What We Learned
Three things we know after the wild-card gamesPosted: Sunday January 13, 2002 7:21 PM
Updated: Tuesday January 15, 2002 12:44 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Though some of the games were competitive for a while, the NFL's wild-card weekend didn't produce close, nail-biting finishes. All four winners posted double-digit margins, earning the right to take their act into next week's divisional round. Here are three wild-card observations:
1. Despite the franchise's finest run of overall success, the Tony Dungy era in Tampa Bay was jeopardized this week because the Buccaneers have become the most predictable story in the NFL.
It was all there on display Saturday in Philadelphia. The same problems, same flaws and same results that have haunted Tampa Bay for the past five years. The Bucs have been unable to address their core offensive weaknesses, and thus, every season seems to end on the same frustrating note. It's Groundhog Day, only in January.
That's why Dungy's critics argue that it's time to rip things up and start over. And it's a powerful case when you consider that the Bucs each year have their share of Pro Bowl selections on offense, but still are working on an NFL-record 12 consecutive playoff quarters without a touchdown. In its past three playoff games, Tampa Bay has averaged just a pair of field goals on offense, and been outscored 63-18.
Saturday's failure in Philly had all the familiar shortcomings. Red-zone drives that produced field goals instead of touchdowns. Dubious play-calling. A play-it-safe approach that belied what was at stake. And more underachievement at the worst possible time, despite yet another round of offseason changes at quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Even while they spoke up on behalf of their embattled head coach last week, the Bucs' lackluster performance Saturday resonated the loudest. They didn't even come close to backing up their words of loyalty with actions that could have helped Dungy's cause.
2. The star system is alive and well.
More times than not, marquee value makes the difference in the postseason. Proof came once again this weekend. Almost without fail, the team with the biggest star came out on top.
There, that wasn't so tough to decipher, was it? You wonder why folks spend so much time and energy trying to pick winners in the NFL. It's easy. In the playoffs, just go with the big names.
With Tampa Bay leading 3-0 early, McNabb took over. His 39-yard first-quarter run woke the Eagles from their malaise, and he wound up accounting for 251 of Philadelphia's 334 total yards. Most of that damage came in the first half, when things were still competitive. McNabb had a hand in all but 29 of the Eagles' 190 yards before halftime.
Even as a wide receiver who only touched the ball nine times, Rice was arguably as instrumental in his team's conquest of the Jets. Proving that his 39-year-old legs still have some magic left in them, Rice rolled up 183 yards on those nine receptions, and became the oldest player in league history to score a playoff touchdown and record a 100-yard receiving game.
As for Favre, what more can be said? In the weekend's best game, he kept the Packers perfect in Lambeau playoff history by assuming command in the second half. After the 49ers kept the ball out of his hands for most of the first two quarters, Favre was 16 of 21 for 226 yards after the break. To no great surprise, Green Bay went from down 7-6 at the half, to up 25-15.
In Baltimore's win, the Ravens' defense predictably stepped to the fore, allowing Miami's star-challenged offense just five first downs in the game's first 50 minutes. Lewis and Co. were no match for a Dolphins team that was injury-riddled, and is looking for its first solid offensive showing since a 39-27 victory against Indianapolis in Week 12.
3. Looking ahead to next weekend's divisional round, you have to love those well-rested home teams. Especially in the NFC.
Since 1990, when the NFL expanded the playoff field to 12 teams, home teams are 21-1 in the Divisional round, with only Green Bay's upset at San Francisco in January 1995 marring that record. Things are considerably less clear cut in the AFC, where home teams are just 15-7 in the Divisional round since 1990, and 7-5 from January 1995 on.
Last year, Baltimore was the only road divisional winner, beating Tennessee. Oakland, Minnesota and the New York Giants all held serve at home. The Ravens did it again this weekend in the wild-card round, becoming the only visitor to advance. Until Baltimore's victory at Miami, road wild-cards were 0-7 the past two years.
The 3-1 home-team showing in the wild-card round is the norm. In all but one season since 1993, road wild-card teams went 1-3, with last year breaking the trend at 0-4. Translation: The playoffs have been nearly devoid of the fifth and sixth-seeded teams in each conference after the first week of the postseason.
St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the two top seeds, should be comfortable favorites at home. But in many ways, they face the toughest games in the divisional round. The Packers offense can at least come close to matching points with the high-flying Rams, and the Steelers, despite their recent manhandling of Baltimore, have a healthy respect for the Ravens defense.
The real winners in this year's playoff bracket may be the No. 2 seeds: Chicago and New England. In drawing the Eagles and Raiders, both the Bears and Patriots have winnable games against teams that have been maddeningly inconsistent this season.