By Dave Goldberg
After a season of contradictions, wild-card weekend was no different.
Although three of the home teams were underdogs, all won, and so did favored Baltimore at home.
If the home teams continue to win, it will be Tennessee against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. For what its worth, the Titans beat the Giants, 28-14, in Nashville in the regular season.
And, as usual in the playoffs, the victories went to defense over offense: Miami over Indianapolis, New Orleans over St. Louis, Baltimore over Denver and Philadelphia over Tampa Bay in a battle of big defenses.
The second-round matchups:
Miami (12-5) at Oakland (12-4) (Saturday, 11 a.m.)
Baltimore (13-4) at Tennessee (13-3) (Sunday, 7:30 a.m.)
Both the Dolphins and Ravens, the lower-seeded teams, have positive histories against their opponents.
Miami has won in Oakland the last three seasons, with Dan Marino on the roster but without Lamar Smith and Jay Fiedler. Baltimore gave Tennessee its only loss at Adelphia Coliseum, 24-23, on Nov. 12, when Al Del Greco missed an extra point, then a 43-yard field-goal attempt that could have won the game.
Overall, the edge among these four probably goes to Tennessee.
Even though they dont win pretty and they dont win big, the Titans are the only one of the six preseason favorites still alive. (Washington, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Indianapolis were the others.)
Nobody runs on the Ravens. But the Titans beat them 14-6 in Baltimore in a game in which Eddie George carried once, hurt his knee, and missed the rest of the game.
Word around Nashville was that Baltimore was the one team the Titans didnt want to see.
"It didnt come from us," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Why would we not want to play a team that were familiar with? We have respect for everybody. When you get a chance to play a team where theres familiarity, it makes the preparation week a little easier."
Early line: Titans by 5 1/2.
The one team the Raiders didnt want to see was Denver, which beat them twice in the regular season and has won 11 of their last 12 meetings.
The key is the health of Oakland running backs Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley. Healthy, they give the Raiders the kind of balanced attack thats hard to stop.
Rich Gannon and Fiedler are similar quarterbacks, resilient and tough, although Gannon has far more experience. Fiedler showed a lot by coming back from three first-half interceptions against the Colts to lead the game-tying and game-winning drives.
Early line: Raiders by 9.
New Orleans (11-6) at Minnesota (11-5) (Saturday, 7:30 a.m.)
Philadelphia (12-5) at New York Giants (12-4) (Sunday, 11:15 a.m.)
How quickly things can change in the salary cap era. These four teams were a combined 25-39 in the 1999 regular season and the only one with a winning record, the Vikings, was picked for fourth or fifth in the NFC Central.
The Saints showed their playoff inexperience by tightening up in the last 12 minutes and almost blowing a 31-7 lead to the Rams. This week, they get the next closest thing to St. Louis in Minnesota on the road.
How much longer can New Orleans keep losing players and plugging in spare parts? Journeyman wide receiver Willie Jackson for Joe Horn was the latest.
Did the Vikings get their bearings back during their bye week?
They seemed a lock to get home-field advantage, then lost their last three games and would have ended up a road wild card if Martin Gramatica hadnt missed a field goal in Green Bay that could have given Tampa Bay the Central title, a week off and a home game.
Still, its all relative.
"If you were to tell me before the season that we would be division champs with a first-round bye, everyone would be jumping up and down," free safety Orlando Thomas said.
Early line: Vikings by 8.
In only three games this season did the Giants look like a top seed. Two of them were 33-18 and 24-7 wins over the Eagles. In only two games this season were the Eagles not in the lead or within range in the final minutes in the losses to the Giants, who now have beaten them eight straight times.
New Yorks edge has been its ability to run against Philadelphia. The Giants rushed for 167 yards in the first game (Tiki Barber 96, Ron Dayne 50) and 152 in the second (Dayne 92, Barber 52.) They have also used Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead to spy on Donovan McNabb and keep him in the pocket.
But Barber will play this week with a broken left arm and Dayne finished poorly, perhaps a rookie hitting the wall in a 16-game season.
Early line: New York by 5 1/2.
[back to top]