Most of final eight not in rush to pass

But Rams, Vikings will throw early, often

January 10, 2000|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

The NFL playoffs will come to pass in St. Louis on Sunday. At every other second-round sight, the teams most likely will come to run.

When the No. 1-seeded St. Louis Rams play host to the No. 4 Minnesota Vikings in a much-anticipated NFC showdown of the offensive elite, the passing game figures to carry the day.

But divisional games at Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Tampa could very well be decided by which team has the better running game. While there are some novice quarterbacks in this year's tournament -- three have yet to appear in a postseason game and three others debuted this weekend -- there are several outstanding running backs.

After three chalk verdicts and one upset in wild-card week, the next round of the playoffs offers the following matchups.

The Miami Dolphins, with hard-running rookie J. J. John son, visit the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fred Taylor in Saturday's early game. Johnson may have the most modest credentials of any starting running back left, but the Dolphins still favor the run.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn) will try to smother the Washington Redskins (Stephen Davis) with their ultra-conservative offense and nasty defense in Saturday's second game. Assuming Davis' sprained knee is OK, the Redskins will present a more balanced offense.

The Tennessee Titans, who seemed determined to win or lose with Eddie George and not quarterback Steve McNair against Buffalo, likely will take the same approach to Indianapolis against the Colts' vulnerable run defense in Sunday's nightcap. The Colts' offense features Peyton Manning's play-action passes, but really starts with rookie Edgerrin James, the NFL's rushing champion this season.

Finally, in the shootout between Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and the Vikings' Jeff George, running backs will not be overlooked. Marshall Faulk broke Barry Sanders' total yardage record this season and is equally dangerous in the St. Louis offense catching or running. The Vikings counter with Robert Smith, who broke his Vikings playoff record yesterday by rushing for 140 yards in a 27-10 romp over the Dallas Cowboys.

If this is January, it must be time for the running game. Here are some things to look for:

AFC divisional games

Miami (10-7) at Jacksonville (14-2): After a short week and a long flight back from Seattle, the sixth-seeded Dolphins get the rested and top-seeded Jaguars. On the surface, it appears to be a mismatch, but the Jaguars are hurting on offense. They've lost All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli (knee) for the playoffs, and right tackle Leon Searcy is gimpy with a high ankle sprain.

Add to that the fact Brunell missed the season finale with a sprained knee and you've got an offense that could struggle against the Dolphins' tenacious defense. It also makes the performance of Taylor all the more critical. Scoring points will be Miami's big problem.

Tennessee (14-3) at Indianapolis (13-3): The Colts ranked only 18th against the run during the regular season, giving up an average of 141 rushing yards in their last three games. Worse yet, they lost defensive leader Cornelius Bennett to a knee injury.

The Titans hardly noticed their wide-outs (three catches, 23 yards) in a pulsating 22-16 win over Buffalo on Saturday, opting instead for a 10-yard passing game and the persistent rushes of George, who gained 106 yards.

One thing is for certain: the Colts, weak on special teams, won't get surprised by the "home run throwback" kick return that beat the Bills.

NFC divisional games

Washington (11-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5): The Redskins ranked 27th against the rush this season and allowed four 100-yard rushers, most of any team still playing. Twice, Washington allowed more than 200 rushing yards in a game, and gave up 198 in another. Think Tampa Bay hasn't noticed?

The Bucs won't put their fate in the hands of rookie quarterback Shaun King if they can help it. Alstott and Dunn figure to get the ball for around 50 touches combined on Saturday, and that matchup will decide who advances to the championship game.

Minnesota (11-6) at St. Louis (13-3): The Rams not only have the league's best offense, but they have one of the best defenses as well. They did not surrender a 100-yard game to any running back this season after giving up five a year ago. Only four teams rushed for more than 100 yards against St. Louis. But then, that was partially because opponents played with such big deficits and had to pass.

With Jeff George throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter, the Vikings have the potential to match the Rams big play for big play. More than a few might come on the ground.

NFL playoffs

Yesterday's results

Wild-card round

Minnesota 27, Dallas 10

Miami 20, Seattle 17

Saturday's games

Divisional round

Miami (10-7) at Jacksonville (14-2), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Washington (11-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Sunday's games

Minnesota (11-6) at St. Louis (13-3), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Tennessee (14-3) at Indianapolis (13-3), 4: 05 p.m., chs. 13, 9

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