Divisional playoffs promise to echo same theme: big `D'

Rams-Packers aside, next round features defense-oriented teams

Nfl Playoffs Extra

Ravens Extra

January 14, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Survivors of wild-card weekend will brace for some serious traps in the NFL's divisional playoff round.

Do the Oakland Raiders really want to play in the frigid climate of New England against the Patriots on Saturday night?

Can Green Bay relish playing indoors on the St. Louis Rams' fast track when the Packers are just 3-8 in domes the past five years?

And wouldn't the Ravens rather face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Baltimore, where their odds are considerably better, than at Heinz Field, despite their regular-season win there?

The answers: no, not exactly, and you bet. But such is the life of wild-card clubs.

Home teams won three of four wild-card games over the weekend - the Ravens, naturally, were the only road warriors. But there was another, more telling, theme. Defense dominated the first round.

The Philadelphia Eagles turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a 31-9 shipwreck on Saturday. Yesterday, Green Bay tightened up its run defense to stuff San Francisco, 25-15, and the Ravens stoned Miami, 20-3.

The only exception to the defense rule was the Raiders, who outscored the New York Jets, 38-24, Saturday with a big game by wide receiver Jerry Rice.

There figures to be one more glaring exception next weekend, but defense could well dominate the conference semifinals as well.

The Packers-Rams game titillates with an NFC showdown between quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, who have played in three of the past five Super Bowls.

Everywhere else, defense should dictate. Here is a look at next weekend's games:

Philadelphia at Chicago, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

The second-seeded Bears allowed a league-low 203 points this season, just five fewer than the third-seeded Eagles. In three playoff games over two seasons, the Eagles' defense has not allowed a touchdown. And Philadelphia leads the NFL in red-zone defense.

Saturday, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz package was ineffective until the second half, when harried Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson tossed four interceptions.

Said Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent of Johnson's scheme: "He brought the full artillery." Bears quarterback Jim Miller should be advised.

Oakland (11-6) at New England (11-5), Saturday, 8 p.m.

The No. 2-seeded Patriots are more than rested, having played once in the past three weeks. They are better than their league rankings show, particularly on defense (24th in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed).

"All the stats you can look at - sacks and yards and percentage of this and percentage of that - they're great," said coach Bill Belichick. "But in the end, it comes down to what you do with that field position and what you do with your opportunities in terms of scoring points."

New England is first in the AFC in red-zone defense. No. 3 seed Oakland has the AFC's top red-zone offense.

Ravens (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3), Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

The fifth-seeded Ravens are the lowest seed to win in the first round, and their reward is another trip to Pittsburgh. The No. 1-seeded Steelers rolled up a staggering 824 yards of offense in two games vs. the Ravens this year - compared to Baltimore's 390 - and still managed only a split.

Critical factors for the Steelers are quarterback Kordell Stewart's late-season slump (six interceptions in the past two games), kicker Kris Brown's spotty success (he missed 14 field goals this year) and coach Bill Cowher's reputation for tightening up in big games (he's lost two of three AFC championship games at home).

Green Bay at St. Louis, Sunday, 4 p.m.

Warner threw for 36 touchdowns this season and Favre 32, but the Rams' MVP threw seven more interceptions than his counterpart. Therein lies the Packers' real hope. The top-seeded Rams coughed up a league-high 44 turnovers this season; the No. 4-seeded Packers had 39 takeaways.

If the Packers can thwart the Rams' prolific offense with more of the same, Favre could do the rest with his howitzer of an arm. A turning point in Green Bay's win yesterday came when cornerback Mike McKenzie tipped a Jeff Garcia pass into teammate Tyrone Williams' arms for an interception.

Barring turnovers, though, the Rams appear unstoppable. And the bigger the game, the better Warner plays, says coach Mike Martz.

"In pressure situations, that's when he's [Warner] absolutely at his best," Martz said recently. "And you can start with the Super Bowl and work from there. When it's all on the line, that's the guy you want."

NFL playoffs

Wild-card round

Saturday's results Philadelphia 31, Tampa Bay 9 Oakland 38, N.Y. Jets 24

Yesterday's results Ravens 20, Miami 3 Green Bay 25, San Francisco 15

Divisional round

Saturday's games (Records in parentheses) Time TV

Phila. (12-5) at Chicago (13-3) 4:30 p.m. 45, 5

Line: Chicago by 2 1/2

Oakland (11-6) at N. England (11-5) 8 p.m. 13, 9

Line: New England by 3

Sunday's games

Ravens (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3) 12:30 p.m. 13, 9

Line: Pittsburgh by 6

Green Bay (13-4) at St. Louis (14-2) 4 p.m. 45, 5

Line: St. Louis by 10

Conference championships

Jan. 27 NFC: 12:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5 AFC: 12:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Super Bowl

Feb. 3 At New Orleans, 6:18 p.m., chs. 45, 5

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