January 12, 2001

Final Step to Super Bowl! Conference Championships This Sunday: Vikings at Giants, Ravens at Raiders

One away from the Bay!

That's how close the four remaining teams in the 2000 NFL playoffs are from Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa Bay on January 28. That number will be reduced to the final two this Sunday in the AFC and NFC Championship Games that feature the Minnesota Vikings at the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens at the Oakland Raiders.

"This is an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," says Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. "This is the kind of game you dream about as a kid, a kind of game you think about at the end of a day's work."

In the NFC Championship Game, the past doesn't matter for both teams, but it will be on their minds.

When the New York Giants host the Minnesota Vikings (FOX-TV, 12:30 PM ET), the memory of a 1997 Giants season that came to an abrupt halt in an NFC Wild Card game when visiting Minnesota rallied for 10 points in the final 1:30 for a 23-22 victory will definitely be in the memory bank.

But, says one Giant who played in that game, things are different now. "Now we're at an age - 29, 30 - where we understand how precious these chances are," says defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. "We're more determined. That '97 season was special because the defense was just dominating, but this team is more prepared for the playoffs."

The Giants' defense - ranked No. 2 in the NFC in 2000 - will have to be dominating Sunday, because they will face a four-way juggernaut that produced the No. 3 conference offense.

Minnesota arguably boasts the top wide-receiving tandem in the NFL today - Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Giants cornerbacks Jason Sehorn and Dave Thomas have to be on guard because Carter and Moss - in addition to their pure talent — are experts in the art of faking that a thrown ball is still a ways away, then grabbing it at the last moment.

"This guy (Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper) has two guys who can change the outcome of any game," says Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead. "We're going to have to do a lot of studying and preparing to handle them."

Almost lost - if you can say that about a conference's top rusher - amid the Vikings' explosive passing game is the high-powered running of Robert Smith, who topped the NFC in rushing (1,521) and excels in big-yardage breakaways.

Smith will confront the NFC's top rush defense (72.3) that posted the lowest yards-per-rush average in the NFC (3.2) and permitted an NFL-low two runs of 20 yards or more this season.

"The Giants have an excellent defense," says Vikings head coach Dennis Green, who takes his club into its second championship game in three years. "They dominated in the Divisional game from start to finish."

It will be Green's and the Vikings' sixth consecutive game against the Giants on the road (Vikes lead 3-2). "We've been to New York before," he says. "We think we've got the right character and the guts to play on the road."

The Giants have won six in a row with an offense that does not get the headlines the Vikings do, but consistently adapts to what a defense gives it.

Quarterback Kerry Collins quietly finished third in the NFC in TD passes (33) and ranked fifth in passer rating (83.1).

If he needs the running game, he can hand off to Tiki Barber, who topped his three-year career total of 935 yards with a 1,006-yard season, or Ron Dayne, the conference's top rookie rusher (770). Or Collins can throw long to wideouts Amani Toomer (78 catches; 1,094 yards) or Ike Hilliard (55; 787).

"We've done a good job of adjusting during games, depending on what we need to do," says Collins. "There have been games where we needed to score when we scored a lot of points, and there have been games when we needed to hold onto the ball and run the clock and be careful."

The AFC Championship Game (CBS-TV, 4:05 PM ET) will feature one team (the Oakland Raiders) who will play in its first conference title game in a decade…against another (the Baltimore Ravens) who has never played in one.

It matches the Raiders' No. 1 NFL rushing game this season against the Ravens' No. 1 rushing defense…a host that is 8-1 this year at home against a 7-2 road team…and a Baltimore club that has never witnessed the fan cauldron that can be Network Associates Coliseum.

"Maybe I'll come out in a biohazard suit," jokes Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett. "I'm going to Oakland. Those people are pretty scary."

So is the Raiders' offense. Oakland has averaged 33.3 points in nine home games, and has outscored its past two home opponents (Carolina and Miami in the Divisional Playoffs) 79-9.

The guy who runs the team's No. 3 AFC offense - 35-year-old quarterback Rich Gannon — is one of the year's true success stories. Gannon is on his fourth NFL team, started his first playoff game last week, and is the prototype of the "take-what-they'll-give-you" quarterback. Plus, like his 37-year-old coach Gruden, he's a workaholic who arrives daily at the Raiders' complex before dawn to watch tapes (Gruden got him a key to the front door so he could let himself in).

"He's a journeyman," says Gruden, who is in his eighth college/pro coaching position. "I'm a journeyman too. We've just hit our stride together." The Raiders' "stride" comes from Gannon's freedom to go long, intermediate or utilize his running game, of which he's a big part.

"Going long" became a more effective weapon for Oakland this year with the addition of wide receiver Andre Rison (41 catches, 606 yards) to form a dual threat with 13-year Raider stalwart Tim Brown (76 for 1,128).

If the Ravens close down those two, Gannon will throw underneath the coverage. Or…he will take off himself. He led all AFC quarterbacks in rushing with 529 yards. "We don't have a predetermined plan to drop back and run the football," says Gannon. "I think we're intelligent enough to see the opportunities to pull the ball down and run."

And run the Raiders can. A lot of them. They led the NFL in rushing average this year (154.4 yards per game), and may have set a record for most players to contribute sizeable chunks to their overall total - Tyrone Wheatley (career-high 1,046), Gannon (career-high 529), Napoleon Kaufman (499) and Randy Jordan (career-high 213). "They call us `The Committee,'" says Wheatley.

But that committee will not receive a rubber stamp this week. It goes up against the league's top rush defense (60.6) that allowed less than half the Raiders' season average…averaged an NFL-best 2.69 yards per rush…and has not surrendered a 100-yard rushing performance in 35 games.

It will be only the second time since 1970 that the league's No. 1 rush offense faced the league's No. 1 rush defense in a championship game (1971 AFC Championship: Miami 21 [173.5 rush offense] vs. Baltimore 0 [79.5 rush defense]).

"They have the No. 1 rushing game in the league," says Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. "We have the No. 1 rush defense in the league. So it will be a great battle."

The Ravens - who were welcomed back to Baltimore Sunday night after their Divisional victory in Tennessee by 3,000 fans at the airport and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley — have their own "comeback" quarterback, and a rusher that easily matches up with Wheatley.

QB Trent Dilfer joined the Ravens this season after six years with Tampa Bay. After backup duty the first half of the season, he took over after a scoring lull and has built a 9-1 starting record. One of his main cogs is rookie running back Jamal Lewis, who has rushed for 1,084 yards in his past 10 games (with a 1,364 season total).

Dilfer knows he has a tough job in front of him. "I've watched the Raiders a lot this year," he says. "I really think they are the class of the NFL right now. It is us and them, in my opinion, the best two teams."

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