Don't expect many surprises in the playoffs
January 03, 2003
By MATT MAIOCCO
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If everything holds to form, nothing will hold to form.
That's what kind of season it has been in the NFL, a topsy-turvy league in which you see something new and unexpected every week.
This is where all that ends. Don't expect a whole lot of surprises in the playoffs. The Raiders and Tennessee Titans will meet in the AFC Championship game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will get another shot at the Philadelphia Eagles for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Those are the best four teams. All the others are a couple of notches below. Heck, some of the league's better teams did not even make the playoffs this season.
Realignment created an interesting AFC playoff picture, but it also created some inequities.
The AFC East was the strongest division in football, but because the teams beat up on each other, the New York Jets were the only team to advance to the playoffs. The AFC West was the second-toughest division, and only the Raiders made it to the playoffs for the same reasons.
Two legitimate postseason threats -- the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins -- were left at home. Indianapolis and Cleveland both capitalized on weak lower halves of their divisions to be rewarded playoff spots.
Every team that has made it this far has issues that must be overcome to end up playing in Super Bowl XXXVII on Jan.26 in San Diego.
Here's how one man views the playoff teams in order of intrigue:
OAKLAND: The Raiders finished strong. This is a veteran team that will probably not return intact next season. Management is getting close to the point where it's going to have to dismantle the roster and start a youth movement because of salary-cap concerns. This is certainly the last and best chance for guys like Rich Gannon, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson -- should I go on?
PHILADELPHIA: What is Andy Reid to do? He has one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but it was his third-stringer who led this team to the playoffs. Obviously, it would be asking way too much of A.J. Feeley to continue as the starter if Donovan McNabb is healthy.
Yet who really knows what McNabb's return to the playing field is going to do to a team that earned home-field advantage in the NFC without him?
TAMPA BAY: In his first year with the Bucs, coach Jon Gruden has achieved the franchise's best regular season. The defense is outstanding, but the postseason hinges on a healthy Brad Johnson continuing to play at a high level. If the Bucs have to rely on backup Rob Johnson, they're toast.
SAN FRANCISCO: The offense has been an enigma this season.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia and the offensive play-calling are going to have to be more aggressive in the playoffs. Also, they're going to have to be creative in finding ways to get the ball in the hands of Terrell Owens. Defenses know that if they contain Owens, they'll hold the 49ers to about 17 points. What transpires with coach Steve Mariucci and his staff after the season should be fascinating.
PITTSBURGH: The Steelers already have beaten the Cleveland Browns twice this season, and now they have to play host to them again in the first round of the playoffs. The last time quarterback Tommy Maddox played in a postseason, he was leading the Los Angeles Xtreme to the XFL championship.
GREEN BAY: When the New York Jets blew out the Packers in the final game of the regular season, ending any hopes of Green Bay earning home-field advantage, it was a death blow. The Packers are not a great road team, but they would likely have to win two games away from Lambeau Field to make it to the Super Bowl.
N.Y. JETS: Quarterback Chad Pennington didn't seem fazed by anything he encountered in the regular season once he took over for Vinny Testaverde, so there's no reason to assume that he will not handle this assignment with aplomb.
N.Y. GIANTS: They are very much like their roommates at the Meadowlands. The Giants are the hottest team in the NFC and certainly will not be overmatched in their playoff opener against the 49ers.
Depending on which Kerry Collins shows up, the Giants could do some damage.
ATLANTA: There are few answers to Michael Vick in the NFL. His presence alone makes them a threat to end the Packers' unbeaten playoff streak at Lambeau Field.
CLEVELAND: The return of the Browns' franchise began four seasons ago with the drafting of quarterback Tim Couch with their first pick.
The Browns have made it to the playoffs, but Couch won't be around to contribute after sustaining a broken right leg in the season finale.
Kelly Holcomb vs. Maddox is a quarterback duel for the ages.
INDIANAPOLIS: The Colts were one of the league's worst defenses before the arrival of Tony Dungy as coach. Now, Indy's strength might very well be its defense. They still have Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, and a history of early playoff exits. Don't expect a long run from the Colts this January, either.
TENNESSEE: They didn't even have one player selected to the Pro Bowl. Go ahead, call this team boring. At the end of January, they'll be called Super Bowl champs.
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