December 29, 2000

After A Wild Season, It's Wild Card Weekend!

"It's playoff time! Come on, now…show me something!"

That will be the marching order from eight coaches this week (it's also the NFL theme for the 2000 playoffs) as the NFL playoffs begin with Wild Card Weekend.

"The thing this year is that the teams are evenly matched," says Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick. "It's going to make for a fun tournament."

In Saturday's early game in Miami (ABC-TV, 12:30 PM ET), it will be the third time in a little more than a month that the Indianapolis Colts (10-6) and Miami Dolphins (11-5) have met. And it will be the 43rd time since 1970 that teams have played three times in a season. In that span, the home team's record in the third meeting is 27-15.

The AFC Eastern Division rivals played each other tight this year, with each game being decided by seven points or less (Miami the winner on the road November 26, 17-14; Indy the victor in Miami on December 17, 20-13).

It will be the Colts' No. 2 AFC offense (383.8) against the Dolphins' No. 4 conference defense (289.8). And unfortunately for the Dolphins, it looks like the Colts - off their 31-10 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17 - enter the playoffs with their "Triplets" in full-tilt.

Against the Vikings, quarterback Peyton Manning (283 yards and a career-high four touchdowns to break Johnny Unitas' Colts season record of 32 in 1959), running back Edgerrin James (128 yards, 1 TD to win the NFL rushing title with 1,709 yards), and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (12 catches for 109 yards and three TDs for most catches in the AFC, 102) each produced one of those "mega" games they seemed to turn out regularly last year.

After losing three in a row - and coming close to sinking out of the playoff hunt - the Colts won their last three, including their triumph over Miami.

"It would have been easy to give up," says Manning. "But everybody kept saying we have a chance, and that's all you want, is a chance. And now that you're in it, no one remembers how you got there."

The Dolphins present a tough defense to match Indy's fireworks. They allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL (226). Their defensive ends, Trace Armstrong (16.5) and Jason Taylor (14.5), finished first and second in sacks in the AFC. And they led the league in interceptions with 28 while spreading the pickoffs around.

"If we play our game, we'll be fine," says Miami linebacker Zach Thomas.

In the late game on Saturday (ABC-TV, 4:00 PM ET), the St. Louis Rams (10-6) will return to a place they're quite familiar with — New Orleans — to play the Saints (10-6). In fact, they played there just last week, and qualified for the playoffs with a 26-21 decision over the Saints.

"The Super Bowl goes through St. Louis," says Rams safety Keith Lyle of the Super Bowl XXXIV champions. Actually for the Rams, it will go through, at the start, New Orleans.

It is the 10th time in NFL history that clubs meet in the playoffs the week after they ended the regular season. The first was in 1943 (the New York Giants and Washington), the most recent in 1997 (Miami and New England).

`The game will pit the NFL's No. 1 offense (442.2) and top passing game (327.0) of the Rams against a resilient Saints team which ranked eighth (296.4) in the league in defense.

One of the keys for the Saints - who went from "worst" (3-13) to first (10-6) in the NFC Western Division this season - will be to stop Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who is the new NFL season-touchdown king. The all-around back, who led the NFC in scrimmage yards (2,189) this year, scored three TDs against New Orleans on Sunday to give him 26 for the season, vaulting him past Emmitt Smith, who set the record of 25 in 1995.

"The Rams are the best team in the NFC," says the Saints' Jim Haslett, a division champion in his first year as a head coach. "You are going to have to get by this team to go anywhere you want to go."

In Sunday's early game (CBS-TV, 12:30 PM ET), the highest-scoring offense in the AFC will go against the stingiest defense - ever.

It's the Denver Broncos (11-5) at the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) in the first NFL playoff game in Baltimore since 1977. And it features a Broncos attack that scored 485 points this season — second in the league to St. Louis' 540 - against a Ravens defense that surrendered only 165 points, the fewest ever in a 16-game season.

"I think everybody knows what type of team they are," says Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, whose staff has been breaking down Ravens tape for the past two weeks. "They're a heck of a football team."

The Broncos starting quarterback will not be known until later in the week. It will be either starter Brian Griese (shoulder) or backup Gus Frerotte facing a defense that shut out four opponents this season.

"With all due respect to St. Louis and Minnesota, I think Denver is the best offense in the league right now," says Ravens coach Billick. "They are a team with championship breeding and great coaching. I think they are as good as anyone in the tournament."

A matchup to watch for that could well swing the game will be between the top two rookie running backs in the NFL this year. Denver's Mike Anderson, a 27-year-old former U.S. Marine and the team's sixth-round draft choice from Utah, led all rookies in rushing (1,500 yards) and finished fourth in the league in the category. Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, the club's first-round selection from Tennessee, rushed for 1,364 yards - sixth in the AFC.

And will Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe be pumped for the game! Sharpe spent 10 seasons with Denver (1990-99) before signing with Baltimore this year, becoming in that time the team's career leader in catches (552) and receiving yards (6,983) and tying all-time in TD receptions (44).

"It's going to be a special game for Shannon," says Billick. "No question about it."

In the final Wild Card game (FOX-TV, 4:15 PM ET), one of the toughest defenses in the league confronts a quarterback who is one of the toughest to contain.

It's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6) and Warren Sapp, John Lynch and the rest of the NFC's fourth-ranked defense (300.0) against quarterback Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles (11-5), who accounted for 75.0 percent of his team's total offense this year.

McNabb, in only his second year as a starter, took the Eagles to their first playoff berth since 1996 and in the process, joined another Class of '99 quarterback, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, as perhaps the prototype of the "new" NFL quarterback — one who can beat you throwing and running. McNabb concluded the season with the most rushing yards of any quarterback — 629, the most since Steve McNair's 674 in 1997.

"If we can get Sapp and those guys on him, we should be OK," says Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles. "That'll be the plan."

The Eagles — who won more games this year than they did the previous two seasons combined (eight) — will have their own game-breaker to confront — Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn. The scatback, eighth in the NFC in rushing (1,133), finished the season strongly, running for 767 yards and seven TDs in his last eight games.

The Eagles believe they have one advantage over the Bucs — Philadelphia's lovely December weather. "It's definitely to our advantage, playing here against a warm-weather team," says Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. "This is a tough place to play. We've got the crazy fans, too."

Wild Card Super Bowl Teams

Wild Card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl seven times _ including the Tennessee Titans last season — and three have won it. The Kansas City Chiefs performed the feat in 1969, the Oakland Raiders in 1980 and Denver Broncos in 1997. The seven Wild Card/non-division winners to play in Super Bowls:

Season Team Super Bowl Result

1969 Kansas City Chiefs Defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, 23-7

1975 Dallas Cowboys Lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X, 21-17

1980 Oakland Raiders Defeated Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV, 27-10 1985 New England Patriots Lost to Chicago in Super Bowl XX, 46-10 1992 Buffalo Bills Lost to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII, 52-17

1997 Denver Broncos Defeated Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII, 31-24 1999 Tennessee Titans Lost to St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXIV, 23-16

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