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Jan 15, 2002 9:06 AM

The first round of the playoffs is history and the weaker teams have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase.

Of the four teams that lost last weekend only one, San Francisco, had a legitimate chance to pull further upsets. The 49ers were 12-4 during the regular season but had the misfortune of having to play another 12-4 team, Green Bay, on the road.

Tampa Bay and Miami were non-competitive in their losses to Philadelphia and Baltimore while the New York Jets showed the signs of their cross-country fatigue in the fourth quarter of their loss at Oakland.

Now the league’s truly elite teams join the party after having a well-deserved week of rest. Of the four teams that begin their postseason run this weekend two of them, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, show clear signs of being favored to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams were consistent all season in earning the top seeds in their conferences.

St. Louis is thought of as winning because of its outstanding offense but the defense has been very much underrated. The Rams ranked third in fewest yards allowed and seventh in points allowed this season. Pittsburgh is thought of as winning on the strength of an outstanding defense. But, much like St. Louis’ defense, the Steelers’ offense has been underrated. Pittsburgh ranked third in yards gained and seventh in point scored. It’s amazing how the less respected units of both top seeds exhibit remarkably similar characteristics.

The second-seeded teams in each conference, Chicago and New England, are less flashy and much more workmanlike in achieving their success. In fact, both the Bears and the Patriots were outgained by their foes during the season with Chicago allowing 18 more yards per game than they gained and the Patriots allowing 29 more yards per game than they gained. But both teams have been very opportunistic and although they’ve yielded yards they have not yielded points. Consider that Chicago ranked No. 15 in yards allowed but ranked first in fewest points allowed. New England ranked No. 24 in yards allowed but just sixth in fewest points allowed.

The results on offense were similar in that both teams ranked lowly in yards gained but ranked highly in terms of points scored. Neither team can be dismissed lightly because of poor fundamental statistics. Both teams continually made big plays.

Here’s an early week preview of the four matchups in the Divisional round.

Saturday, Jan. 19

Eagles (+2½) at Bears (32½): This should be a game decided in the trenches, a physical war. Both teams win with defense and don’t ask their offenses to make too many big plays. These teams ranked one and two in fewest points allowed, combining to allow just under 26 points per game.

Philadelphia’s strength on defense is against the pass while Chicago excels at stuffing the run. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb is more versatile than his Bears counterpart Jim Miller. The Chicago running game improved during the season with rookie Anthony Thomas emerging as the next great Bears running back.

Marty Booker filled in quite well as the main receiver once Marcus Robinson went down for Chicago but that lack of a second big threat plays into the strength of the Philly defense. Ball control should be the theme for this game. Barring turnovers, points will be scarce.

This game is a toss up and Philadelphia played very well on the road, winning seven of eight. Chicago lost only once at home, to Green Bay. This will be a great game to start what is often the best weekend of the NFL season. Take UNDER.

Raiders (+3) at Patriots (40½): This may be the weekend’s most intriguing matchup. Oakland is a very talented team and the offense performed as well as it has all season in last week’s win over the Jets. What more can be said about WR Jerry Rice other than he further cemented his status as the greatest receiver to ever play the game.

There is a concern about the Oakland defense, however, as the Jets were able to march down the field and answer most of Oakland’s second half scores. The Raiders have been vulnerable to the run and that’s a phase of New England’s game that improved significantly during the season.

The Patriots may have been the season’s most remarkable story. They were not given much of a chance to do much this season and those expectations were sent even lower after starting QB Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury. But backup QB Tom Brady filled in so well that he became the full time starter once Bledsoe was cleared to return.

Brady was hardly spectacular but he basically did what Patriots coach Bill Belichick required ”” avoiding the turnover. And aside from one horrible fourth quarter in Denver, Brady avoided turning the ball over.

Belichick has been an outstanding defensive coach and given two weeks to prepare, we can expect that the Raiders will have trouble passing the ball be challenged to beat the Pats. Oakland is in a tough spot having to cross the country to face a rested team.

New England is well rested having had its regular season bye just before the season’s final week. On balance Oakland is the more talented team and is more capable of playing from behind than is New England. Getting at least a FG is an attractive option. Take RAIDERS.

Sunday, Jan. 20

Ravens (+5½) at Steelers (32): Baltimore finally played like defending Super Bowl champs in totally shutting down Miami in last week’s Wild Card game. The defense held the Dolphins to just 151 total yards. But the offense was even more impressive with a pair of long, time-consuming drives that wore down the Miami defense and displayed the type of ball control often used last season.

QB Elvis Grbac is still the weak link in this offense and will be the target of a Pittsburgh defense that plays with aggressiveness. Baltimore’s new found running attack will be challenged by the league’s best rush defense. The Ravens defense will return the favor by challenging Pittsburgh’s strength, its running game. The Ravens ranked fourth in stopping the run.

Neither team has a potent passing attack so, despite the presence of strong rushing defenses, the ground game will still be the focal point of each team’s offensive game plan. The game is likely to be decided by which QB makes the fewest mistakes, Grbac or Pittsburgh’s Kordell Stewart.

These are the league’s top two defenses and there’s little to suggest that this will be anything other than the third very physical game between these teams this season. Points should be at a premium in a game that likely will turn on which team is better able to create good field position for the offense or pin the other team’s offense back in poor field position. Take UNDER.

Packers (+10) at Rams (54½): The natural inclination is to make a convincing case for St. Louis. After all, the Rams were the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl and all they’ve done is fashion the league’s best record at 14-2. And now they are fresh from a week off and get to play at home on their fast artificial turf surface.

It is worth noting that both of the Rams’ losses this season did come at home. Also, the line is inflated a couple of points or so and is likely to rise even higher as the public comes in to bet the Rams. So the value is clearly with Green Bay. But do the Packers have a realistic chance for the upset.

The Rams do hold most of the statistical edges in this game but there is one specific matchup that strongly favors the Packers. St. Louis led the league in turning the ball over this season, losing more than 2½ turnovers per game. The Packers were second in the league in forcing turnovers, recovering just under 2½ turnovers per game.

Teams that have been able to pressure St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner have forced interceptions. Green Bay QB Brett Favre is one of the best in the game. Despite the fact that the Packers have had troubles on artificial turf in the past they did win their Super Bowl title five seasons ago in a domed stadium.

St. Louis should win this game although an outright upset by Green Bay would not be a complete shock. In last week’s column a Super Bowl forecast of Green Bay against Pittsburgh was presented, knowing full well that this game loomed once the Packers defeated San Francisco.

Check the money line on this game and be very wary if the line on the Rams looks too “cheap.” The way to look at this game is at the capable and very attractively priced underdog. Take PACKERS.