Evading the clutches of the parity gods, 11 of the 12 best football clubs in America reached the NFL playoffs this year — all but super-erratic New Orleans, a winner over Dallas last week in one of the five major upsets that brought the league's any-team-can-beat-any-other-team parity phase down to the last hours of the regular season.
Of the eight divisional champions and four wild-card teams that survived, none stands out today as a likely Super Bowl champion. The top two, Denver and New England, are like the others: excellent football machines with some problems.
Denver's problem is that as a wild card, it can play no more at home this season.
New England, built to play tough in New England, could have trouble on the Super Bowl's domed field.
Kansas City, one of the three best, could have a lot of pre-Super Bowl trouble in New England's winter wonderland. Indianapolis doesn't get the results it should have with the talent it has. Philadelphia doesn't get the playoff results it hopes for. The Rams may not recover from last week's upset. Can either Green Bay or Seattle go 4-0 in its next four? Can anybody here win?
Next: Passer McNair vs. Runner Lewis
THE TENNESSEE TITANS will open the tournament in the day game Saturday at Baltimore with the NFL's best all-around but most severely injured quarterback, Steve McNair. This game is McNair vs. Jamal Lewis, the NFL's only 2,000-yard runner. And in such a game you always take the passer, particularly if he can run a bit himself, as McNair can.
This is the era of the pass. And in such an era, no football team trying to win with a running back, any running back, can run its way to the Super Bowl. The Ravens don't have enough passer to even win at home in regulation time from 6-10 Pittsburgh.
Their passer, Anthony Wright, a rarely-seen five-year veteran, was pressed into service during the season after an injury brought down their rookie starter, Kyle Boller, who at times played acceptably.
Baltimore's league-best defense will test McNair but it doesn't seem likely that the Ravens can shut him down even though he hasn't really practiced for a month. He has a strained right calf as well as a sprained left ankle in which there is a cracked bone spur.
If McNair can play, his injuries and lack of practice time won't bother him much because he isn't a precision passer. He doesn't depend on closely-timed plays. He has good receivers, and, if he can stand up, he'll get the ball to them. In fact, the AFC's two traveling teams, Tennessee and Denver, both have a great chance to win this week as wild cards.
Carolina in the Super Bowl? Not possible
THE DALLAS COWBOYS, always an American favorite if no longer America's team, can win the Saturday night game at Charlotte, N.C., over a three-point favorite, a Carolina bunch they handled in Texas seven weeks ago, 24-20, prompting Dallas Coach Bill Parcells to finally say: "I have a good team here."
When the Cowboys immediately lost their next two, Parcells was less certain of that as well as less certain of speaking out next time. And this week, taking a shaky run-defense team into the lair of a good running team, he is doubtless concerned even if the Cowboys did win the last one.
With Stephen Davis carrying the ball, Carolina is in fact a typical, classical, old-time run-and-play-defense team of the kind that can still win regular-season games. But not playoff games. The Panthers aren't going anyplace this winter.
Whether Dallas is the team that will set them down depends on Parcells' game plan. Parcells is bolder than Carolina Coach John Fox. He has always played more boldly in the playoffs than any opponent. And he has the personnel to play three-wide-receiver football in a more wide-open offense than Fox will ever love as long as he has Davis, though Davis has disappointed him.
Finally, Dallas' Quincy Carter is a better quarterback than Carolina's Jake Delhomme. The Panthers, though, have the home-field, home-crowd edge, a huge advantage that will make it close.
Is Seattle Good Enough to Beat Packers?
IN THE DAY GAME Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks will be back in Green Bay, where they lost three months ago, 35-13. What they accomplish this time will depend in part on what they learned last time playing before the violently partisan Packer crowd on a nice fall afternoon.
It won't be autumn in Green Bay Sunday, but the Seahawks already know that. Their coaches also know Green Bay. The Seahawk leader, Mike Holmgren, during his seven-year tour as head coach of the Packers, took their 1996 team to the championship in Super Bowl XXXI. (They haven't won since.)
So it won't be the intangibles that trouble the Seahawks in this game. The question is simply whether they're good enough.
You can be sure of several aspects of Seattle football: This is, first of all, a solid football team. It's no fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants outfit that lucked into the playoffs. Reasonably well off in all departments, Seattle has more than held its own with the good teams on its schedule. It was the Seahawks who knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs, remember, beating them twice.
Second, the Seattle quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, a fifth-year pro who began life as a good Packer backup, throws a good pass. Though not widely known, he is an NFL passer. Moreover, of the many pros now playing the West Coast Offense, Holmgren and Hasselbeck play it best.
The more experienced Packers are, of course, the weekend's heaviest favorite. For the ultimate questions answer themselves: Whom would you rather have at quarterback, Hasselbeck or Greeen Bay's Brett Favre? Whom would you rather have at running back, Shaun Alexander of Seattle or Green Bay's awesome Ahman Green? Even so, this is a game that figures to be tighter than advertised.
Colt-Bronco Rematch Game of Week
IN SUNDAY'S NIGHT GAME, which might be the Game of the Week, the Indianapolis Colts will be home to a Denver team that smashed them there two weeks ago, 31-17. The truth about the Colts is that they have the offensive players who could have made that game a shootout if they knew how to use them.
And it's not too late. The Colts can make this week's game a shootout if they somehow hear how a modern offensive team attacks defenses.
Every Indianapolis game against good pro clubs should be high-scoring because of the kind of players on its roster. Although the Indianapolis defensive scheme under Coach Tony Dungy is first-rate, his front office hasn't found him the talent to play it. Conversely, the Colts' offensive scheme is third-rate whereas their players are among the NFL's finest. For Dungy, it's all terribly ironic.
With quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James, wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley and kicker Mike Vanderjagt, the Colts should be scoring 35 or 40 points every week.
Instead, they needed some luck last week just to pull out a 20-17 win over the NFL's young expansion team, the 5-11 Houston Texans.
It was that close because the Colts played their usual game in the first three quarters when, disgracing themselves, they fell behind, 17-3. Their usual game meant pounding the eight-man Houston line with James instead of bypassing Houston's aggressive defensive players with Manning's passes.
The reason Vanderjagt gets so many field-goal chances is that whenever the Colts find themselves in scoring position, they run James on first down, picking up one or two yards. Then (against coaches who on second and long typically change from run defenses to nickel or dime pass defenses) they ask Manning to throw what are often desperation passes because he doesn't want to lose field-goal position. Then they bring in their kicker. That's the way most teams did it 40 years ago. But this is another century.
Patriot Passing Team Shows How
THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, clear favorites now to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, showed the football world how the 21st-century game should be played when, en route to a 31-0 triumph over Buffalo on the final weekend of the regular season, they rolled in 28 first-half points.
The Patriots did this with forward passes. It wasn't so much that quarterback Tom Brady, possibly the best in the NFL, threw four touchdown passes to stake out a 28-0 lead in the first 28 minutes. Rather it was the way Coach Bill Belichick sent him out throwing the ball on nearly every play in the first 21 minutes to open an invincible 21-0 lead.
Belichick, formerly among the most conservative of NFL coaches, learned the 21st-century offensive way playing the Rams in the years when they were a passing team. And as a consequence, the Patriots have become as much fun to watch as they are hard to beat.
It isn't easy to catch up with a pro club that comes off the bus firing strikes until it's nicely ahead, whereupon Belichick's defensive skills keep things that way. The Buffalo coach, Gregg Williams, explaining what happened to the Bills, said: "They spread us out."
In this game, the Patriots did it with a no-huddle, no-running-back, no running, no-stopping-a-good-passing-team attack. For example, on one play when it was first and goal for the Patriots at the Buffalo seven-yard line — where most coaches like to try a running play — Belichick spread the Bills and Brady fired away. On first and goal at the one-yard line, where, with few if any exceptions, other teams run at least once, Brady fired again and got a quick touchdown.
The CBS announcers didn't seem to know what was going on. Like all TV announcers, they've often said: "You have to run to set up passes." When Belichick and Brady passed to set up passes, the commentators made no comment on the game's decisive development, namely, that it was continuous Patriot passing that routed Buffalo. The announcers held back, it may be, because the Patriots did run a few times. At a moment when the score was 14-0, Antowain Smith, their featured running back, had carried the ball once. And Brady had scrambled occasionally. It was a textbook lesson in how to win, 2003-04 style, and you didn't have to watch too closely to get it.
Pros and Cons of Resting the Broncos
THE DENVER COACHES, thinking about the Colts this week instead of the Packers last week, rested quarterback Jake Plummer, running back Clinton Portis and four other offensive starters for the duration of the Green Bay game, meaning they threw the game away, 31-3. There are pros and cons to such strategy.
The pro side is that it helps balance the books with the best of the division winners, those who can rest their key people this week because the NFL playoff system has given them wild-card-week byes. As a further Bronco benefit, players who don't play can't get hurt. All this is logical thinking for a wild-card coach, and Denver's Mike Shanahan, who has been there before, and who has won the Super Bowl as a wild-card contender, is a logical coach.
The minus side of a game-long rest period, which is frowned upon in such circumstances by the more emotionally demanding coaches, is that good players can get into bad habits playing next to nonstarters. Failing all day leads to frustrations that are emotionally hard on veterans who aren't used to failing. Or as the late George Allen used to say: "Losing just gets you used to losing."
What's more, Shanahan, as a player in the entertainment business, didn't do much that day to entertain the thousands who, patiently listening to the long, long commercials, tuned in for what was widely billed as the Game of the Week. Neither the NFL's leaders nor TV's will thank him for that.
In this instance, however, Shanahan was probably right. He has two injured aces who will be needed as entertainers as long as they and the Broncos last in what for all of them is now a tough four-game season. Both Plummer and Portis plainly needed some injury time off. Shanahan wasn't just resting tired players.
And even though the Broncos tore up the Colts last time with their 5-foot-7 rookie halfback, Quentin Griffin, among other reserves, they'll probably need Portis too to win this time and to keep winning, if it comes to that. And though some of Shanahan's veterans did miss a game, they have practiced every day alongside the other veterans.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times