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.
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.