Playoff Days

When you think back over the NFL's just-over regular season, one thing to keep in mind, if you're a California sports fan, is that Cade McNown put the Rams in the playoffs.

Though neither adored nor even appreciated by most Midwest sports fans or media, McNown, the onetime UCLA quarterback, has always had a flair for the spectacular.

And in the biggest game of 2000 for both the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, it was Chicago quarterback McNown whose passes, on the night before Christmas, advanced the Rams to the NFL playoffs by ending Detroit's season.

His rookie year in the pro league hasn't been the former Bruin's favorite in football--but he's not likely to forget the last game.

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How Cade Did It

For those who were busy Christmas shopping at the time, here's a recital of McNown's most significant deeds that day:

• In the third quarter, at a time when the Lions still expected to romp, he cooled them down with a 27-yard touchdown pass that nudged the Bears ahead for the first time, 13-10.

• In the last minute of the game, breaking a 20-20 tie, McNown drove the Bears into position for Paul Edinger's winning field goal, 23-20.

McNown's last play, the pass that placed Chicago within field-goal range, gained 10 yards on fourth and one.

Because the Chicago newspapers harbor McNown haters in almost every department, it was no surprise that they focused afterward not on the winning drive but on the winning kick, professing amazement that a man could kick a football 54 yards even in the ideal atmospheric conditions of a Pontiac, Mich., dome.

Still, it was Cade who gave Chicagoland its big day.

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Frosty NFL Playoffs Probable

Most Americans enjoyed a white Christmas this year, and good for them.

If you only have to spend a half hour or so outdoors, a cold winter day can be fun.

But the El Nino hot spell that made much of America unseasonably pleasant in recent Januarys is not only just a memory now, it's been replaced, back East, by the harsh winter weather they know so well.

They've had more snow and a deeper freeze in the Eastern and Midwestern states this year than in any recent winter.

And due to the reality that January is traditionally the coldest of the 12 months in America, the signs all point to frosty football ahead.

The NFL will spend three long, cold January weekends playing its biggest games of the long season in possibly arctic conditions that may well have more to do with winning and losing than offense or defense.

Throughout the 35-year Super Bowl era, the NFL playoff season has, for the most part, been free of high winter winds, blinding snowstorms and blizzards--but the lucky streak could end anytime.

With El Nino's departure, all bets on football weather this winter are off.

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Saints Lead NFL in Injuries

One Super Bowl truism is that the good team with the fewest injuries always wins.

Thinking back, you can't recall any contenders who claimed the championship after losing key personnel to injury for any substantial part of the regular season or the playoff season.

Entering this year's playoffs, the Rams and New Orleans Saints both had a chance to change all that, though it was a dubious honor, requiring both to be hit harder by injury during the fall months than the other contenders:

• For seven weeks, Ram quarterback Kurt Warner was either missing or severely handicapped because of a broken finger, and, during much of that time, running back Marshall Faulk was largely incapacitated by a shoulder injury.

• Season-ending injuries cost the Saints both their quarterback, Jeff Blake, and running back Ricky Williams.

Somewhat mysteriously, the Saints have run the ball as well as ever with Williams down.

And, after promoting rookie quarterback Aaron Brooks, they've passed the ball better than ever.

The Rams, meanwhile, when nursing their wounded, won just often enough.

Of the other contenders, all, to remain in the Super Bowl race, must still play without serious injury on the frozen fields of January .

In a league that hits this hard, that won't be simple.

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Give Philadelphia a Chance

Tampa Bay is much the better of the two teams in Sunday's playoff nightcap, but the Philadelphia Eagles, even so, have a shot.

For one thing, Philadelphia has the better offense, even if quarterback Donovan McNabb's status is that of a virtual rookie.

For another, the Buccaneers don't play creatively on offense except when there's no other way.

In losing at Green Bay last Sunday, for instance, the Buccaneers, in a typical Buccaneer performance, attacked cautiously and conservatively until the Packers had a 14-0 lead, whereupon Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King was belatedly greenlighted to open up.

It was too late.

By then, Packer quarterback Brett Favre sensed a kill, and that's bad news for any Favre opponent on a winter day in Wisconsin.

One curious thing about the playoffs this time is that the two entries with the most good football players--Tennessee and Tampa Bay--are alike offensively.

Neither sees any reason to pass the ball, except on third and long, until they get into trouble.

With that philosophy, you can obviously beat run-of-the-mill people during the regular season.

The 2001 question is how far it takes you in the playoffs.

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Martz's Learning Experience

The most recent Ram-Buccaneer game--the Monday nighter Dec. 18 at Tampa Bay--was a learning experience for Ram Coach Mike Martz.

That night, as his team's play-caller, he surely learned that against a good NFL team, it is folly to sit on a fourth-quarter lead.

Martz was a principal in a game that was won and lost not with a minute left--when quarterback King drove the Buccaneers to the winning touchdown, 38-35--but with three minutes left, when, with the Rams in possession of the ball inside Tampa Bay's 40-yard line, Martz called three running plays and a punt.

Until then, Ram quarterback Warner had been throwing the ball as usual, completing 20 of 30 for more than 300 yards.

Considering the stoutness of the competition, it had been the greatest night ever for Martz and Warner:

• Martz had figured out the only defense that has ever stumped him--a Tampa Bay defense that had held the Rams to 11 points a year ago in an 11-6 playoff fight.

• Warner had cracked it for five touchdowns and a 35-31 lead with fewer than three minutes to play against a normally conservative coach, Tony Dungy, who had authorized his offense to also play passball for one night, and who as a result had hung close to the most explosive offense the NFL has seen.

But with an opportunity to knock the Buccaneers out in the last three minutes--after his defensive team had ended what appeared to be the final Tampa Bay threat when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete--Martz, instead of throwing, threw it all way.

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There are No Power Runners

In Tampa Bay that night, Martz, for once in his brief career as a head coach, had overrated his great running back, Marshall Faulk.

For it was Faulk the Rams called on three times when they tried to run the ball with fewer than three minutes to play at Tampa.

In those three carries before the Rams punted, Faulk netted about seven yards--which is as much as Martz or any coach could expect to make on power plays against Tampa Bay's defense, the NFC's strongest.

Few if any of today's NFL backs have the power to overpower a powerful defensive line.

Like Faulk, the 1,000-yard backs all gain most of their yardage on draws or draw-type plays when their opponents are in pass defenses.

There is a mistaken belief in the country today, widely held even in St. Louis, that Faulk has earned MVP distinction this year on the Ram team if not in the NFL as an entity.

There is a lack of understanding that most of Faulk's big plays come against defenses that are geared first of all to oppose the passing of the authentic Ram MVP, Warner.

Of Faulk's 79 yards at Tampa, for example, most came against pass defenses.

When asked to run against run defenses on his last three runs, Faulk couldn't.

And so the Rams couldn't win.

That doesn't make Faulk unique.

That's the way it is for most NFL running backs against a great run defense.

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Bucs Win on 3 Strange Plays

There was also a mistaken impression after the Ram-Buccaneer game that the Bucccaneers won it at the end with an 80-yard drive.

That one wasn't really a drive.

The Buccaneers gained more than half of those 80 yards on three plays that, if they weren't fluke plays, were at the least plays that nobody had thought to place in the Buccaneer game plan.

• First, the Tampa Bay offensive team advanced 30 yards on running back Warrick Dunn's lateral pass to King, an impromptu, never-before-seen Tampa trick.

• Next, there was a six-yard gain on a fourth-and-four King scramble, which, as majestic as it was, has never turned up in any Tampa game plan.

• Finally, on the play before they scored the deciding touchdown, the Buccaneers gained 22 yards to the Ram one-yard line on the catch of the year: a leaping, twisting, backward catch by Tampa wide receiver Reidel Anthony, who wasn't thrown to otherwise in this game, and who, earlier this season, had caught a total of only 11 passes in the Buccaneers' first 15 games.

Anthony, on his game-changing circus catch, looked like Jerry Rice.

Indeed, Rice himself, in 16 NFL seasons, may never have made as improbable a catch.

If that play isn't in the NFL highlight film this season, Anthony should sue.

Still, it probably ended the Rams' bid for a second consecutive Super Bowl, forcing Warner to compete as a wild-card quarterback the rest of the winter.

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How Did Bucs Blow 4 in a Row?

One more thing about the Bucccaneers.

It's plain now that they can play this kind of football--parlaying five touchdowns, throwing passes for 256 yards, and throwing passes seven times to Keyshawn Johnson, for 116 yards--if they want to.

King is right there with any NFL passer.

Johnson, who scored twice after taking the heat for a mediocre season that hasn't been his fault, is right there with any NFL receiver.

And if there's a passing threat to take the pressure off the running offense, Dunn, who gained 145 yards against the Rams, is right there with any NFL running back--when carrying the ball against pass defenses.

Incredibly, at one point this season, Tampa Bay lost four games in a row playing Coach Dungy's preferred offensive style--in which the emphasis is wholly on defense and running the ball against run defenses.

Should the Buccaneers miss the Super Bowl this time--on their own field--it will only be because, like the Rams, they must compete as a wild-card team.

That's what losing four in a row against four teams you should have outscored will do to you.