Defense rules, revenge motivates Bucs, Chiefs, Vikings, Pats have lot to prove

December 29, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Defense figures to dominate the NFL's divisional playoff round next weekend, when five of the top seven defenses in the league take roll call.

But an underlying theme could play even bigger in the countdown to the Super Bowl: revenge.

The divisional playoffs are filled with season rematches or long-standing rivalries.

New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe gets a chance to make amends for an ugly Week 16 interception -- and overtime loss -- to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winless in two tries against the Green Bay Packers this year, get a third shot at their Central Division rivals.

Fresh from their miracle in the Meadowlands, the Minnesota Vikings will attempt to avenge a 28-17, Week 15 loss at San Francisco.

And in a long-simmering rivalry, Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer will try one more time to beat Denver quarterback John Elway in a postseason game.

The time-honored adage that defense wins championships has rarely seemed more appropriate. Virtually all the best defenses have advanced to Round 2, including No. 1 San Francisco, No. 3 Tampa Bay, No. 5 Denver, No. 6 Pittsburgh and No. 7 Green Bay. The only top defenses not here are Dallas (No. 2) and New Orleans (No. 4), and neither had enough offense to make it into the postseason.

Even Minnesota, with the next-to-worst statistical defense in the league, struck a defensive chord in Saturday's incredible 23-22 win over the New York Giants. The Vikings limited the Giants to 8 rushing yards in 15 carries in the second half.

As a result of that victory, the NFC Central has three teams in the NFC semifinals -- all chasing the top-seeded 49ers.

Defense will loom large in the next round also because three of the four games will be played in cold-weather climates. San Francisco is the only exception.

If defense and cold weather are prominent, the running game will be, too. Four of the top six running games will show up as well -- No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Denver, No. 5 Kansas City and No. 6 Minnesota.

Here is a closer look at the divisional round:


New England (11-6) at Pittsburgh (11-5), 12: 30 p.m.

The Patriots advanced with a 17-3 wild-card mugging of the Miami Dolphins yesterday. The AFC's second-seeded Steelers won't be nearly as one-dimensional as the Dolphins, even with a young quarterback in Kordell Stewart.

Stewart got a baptism by fire in last year's divisional playoff game in New England, when he went 0-for-10 as a relief quarterback in a 28-3 Steelers loss. He showed the Patriots how far he's come with a 24-21 Steelers win in Week 16 at Foxboro, Mass., throwing for a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime.

Bledsoe opened the door for the Steelers in that game with a ghastly interception to defensive end Kevin Henry when he was trying to run out the clock.

The Steelers have won six of the past seven games against New England, including the last five in Pittsburgh.

Minnesota (10-7) at San Francisco (13-3), 4 p.m.

The Vikings haven't won in San Francisco since they upset the 49ers in the 1987 playoffs, a span of six games. They were shredded by quarterback Steve Young in Week 15 this season. Young completed 20 of 25 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

That was Randall Cunningham's first start at quarterback for Minnesota after season-ending neck surgery for Brad Johnson. Cunningham played erratically in the wild-card win over the Giants until the final two minutes, when he was magnificent.

"He's a great competitor," Vikings coach Dennis Green said of Cunningham. "He'll play better against San Francisco than he did [Saturday]."


Tampa Bay (11-6) at Green Bay (13-3), 12: 30 p.m.

The Bucs' reward for beating Detroit, 20-10, yesterday is a trip to frigid Lambeau Field to play the defending Super Bowl champions. Some reward. They are 0-18 when the temperature hits 42 degrees or colder, and it's certain to be much colder than that for this game.

The Packers swept the season series, winning 21-16 in Green Bay and 17-6 in Tampa. Quarterback Brett Favre carved up the Bucs' secondary in those wins, completing 71.9 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and 7.36 yards per pass. By contrast, Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer hit 47.8 percent against the Packers for no touchdowns and 5.35 yards per pass.

Unless Bucs coach Tony Dungy can find a way to defuse the potent Packers offense -- and he gave Favre some of his hardest lessons while serving as an assistant coach with the Vikings -- the Packers should have a direct path to San Francisco for the NFC championship game.

Denver (13-4) at Kansas City (13-3), 4 p.m.

Schottenheimer is 8-13 lifetime against Elway and the Broncos -- and he's won four of the past six. But nothing can make up for the two AFC championship game losses he suffered at Elway's hands in 1986 and 1987 as coach of the Cleveland Browns. This would help dull the memory, though.

The teams split the season series this year, the Broncos winning, 19-3, in Denver and the Chiefs winning, 24-22, in Kansas City. The Chiefs' Week 12 victory, achieved when Pete Stoyanovich hit a 54-yard field goal at the gun, triggered a six-game winning streak that has carried into the playoffs.

But the Chiefs are trying to become the first AFC team in four years with home-field advantage to reach the Super Bowl. Elway is a major stumbling block. In two games against the Chiefs, he completed 59.3 percent and averaged 8.1 yards per pass.

The Broncos have lost their past three games in Kansas City and five of the past six.

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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