NFL playoffs: change in the air

Postseason's new faces at QB just may take some getting used to

Analysis

January 07, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Roll call for quarterbacks in this month's NFL playoffs doesn't take long, but it does take some introduction.

Shaun King is a rookie with a 4-1 record as a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thrust into the job six weeks ago when Trent Dilfer broke his clavicle, King may at least have averted a mutiny by the Bucs' overworked defense.

Jon Kitna came to the Seattle Seahawks by way of the Barcelona Dragons and Central Washington Wildcats. In his third NFL season, this one-time project warmed up for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins by throwing 10 interceptions in his past six games.

Rob Johnson was a $5 million backup in Buffalo until Bills coach Wade Phillips benched Doug Flutie (10-5 this season) for tomorrow's game against the Tennessee Titans. Johnson has a reputation for West Coast cool -- he's from Southern Cal -- and concussions. Stay loose, Doug.

Jeff George plays for the Minnesota Vikings now, his fourth team in 10 years. One more time, he'll be searching for redemption when he faces the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Gus Frerotte finally won a trip to the postseason, despite the Detroit Lions losing their past four games. Frerotte, a former Washington Redskin, replaces injured Charlie Batch again tomorrow when he returns to the scene of past failures.

Then there's Cory Sauter. Cory who? He's the third-teamer who plays if Frerotte gets dinged -- and Frerotte has been known to get dinged by the FedEx Field walls.

The rest of these guys, you should know. Tennessee's Steve McNair and Washington's Brad Johnson operate high-powered offenses. Miami's Dan Marino and Dallas' Troy Aikman don't.

The others are bye boys, quarterbacks who sit out this weekend's wild-card round along with King and the Bucs: Kurt Warner, the newly minted MVP from the St. Louis Rams; precocious Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts; and gimpy-legged Mark Brunell of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

That's roll call. Here's the rundown.

AFC

Looking good: Tennessee (13-3) enters the postseason as the hottest team with four straight wins (and seven of the past eight). The Titans have scored 40 points or more the past two games. That hasn't happened with this franchise in 38 years and 522 games. McNair, who threw six touchdown passes in his first nine games, has thrown six in his past five-plus quarters.

That should quiet the critics. At least until the second quarter.

Tennessee's defense will take aim on Johnson. The Titans' pass rush netted 22 sacks the first eight games of the season, 33 the past eight.

If the Titans can get past their tough opening-round game against the Bills, they could be matched up for a third time this season with the Jaguars, whom they've already dispatched twice.

The Colts (13-3) get their first home playoff game Jan. 16 since moving to Indianapolis. They feature the NFL rushing champ (Edgerrin James), the league's second-leading receiver (Marvin Harrison) and the fourth-rated quarterback (Manning).

But their defense is tiring, and this is a team that may have peaked. In the past three weeks, the Colts surrendered 151, 141 and 132 rushing yards. Last week, they lost their inspirational leader on defense when a knee injury knocked out linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Even though they did not finish well, their offense has to be reckoned with.

They've got a shot if : Jacksonville has the best record (14-2) in the league and home-field advantage, but the Jaguars have serious issues to resolve before a Jan. 15 playoff date. They've got a lot of key people hurting, not the least of whom is Brunell, who sprained his left knee in Week 16. Jay Fiedler is the man if Brunell can't play.

The Jaguars' offense limped to the finish line. They lost left tackle Tony Boselli to a torn knee ligament last week, and right tackle Leon Searcy to a high-ankle sprain. Boselli won't return; the Jaguars are hopeful Searcy can.

Then there's running back Fred Taylor, who has nursed a hamstring injury most of the season. If he's healthy, he takes a lot of pressure off Brunell.

Buffalo (11-5) is a dangerous team that relies on its running game and No. 1-ranked defense. The Bills have won three in a row and four of their past five. Still, it was a shocking move to replace their starting quarterback on the eve of the playoffs. Johnson will give the Bills a better chance of hitting the deep pass than Flutie, but he's made only eight NFL starts, none in the postseason.

His promotion could be a stroke of genius or a mental meltdown.

Fat chance: Both Miami and Seattle lost five of their past six games and backed into the playoffs. Miami (9-7) has not won a road playoff game in 28 years. Seattle (9-7) has not won a playoff game anywhere in 15 years. Would you like to play the winner of this game? Of course.

There are a lot of similarities between the two teams. Both self-destructed down the stretch. The Dolphins committed 19 turnovers in their past six games. The Seahawks committed 16 in their past six. Marino and Kitna were the cause of that turnover problem.

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