From Big Shots To Long Shots

Raiders, Eagles start playoffs at top of heap, but teams on roll could knock them off pedestal

Pro Football

January 03, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Oakland Raiders will battle history and hot teams as the AFC's first seed in this season's Super Bowl tournament.

History because seven of the AFC's past eight No. 1 seeds failed to capitalize on home-field advantage and reach the Super Bowl. Only the Denver Broncos dodged that wicked trend in 1998.

Hot teams because the AFC's playoff field is filled with them. The Tennessee Titans won 10 of their last 11 games. The Pittsburgh Steelers won five of their last six.

But could there be a hotter - or more dangerous - team than the New York Jets? They overcame a 2-5 start by winning seven of their last nine, and had to beat the defending champion New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers in the final two weeks to capture the AFC East title.

If momentum plays a big role in the postseason, the AFC definitely wields the most clout. Each of the AFC's six teams won in Week 17; only two of the NFC's playoff teams won their final regular-season game.

Rating the NFL's remaining dirty dozen, this is how the second season might shake down.

Top dogs

The Philadelphia Eagles appear to be the best team in the NFC after the Packers were thrashed by the Jets a week ago with home-field advantage on the line. The Eagles get a healed Donovan McNabb back at quarterback, they get a first-round bye and they have home-field advantage.

What's to stop them? Perhaps only McNabb. The Eagles went 5-1 without him, winning primarily with rugged defense, a running game and good special teams.

They became a better team without McNabb. If he regains his early-season form, McNabb pushes them over the top. If not, they may stumble into the precipice. But the NFC's top seed almost always makes it to the Super Bowl.

After winning three consecutive division titles - and blowing home-field advantage once - the Raiders are making a last stand of sorts. The salary cap is calling and next year may not be pretty in Oakland.

But this year looks exceptional. MVP quarterback Rich Gannon chased Dan Marino's passing-yardage record into December before coming up short. Whether the Raiders have a strong enough running game if six-defensive-back packages become popular in the postseason is a question to debate.

The Raiders' answer has been to keep throwing, but they lost to St. Louis and Miami when they couldn't beat the defensive "dime."

The second-seeded Titans belong in this category because they went 5-2 against playoff teams this season - best of any of the 12 postseason teams.

Aching quarterback Steve McNair has been miraculous playing without practice because of injuries, but his productivity has gone way down as a result. He needs the bye more than anyone. If he comes back rejuvenated, the Titans have a chance. If not, they're an early out.

Dangerous teams

The Jets showed how dangerous they can be when they whipped the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., and carved up the Packers to steal a division title that looked out of reach in October.

The Jets have terrific speed and game-breakers in Laveranues Coles and Santana Moss. The injury-depleted Packers couldn't stay with either player. But the Jets also have an aura right now, and it centers on quarterback Chad Pennington. He led the league in passing efficiency and went 8-4 after taking over for Vinny Testaverde in Week 5.

If that strikes a familiar chord, it should. A year ago, Tom Brady came out of nowhere to lead the Patriots to a world championship.

The Steelers changed quarterbacks and offensive philosophies this year, endorsing the Tommy Maddox passing game. They ironed out some defensive deficiencies and finished first against the run, a staple of almost every Super Bowl team. They went into the season as the AFC's best team and might end it that way.

There are three teams that tantalize in the NFC - the Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants. The Packers weathered a ton of injuries this season - 14 starters missed 63 individual games - but played brutally with a chance to bring the playoffs through Lambeau Field. Obviously, they're not the same on the road, and now they'll have to win in Philadelphia.

The No. 2 seeded Bucs don't appear to be much different under coach Jon Gruden than they were under Tony Dungy: great defense, lousy offense. As brilliant as the defense has been, the offense was only 24th in total yards and 27th in rushing yards. Plus, quarterback Brad Johnson had to miss the last two games with a back injury. That's trouble, and the Bucs have already lost once in Philadelphia this year.

The Giants, on the other hand, took an emotional victory from Philadelphia last week and have won four in a row, the best finishing streak in the NFC. In New York, there are a lot of comparisons to the 2000 season, when the Giants made a late run to reach the Super Bowl against the Ravens.

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