A weekend of extremes is a scoring bonanza

Dramatic rallies, points highlight 1st playoff games

Pro Football

January 06, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Touchdowns galore, comebacks aplenty, delirium achieved.

The NFL's wild-card weekend lived up to its name in a two-day feast of offense when it produced three stunning games and one outright thrashing.

Defense will sign in for next week's divisional round, when the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans all enter the fray.

Until then, savor the raucous mix of blowouts-turned-nail-biters and the most shocking upset of the first round.

Who could have imagined that the Pittsburgh Steelers would come back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns? Or that the San Francisco 49ers would wipe out a 24-point deficit against the hot New York Giants to record the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history?

And how many of you picked the struggling Atlanta Falcons to beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field? Lost in all the clamor was the New York Jets' utter destruction of the Indianapolis Colts, 41-0, to wear the early label of destiny's darlings.

Second-round intrigue includes two rematches in the AFC and two classic matchups in the NFC.

The Steelers and Titans will renew hostilities Saturday in Nashville after a 31-23 Tennessee win in Week 11. That was the game in which Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox' career nearly was ended with an innocent hit by the Titans' Keith Bulluck that left him without feeling in his limbs for 45 minutes.

In the second AFC semifinal, the torrid Jets go to Oakland on Sunday to replay the Raiders' 26-20 win in Week 13 when Rich Gannon completed 31 passes for 342 yards.

In the NFC, the Eagles' tenacious defense will confront Atlanta's elusive Michael Vick in another Saturday night special. It's a first seed against a sixth seed, but with Vick at quarterback, anything is possible, as we saw in Green Bay. Vick had 181 total yards against the Packers.

Finally, the resilient 49ers will test Tampa Bay's No. 1 defense on Sunday. Quarterback Jeff Garcia came of age yesterday in leading the San Francisco rally and could prove a challenge to the rested Bucs.

Several themes emerged over the weekend. Here's a look back.

First-timers: Early heroes of the postseason include Vick for his daring escapes, Maddox for his cool comeback, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington for his uncanny accuracy and the Steelers' versatile Antwaan Randle El, who catches passes, throws passes and returns punts for touchdowns. And he's just a rookie.

Vick will have to be at his improvisational best to get the Falcons past the Eagles, but then he owned Lambeau by late Saturday night. Pennington led the league's passer ratings, and although he lost to Gannon on a Monday night in December, he gets another chance to beat the league's Most Valuable Player on a bigger stage.

Wide-open offense: The four wild-card games generated a grand total of 221 points, or 55.3 a game. The lowest scoring game was Atlanta's 27-7 upset of the Packers. The highest scoring game occurred after the 49ers broke the Giants' hearts with 25 unanswered points.

Mobile quarterbacks: Second-round games will likely match Vick against Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, who is coming off an eight-week rehabilitation sabbatical after breaking his ankle and may not have his usual mobility.

Garcia fueled San Francisco's comeback with his ability to run out of the pocket, and is always a threat. The Bucs have had great success with mobile quarterbacks this season, however, as Vick can attest after losing twice to Tampa Bay.

Then there's Tennessee's Steve McNair, who is back to his big-play antics that helped get the Titans to the Super Bowl in the 1999 season.

Special teams gaffes: It's not surprising the Giants lost because of a botched field-goal attempt on the final play in San Francisco. They've had trouble with snaps, holds and kicks all season. Matt Bryant was a great story, but his recent failures - including a badly missed 42-yard try with 3:01 left - have raised questions about his job security.

In the same game, San Francisco's comeback obscured a brutal play by Cedric Wilson, whose muffed punt set up a Giants' touchdown to break a 14-14 tie.

The worst special teams of the weekend belonged to the Packers, though, who had a punt blocked for a touchdown, missed two field-goal attempts and had a turnover when Tyrone Williams was knocked back into returner Eric Metcalf trying to make a fair catch.

Value of momentum: In the AFC, the Titans have won five in a row, the Steelers four in a row and the Jets three in a row. And, oh, yes, the Raiders have won seven of eight.

In the NFC, Philadelphia has won six of seven and Tampa Bay three of four as the top two seeds.

Down, not out

Yesterday's rallies by the Steelers and 49ers were two of the biggest comebacks to win a playoff game in NFL history: 32:Buffalo 41, Houston 38 in OT on 1-3-93 (deficit: 35-3)

24:San Francisco 39, N.Y. Giants 38 on 1-5-03 (deficit: 38-14)

20:Detroit 31, San Francisco 27 on 12-22-57 (deficit: 27-7)

18:Dallas 30, San Francisco 28 on 12-23-72 (deficit: 21-3)

18:Miami 24, Cleveland 21 on 1-4-85 (deficit: 21-3)

17:Pittsburgh 36, Cleveland 33 on 1-5-03 (deficit: 24-7)

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