch. Of the Wild Card teams Oakland would have to be considered a legitimate contender despite losing three straight games to end the season after starting 10-3. The three losses were by a combined 11 points. Pittsburgh is the most complete team in the AFC with an underrated offense and a defense that excels against both the run and the pass.
Green Bay is a legitimate threat in the NFC. Consider that the Packers ended last season with four straight wins and went 12-4 this season. And QB Brett Favre is a big game quarterback. If you can find odds ofÂ 8-1 or better the Packers might be worth a look to win it all.
It’s too easy to pick both favorites, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, to meet in the Super Bowl. Upsets do occur in the Playoffs. The pre-season selection in this column was for a New Orleans vs. Oakland in the Super Bowl. Look to the NFC for an upset and the projection is for a Super Bowl between Pittsburgh and Green Bay.
Here’s a look at the Wild Card games to be played this Saturday and Sunday:
49ers (+3Â½) at Packers (O/U 38Â½): Green Bay has never lost a home Playoff game in their history and bring the better defense into this game. San Francisco improved on defense during the season and actually won three games by shutouts ”” a pair of home wins over Buffalo and Miami and last week in New Orleans. Last week’s win was the most impressive road effort of the season by the 49ers. San Francisco is a team that has managed to rebuild quickly with QB Jeff Garcia now running the show and hoping to follow in the footsteps of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Green Bay is still led by QB Brett Favre who won a Super Bowl ring just five seasons ago. Perhaps the most noteworthy edge is Green Bay’s better pass defense. Take GREEN BAY.
Bucs (+3) at Eagles (33): These teams played a meaningless game last week, as expected, using mostly backup players and a very basic game plan. Philly rallied late for a 17-13 win and that could be the final in this rematch as well. The teams met in the same round last season on this field and Philadelphia won 21-3. The teams have similar statistical profiles this season with each team relying more on their defenses than their offenses to win games. No team scored more than 21 points against the Eagles all season. But the Eagles played a weaker schedule than did Tampa Bay and the Buccs dealt St. Louis one of just two losses this season ”” and that was on the road. Philly QB Donovan McNabb is more versatile than Brad Johnson, his Tampa Bay counterpart. Both teams have capable running games that eat up clock in ball control drives. Take the UNDER.
Possible AFC scenarios Â
Jets (+3Â½) at Raiders: These teams gave us an entertaining if not well played game last week in which the Jets edged the Raiders on a 53 yard FG in the final minute. It was Oakland’s third straight defeat. Neither team has played well over the past month or so and the winner of this game faces a tough game next week in either Pittsburgh (if the Jets win) or New England (if Oakland wins). The Jets have excelled at the turnover game all season but have slipped of late and lost the only three turnovers in last week’s game. All three of Oakland’s recent losses have been in close games, indicative of a failure to make the big play in the fourth quarter. The Raiders should be moreÂ aggressiveÂ this week. Take OAKLAND.
Ravens (+3) at Dolphins: Baltimore needed to win at home on Monday night to earn the right to defend their Super Bowl title. The Ravens used a dominant defense to win last season but opponents have figured out how to attack that defense and Baltimore’s numbers, while still amongst the best in the league, are down from last season. The offense has been able to move the ball but has had trouble converting those yards into points. Largely it is due to the loss of RB Jamal Lewis to injury and he’s not been able to even remotely adequately replaced. QB Elvis Grbac has been inconsistent and has caused many to question coach Brian Billick’s decision to cut Trent Dilfer. Miami played their best ball early in the season but did end the season with a pair of home wins. Miami has the deeper overall playoff experience. Take MIAMI.
Jets (+1) at Dolphins: The Jets swept the season series from Miami and have now won eight straight games over the past four seasons. The Jets rallied from a 17-0 half-time deficit at home to win their first meeting this season 21-17 and won the rematch 24-0 in Miami. Both teams were playing better football when they met early in the season but have struggled over the past month. The Jets were almost flawless during the first half of the season in avoiding turnovers but that trend has reversed in recent games. QB Vinny Testaverde has not been making smart decisions and RB Curtis Martin has provided the bulk of the offense. Miami has gotten steady QB play from Jay Fiedler and in recent weeks RB Lamar Smith has flashed signs of the form that propelled him to over 1000 rushing yards in 2000. Take MIAMI.Seahawks (+4Â½)Â at Raiders: These teams split their season series with each winning at home in a pair of high scoring games. Seattle is a much better team with Trent Dilfer at QB rather than Matt Hasselbeck. Seattle has shown a better ability to run the ball than has Oakland and the Seahawks have also posted better numbers defending the run. Oakland was not nearly as dominant at home this season as they were last. The Raiders have lost three home games late in the year and begin the playoffs on a three game overall losing streak. Seattle was not a very good team for most of the season and five of their nine wins were by a FG or less. Take OAKLAND.