Originally created 12/28/96

Wild-card teams perform predictably

The NFL has been handing out wild-card playoff berths since 1970, but rarely has there been anything wild about them.

Predictable is a better term. Give teams that couldn't win a division title a wild-card playoff berth, and inevitably you give them another loss.

The NFL handed out 100 wild-card playoff berths from 1970-95, and 99 of those teams ended their seasons in defeat. Only the 1980 Oakland Raiders went truly wild, winning four consecutive playoff games to capture an NFL championship.

In fact, only four wild-card teams have reached the Super Bowl in the game's 30-year history. The other three - the 1975 Cowboys, 1985 New England Patriots and 1992 Buffalo Bills - all lost in the championship game.

Six wild-cards and two division champions enter the 1996 playoff fray this weekend. The NFC East champion Cowboys play host to the Minnesota Vikings today, and the AFC Central champion Pittsburgh Steelers entertain the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

In the other first-round matchups, the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars visit the Buffalo Bills today, and the Philadelphia Eagles travel to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

Waiting in the wings are the four bye teams - New England and Denver in the AFC and Carolina and Green Bay in the NFC. They will be the hosts for next weekend's second-round games.




The Cowboys didn't take defense of their Super Bowl championship seriously this season, finishing with the league's sixth-best record at 10-6. But there's still a belief around the NFL that the Cowboys can and will dial it up in the playoffs. That remains to be seen. But what can be seen is a parade of champions - Troy Aikman, Larry Allen, Michael Irvin, Darryl Johnston, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Tony Tolbert, Darren Woodson ... These guys know how to win big games. The Cowboys may be the underdog before they hit the field in games this post-season, but their aura will make them favorites once those games starts.


Offense out of sync.

The Cowboys have five Pro Bowlers on offense, four past Pro Bowlers - and no clue how to move the football or score points. What a collapse, from 435 points a year ago to 286 this season, from fifth in the NFL in yards a year ago to 24th this season. Does Jay Novacek make that much of a difference? Smith averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, and Aikman stayed healthy all season yet threw only 12 touchdown passes. In two of their last three home games the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown ... and won. Who would ever have thought the offense could hold the Cowboys back?




Steve Young is on a roll.

Young was bothered by a variety of injuries in the first three months of the season, missing four starts. Through the first 12 games, Young had thrown only five touchdown passes and four interceptions. But he came thundering down the stretch to win his fifth NFL passing championship in six years. In those four games, he completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 996 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. The 49ers always have been a quarterback-generated offense, and this quarterback is generating.


No running game.

The 49ers are ancient on the offensive line. Their smaller, finesse blockers struggle to protect Young and can't open holes any more for the backs. So everything Young throws is short, and the 49t run the ball against a quality opponent. They managed only 56 yards rushing against Pittsburgh and 75 yards against Carolina in December games.

Young led the 49ers in rushing touchdowns this season with four. If defenses can ignore running backs Terry Kirby and William Floyd, they can sink seven and eight men into coverage and stymie Young.




The will of the head coach.

Ray Rhodes is at his best when the odds are longest. His Eagles were a rare home underdog in the playoffs last December against Detroit, and Philadelphia wound up routing the Lions, 58-37. Rhodes took his underdog Eagles into Dallas this season and beat the defending Super Bowl champions, 31-21. Rhodes is a master motivator. He breathes a sense of urgency into his troops and instills a fear of failure. The Eagles overachieved by even qualifying for the playoffs the last two seasons, first with Rodney Peete at quarterback and then Ty Detmer. But on a given Sunday, Rhodes can convince the Eagles they can beat anyone.


Offensive line.

Typical of the West Coast schemes in the NFL, the line is the lowest priority on offense. The Eagles have a stable of quality passers (Ty Detmer), runners (Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner) and receivers (Irving Fryar and Chris T. Jones). But their impact on games is minimized by the lack of a dominating front. Detmer has been sacked 28 times in his 11 starts and for all of his 1,411 rushing yards, Watters still averaged less than four yards per carry. There are no Pro Bowlers up front, merely pluggers.




Offensive size.

Minnesota has big offensive players who make big plays. Quarterback Brad Johnson is 6-5. His two wide receivers are 6-3. The offensive line averages 314 pounds, and tight end Hunter Goodwin, a converted tackle, goes 274. With Robert Smith on injured reserve, the Vikings also have gone to a big-back running attack with 225-pound tailback Leroy Hoard.

This is a group that can overpower defenses physically and overwhelm them with plays. Cris Carter caught 10 touchdown passes, and Jake Reed averaged 18.3 yards per catch. Hoard had two 100-yard games in his six starts.


Lack of defensive size.

The Vikings are as small on defense as they are big on offense. This is a unit that was built to play on turf - small and fast. Their biggest lineman is 282-pound John Randle, their outside linebackers are both under 230, and three of their four defensive backs are under six feet. If the Vikings get ahead in games and can rush the passer, they're fine. But if they get behind and have to play the run, they're in trouble. Minnesota ranks 24th in run defense and was pummeled for 233 yards by Green Bay in its last outing.




Kordell Stewart.

Every piece is in place for another Super Bowl run except quarterback. The Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in football and a dominating runner in Jerome Bettis. They go deeper in quality receivers than any team in the playoffs and have the best defense in the AFC. There are playmakers galore on both sides of the ball ... except quarterback. If the Steelers couldn't win a Super Bowl with Neil O'Donnell, they sure can't win it with Mike Tomczak. But Stewart out of the bullpen can give the Steelers a charge. His 80-yard touchdown scramble last week will slow down future pass rushers. He also has a much livelier arm than Tomczak, making him the unknown factor in these playoffs.


Mike Tomczak.

Tomczak faded big-time down the stretch, completing only 50 percent of his passes with 11 interceptions. The Steelers lost four of their final seven games to miss out on a first-round bye. His negative plays kill the Steelers. Two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns and he has been sacked for a safety in each of the last two games, both losses. Defenses expect Tomczak to make mistakes and lately he's been obliging.




Veteran leadership.

Bruce Smith is a commanding presence on the field and in the locker room. The same with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. All are potential Hall of Famers. Like the Dallas corps of stars, they know how to get to and win the big game. Unofficially, Buffalo's playoff run started last week when the Bills needed a victory over Kansas City just to qualify for the playoffs. Kelly threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally the Bills and extend their season. This team should be even hungrier this post-season because they know the window is about to close on their chances of ever winning a Super Bowl.


Veteran legs.

This is an old football team with the best players in the twilight of their careers. Kelly is 36, Smith 33, Reed 32, and Thomas and middle linebacker Chris Spielman both 30. It's been a long season, and those veteran legs are starting to tire. The Bills lost three of their last four games to stagger into the playoffs. Since 1990, the Bills have always believed they were the best team in the AFC whether they were or not. Right now, these Bills don't even know if they are a good team.




Creativity of Mark Brunell.

Brunell replaced Steve Young this season as the most exciting quarterback in the NFL. He passed for an NFL-leading 4,367 yards and rushed for 396 more. He passed for 19 touchdowns and rushed for three more. He is the Jacksonville offense. Like Brett Favre, as he gets better players around him, Brunell will get better and the team will get better. In the meantime, he'll give pass rushers fits with his legs and cover men fits with his left arm.


Too young, too much travel.

This is a young franchise with young players. Only seven NFL teams are younger than the Jags, whose roster averages 26.01 years. They have only four players in their 30s, and two of them don't start. But these youngsters haven't proven they can win on the road (2-6 this season) ... or even win a big game. That was evident last Sunday. The Jaguars needed a victory on their home field against an inferior opponent (Atlanta) to clinch a playoff berth. But Jacksonville tried to give the game away and needed a blown chip-shot field goal attempt by Morten Andersen on the final play to advance. Wait until the Jaguars face real adversity and real hostility on the road.




Been down this road before.

The Colts are seven-point underdogs for their opening-round game against Pittsburgh. Big deal. In their dramatic playoff run in 1995, they were nine-point underdogs against Kansas City, 10 against San Diego and 11 against Pittsburgh. They beat the Chiefs and Chargers and came within a Hail Mary pass on the game's final play of upsetting the Steelers in the AFC title game. All three of those games were on the road. The Colts haven't forgotten how to win on the road in 1996, having upset both Dallas and Kansas City.



With their complete roster, the Colts are a Super Bowl contender. But the Colts do not have a complete roster.

They haven't had one all season. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh missed two games with injuries and halfback Marshall Faulk three. Ray Buchanan, their best cornerback, missed three games, and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, the anchor of their run defense, missed six. Fullback Zack Crockett, one of the post-season stars of 1995, is gone for the season with a knee injury, as are linebacker Quentin Coryatt, Indy's best defensive player, and safety David Tate. Only four Colts started all 16 games this season.


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