Routine weekend: Favorites move on

NFL's final four is set, as only officiating proves to be out of the ordinary

Nfl Playoffs

January 13, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL avoided another unsightly officiating blunder yesterday - two blowouts earned the reprieve - and signed in its final dance partners for next week's conference championship round.

The surprising thing is there were no surprises in the conference semifinals. All four home teams, and favorites, won over the weekend, three handily.

For the first time since 1998, the top two seeds in each conference will square off for the right to advance to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.

The No. 2-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game by routing the San Francisco 49ers, 31-6, yesterday.

In the AFC, the No. 1-seeded Oakland Raiders pummeled the New York Jets, 30-10, and will rendezvous with the No. 2- seeded Tennessee Titans next week.

That sets up a pair of rematches and grudge games. The Bucs, who have been eliminated from the playoffs the past two years in Philadelphia, go back to attempt a measure of revenge under new coach Jon Gruden.

The Titans, meanwhile, rolled up 430 yards in Week 4 at Oakland, but they dropped a ghastly 52-25 verdict when quarterback Steve McNair threw four interceptions and Tennessee's secondary surrendered four touchdown passes.

Things could get even more interesting than that. If Gruden is able to slip the Bucs through the Eagles defense in Sunday's 3 p.m. game, he could face a reunion with his old team, the Raiders, in San Diego.

That would be a pretty good first-year return for the Bucs, who gave Oakland four high draft picks and $8 million to get Gruden, the youngest head coach in the league at 39, last February.

For the second straight weekend, though, the NFL was forced to wade through an officiating quagmire. A disputed running-into-the-kicker penalty had the Pittsburgh Steelers crying foul Saturday after it led to a 34-31 overtime loss in Tennessee.

Titans kicker Joe Nedney missed a chip-shot 31-yard field-goal try, but Pittsburgh's Dwayne Washington slid into his foot. Given a second chance, Nedney then hit a 26-yard game-winner.

What made it worse was Nedney confirmed he had taken a fall when Washington bumped him. Nothing like rubbing it in.

A week ago, the league ordered an officials' huddle on questionable plays after the New York Giants were incorrectly deprived of a second-chance field-goal try in a loss to the 49ers. There was also a controversy over a muffed punt return, botched by officials, in Green Bay's wild-card loss to Atlanta.

Next week will be more about paybacks, apparently.

The Eagles have won their past four games against the Bucs, including two in the postseason. In a stretch that dates to the 2000 season, the Eagles have allowed Tampa Bay one offensive touchdown in those four games, and it came in a meaningless 2001 regular-season finale.

It will be the Eagles' final game at Veterans Stadium; they move into new Lincoln Financial Field next year. Gruden, who was offensive coordinator with the Eagles from 1995 to 1997, knows his way around the Vet, even if the Bucs don't have any luck there.

It's not just cold weather that beats Tampa Bay. The Bucs dropped a 20-10 decision in Week 7 in 59 degrees, when the Eagles rushed for 159 yards and knocked Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson out of the game.

Johnson missed the Bucs' last two regular-season games with a back injury and returned yesterday with a workmanlike performance, completing 15 of 31 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

The Eagles' Donovan McNabb returned Saturday night from an eight-week absence (broken ankle) and passed for 247 yards and one touchdown.

Sunday's meeting should be decided by defense, though. The Bucs rank No. 1 in the league and the Eagles No. 4.

Sunday's second game in Oakland matches two of the league's hottest teams. The Raiders have won eight of their past nine games and the Titans 11 of 12.

The Titans are returning to the championship game for the second time in four years and the Raiders for the second time in three years.

The quarterbacking matchup pits league Most Valuable Player Rich Gannon of Oakland, seeking his first Super Bowl appearance, against Tennessee's Steve McNair, seeking his second.

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