Wild-card teams face long road to Super Bowl

In past 13 years, 22 of 26 teams to reach title game had a first-round bye

December 30, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Wild-card weekend features three regular-season rematches, six 1,200-yard rushers and four young quarterbacks performing in the postseason for the first time.

What it probably won't feature - if history holds form, anyway - is either of this season's Super Bowl entries.

The bare facts: In the 13 years since the NFL went to its current format of 12 playoff teams, 22 of 26 Super Bowl teams drew first-round byes.

The four wild-card exceptions were, remarkably, all No. 4 seeds - the Ravens in the 2000 season, Tennessee Titans in 1999, Denver Broncos in 1997 and Buffalo Bills in 1992.

That might serve as the good news for this year's Ravens and Green Bay Packers, both fourth seeds, but it's a reality check for the rest of the wild-card field.

Home-field advantage is nice, but not as necessary as a bye through the opening round of the playoffs. The top-seeded New England Patriots and second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs have that in the AFC. The No. 1-seeded Philadelphia Eagles and No. 2 seed St. Louis Rams have it in the NFC.

The No. 1 seed has been a mixed blessing, depending on where it is. The top seed in the AFC has reached the Super Bowl only twice in the past nine years, and the road team has won four of the past six AFC championship games.

No. 1 seeds in the NFC fare significantly better, however. The top seed there has advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the past four years and seven of the past 10.

This year's playoff field is flavored with young quarterbacks and tempered coaches, big offenses and elite running backs. Eight of the 12 postseason teams weren't here a year ago, continuing the league trend of feast to famine, and famine to feast.

Here are some compelling factors to consider in the course of the next month.

Grizzled coaches

Six of the 12 coaches have won a Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan and Dallas Cowboys' Bill Parcells have won two each. Only one coach - the Carolina Panthers' John Fox - is a rookie head coach in the postseason.

Parcells has the most postseason wins (11) of any playoff coach, but the Ravens' Brian Billick has the best winning percentage (.833) with five wins in six games.

On the flip side, Tony Dungy (2-5) of the Indianapolis Colts and Mike Sherman (1-2) of the Packers are the only coaches with losing postseason records.

Green quarterbacks

Nine of the 12 playoff quarterbacks are under 30, and only six have played in the postseason. The graybeards are Green Bay's Brett Favre (34), Kansas City's Trent Green (33) and Tennessee's Steve McNair (30).

This season's quarterback crop includes as many sixth-round draft picks (three) as first-rounders. The sixths include previous Super Bowl winner Tom Brady of New England, and first-timers Marc Bulger of St. Louis and Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle.

If the Eagles win their second-round game, they'll play in their third straight NFC championship game. An edge in experience? Maybe. But Donovan McNabb ended the Eagles' chances in each of the previous title games by throwing a critical interception.

Rowdy running backs

Roll call here includes a total of seven 1,200-yard runners, led by the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, who topped the 2,000-yard mark on Sunday night against Pittsburgh. Green Bay's Ahman Green gouged out 1,883 yards and would be a major threat to the Eagles' haggard run defense in the second week if the Packers beat Seattle on Sunday.

Denver's Clinton Portis (1,591), Seattle's Shaun Alexander (1,435), Carolina's Stephen Davis (1,444) and Kansas City's Priest Holmes (1,420) all have the capability to take over a game. It could be a running postseason.

Reruns

Of the three wild-card games that are rematches from the regular season, only one - Dallas at Carolina on Saturday - was close in the first meeting. The Cowboys beat the Panthers, 24-20, in Week 12 in Dallas, when Quincy Carter (254 yards, two touchdowns) out-passed Carolina's Jake Delhomme (9-for-24, 175 yards).

The Packers roughed up the Seahawks and their former coach, Mike Holmgren, in a Week 5 encounter in Green Bay, 35-13. Favre threw for 185 yards and Green ran for 118.

The third rematch comes just three weeks after the original. In Week 16, Denver, minus Portis, ran roughshod over the Colts, 31-17, in Indianapolis. Scatback Quentin Griffin gained 136 of Denver's 227 ground yards.

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