For playoffs, vision helps NFL: Michael Jordan put it in focus for Randall Cunningham, but keeping an eye on the prize is a key for all with postseason hopes.

December 04, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

It was on a golf outing with basketball superstar Michael Jordan that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham stumbled upon his football epiphany.

"We were out in Santa Barbara [Calif.] at Sand Piper, golfing with a couple friends of his," Cunningham said. "Someone said to him, 'Michael, what kind of cigar is that?' He said, 'It's a championship cigar; Cunningham wouldn't know anything about that.'

"He was joking, but it kind of opened my eyes. He was kind of saying, 'Randall, go get a championship.' "

Cunningham, a 13-year NFL veteran and two-time Player of the Year, has been more focused on the big prize ever since.

Last season, he authored an improbable, come-from-behind, wild-card win over the New York Giants before losing a second-round playoff game. This season, he is the NFL's leading passer as stand-in for injured Brad Johnson. With this team, his championship potential has never been better.

The Vikings (11-1) have the best record in the NFC and the inside track to home-field advantage. They can clinch their first Central Division title in four years -- ending Green Bay's three-year run -- with a victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

If they make it to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII, they will have beaten even bigger odds: No domed-stadium team has ever reached the Super Bowl.

In the 1990s, five dome teams have combined for 20 playoff berths and a 5-20 record, including 2-8 at home. That trend bears watching because a pair of dome teams -- the Vikings and Atlanta Falcons -- have the top two records in the NFC.

And if the Vikings somehow manage to win it all, Jordan will deserve a huge assist.

This is how the December playoff drive shakes down:

NFC

Minnesota (11-1)

Status: Clinched a playoff spot, aiming for home-field advantage.

Reason to believe: Cunningham's pitch-and-catch game with Randy Moss and Cris Carter appears unstoppable. The Vikings are No. 2 in the league in scoring and total yards.

Trouble-shooting: Injuries to Cunningham or Moss, and pass defense (No. 21) are the Vikings' biggest concerns.

Atlanta (10-2)

Status: Clinched a berth, trying to lock up the division title and first-round bye, still in contention for home-field advantage.

Reason to believe: The Falcons have offensive balance with quarterback Chris Chandler and 1,000-yard rusher Jamal Anderson, and are No. 2 defending the run.

Trouble-shooting: An injury to Chandler changes the equation. The Falcons cannot win a playoff game with either Steve DeBerg or Tony Graziani at quarterback.

Dallas (8-4)

Status: Has a two-game lead over Arizona in the East with the softest finishing schedule of any contender.

Reason to believe: First-year coach Chan Gailey has restored the offense. The Cowboys are No. 4 in scoring and total yards.

Trouble-shooting: Injuries will sideline cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith this week and further weaken the 23rd-ranked pass defense.

San Francisco (9-3)

Status: Trails Atlanta by one game in the West, but holds the top wild-card seed.

Reason to believe: Quarterback Steve Young and his big-play pals Terrell Owens, J.J. Stokes and Jerry Rice are No. 1 in pass offense.

Trouble-shooting: The loss of tackle Bryant Young is devastating to the 49ers' vulnerable defense, which is 27th against the pass.

Green Bay (8-4)

Status: Reduced to a wild-card entry, stripped of its Lambeau Field advantage.

Reason to believe: As erratic as quarterback Brett Favre has played, he can still salvage the season with a hot finish.

Trouble-shooting: Wideout Antonio Freeman's broken jaw doesn't help, and neither does the Packers' slow, plodding pass rush.

Arizona (6-6)

Status: Giddy to be contending for a berth for the first time in 15 years.

Reason to believe: The West Coast system finally clicked for quarterback Jake Plummer. In the last four weeks, the Cardinals have averaged 31.5 points and 401 yards per game.

Trouble-shooting: The defense can't stop anyone. In the last four games, the Cardinals have given up 34.5 points and almost 352 yards a game.

The rest of the field

Detroit, New Orleans and Tampa Bay -- all 5-7 -- have an outside shot at passing Arizona if the Cardinals collapse. Tampa Bay is the best of the three, but the Buccaneers already have lost twice to Detroit and once to New Orleans, so their tie-breakers are problematic.

AFC

Denver (12-0)

Status: Can clinch home-field advantage with a win over Kansas City on Sunday.

Reason to believe: With tailback Terrell Davis and quarterback John Elway, the Broncos have way too much firepower for anyone to contain. They are No. 1 in scoring and rush offense, and No. 3 in scoring defense.

Trouble-shooting: Last week's ragged win over San Diego, when the Broncos had four giveaways, was atypical of their season.

Jacksonville (9-3)

Status: Holds a two-game lead over Pittsburgh in Central.

Reason to believe: For the first time in their brief history, the Jaguars can run the ball as efficiently as they throw it.

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