NFL playoff teams share hopes, but not realities

Pats, Eagles best eggs in the dozen that remain

January 02, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

There was not a better team in the NFL than the Kansas City Chiefs in the first half of the season. They won their first nine games and threatened to run the table before a shaky defense caught up with them.

Likewise, no team finished stronger than the New England Patriots, who won their last 12, overcoming an assortment of injuries and lineup switches that served to underscore a bottomless roster.

One team had explosive offense. The other featured dominant defense. At this point, dominant defense seems to have won out, from the AFC perspective anyway.

But there are no guarantees in the playoffs and there is no strict formula for reaching, and ultimately winning, the Super Bowl.

All 12 teams with invitations believe they've got a shot, even the sixth-seeded Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.

Let's contemplate the reality of all that wishful thinking.

AFC

1. New England (14-2)

Why the Patriots can win: They passed this way two years ago, when quarterback Tom Brady was a wide-eyed playoff novice. Now he knows the ropes and he is infinitely more capable of winning a game on his own than he was then. The defense is ever so much more sound this time around, too. And certainly, coach Bill Belichick remains at the top of his game.

Why they might not: If the Patriots have a weakness, it is the inability to control a game with the run. They are a pass-first team, and although Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk combined for 1,280 rushing yards, neither one averaged 4 yards a carry. They are not as strong on special teams, either.

2. Kansas City (13-3)

Why the Chiefs can win: Priest Holmes gives them a dangerous running game that makes Trent Green's passing game better. The Chiefs led the league in scoring and were second in passing offense. They probably will wind up in a shootout, so they'll have to score often to win.

Why they probably won't: Their defense relies too heavily on turnovers, and when they don't get them, the Chiefs are in trouble. Witness the ugly losses to Minnesota and Denver late in the year. Also, they have no run defense.

3. Indianapolis (12-4)

Why the Colts can win: Peyton Manning has more - and better - weapons than Kansas City's Green. He is a master at play-action, so he needs Edgerrin James to establish the threat of a running game. That done, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are potential game-breakers.

Why they probably won't: The Colts are almost as bad at run defense as the Chiefs. Denver controlled the ball on them for a nearly 30-minute advantage. Plus, Manning has gone 0-for-3 in the playoffs and the whispers that he can't win the big game are almost deafening.

4. Ravens (10-6)

Why they can win: They have the offensive player of the year (Jamal Lewis) and the defensive player of the year (Ray Lewis) and a sense of history repeating itself. They run the ball and they stop the run. The defense generated 41 takeaways, tied with the Patriots for most in the AFC.

Why they probably won't: The offense gave the ball away 38 times, most of any AFC playoff team. A lot of that is the quarterback. With a proven passer, the Ravens would be odds-on favorites to take it all.

5. Tennessee (12-4)

Why the Titans can win: They are very good in two critical areas - run defense and big-time quarterback. Steve McNair played at an MVP level this year. At 30, he doesn't know how many more chances he'll get like this. The Titans played the best third-down defense of any playoff team.

Why they probably won't: Eddie George had just two 100-yard rushing games this year, which means McNair pretty much has to do it through the air. The Titans' pass defense isn't very good, either. They've allowed six 100-yard receiving games this year.

6. Denver (10-6)

Why the Broncos can win: They have a very solid defense, despite some injury losses, and they've got playmaker Clinton Portis to energize the offense. Quarterback Jake Plummer is at his best when he's making plays on the run.

Why they probably won't: Turnovers have been a problem. The defense has just 20 takeaways, fewest of any playoff team. Besides that, coach Mike Shanahan hasn't won a playoff game since John Elway retired.

NFC

1. Philadelphia (12-4)

Why the Eagles can win: In a weak conference, they look like they have enough going for them to win out. Quarterback Donovan McNabb rebounded well from a horrid slump and remains their best player. Coordinator Jim Johnson has done a spectacular job on defense overcoming major injuries.

Why they might not: Run defense continues to be an issue. In the playoffs, it'll be a bigger issue against the wrong team (Green Bay?). Also, McNabb has twice closed out championship-game losses with interceptions.

2. St. Louis (12-4)

Why the Rams can win: In Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk, the Rams have three of the game's best playmakers. Their offensive system is still one of the league's most productive. And their defense led the league with 46 takeaways.

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