NFL Playoffs 2001 NFL Playoffs 2001


Conference clashes

Four teams battle for two Super Bowl berths

Posted: Wednesday January 23, 2002 3:02 PM

Direct Snaps
Flags, Flattery
By B. Duane Cross,

No matter which two teams win Sunday and proceed to Super Bowl XXXVI, it will mark the third consecutive year that the NFL title game has had different teams than the year before.

The AFC Championship Game (12:30 p.m.EST) is a matchup of the Pittsburgh Steelers' gaudy offensive and defensive rankings against the New England Patriots, a club whose lack of flashy numbers hasn't stopped it from winning.

New England started out 0-2, lost QB Drew Bledsoe to injury and dropped three of its first four games. Taking over for Bledsoe was a second-year QB most people had not heard of who had thrown all of three passes in his rookie year. So what did Tom Brady do? Just lead the Patriots to an 11-5 regular-season record, a "worst-to-first" turnaround, win 12 of his 15 starts and earn a Pro Bowl berth.

Local Look
Michael Felger of the Boston Herald says few teams make it to an NFL conference championship without getting their share of good bounces, fortuitous calls and lucky breaks. When it comes to the New England Patriots, it seems they've gotten more than their fair share. 

The Steelers tied Chicago for the second-most wins (13) in the league behind St. Louis' 14, and ranked no lower than fourth in the NFL in five of the six offensive/defensive yardage categories. Their defense -- featuring the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, linebacker Kendrell Bell -- ranked first in the league (258.6 yards per game) and allowed the fewest points in the AFC (212) and third-fewest in the league.

The NFC Championship Game (4 p.m. EST) pits the NFL's most explosive offense and one of its toughest defenses against perhaps the league's top dual-threat quarterback and one of its best blitzing defenses. The St. Louis Rams, with the high-powered offense and grudging defense, play host to the Philadelphia Eagles, with QB Donovan McNabb and a blitz-happy defense.

The teams began the season together in Philly (a 20-17 OT win by the Rams) and one will end it in St. Louis.

The Rams, by far, produced the biggest positive point-differential between offense and defense by any team this year, a 230-point difference between their points scored (503) and allowed (273). The Eagles had the fourth-biggest margin (135 -- 343 to 208).

New England @ Pittsburgh -- 12:30 p.m. EST Sunday
Steelers lead series 12-5 (includes playoffs). The visiting team has won five of the past nine AFC championships, and the Patriots have won their past two AFC title games (1985, '96).
Philadelphia @ St. Louis -- 4 p.m. EST Sunday
Rams lead series 17-15-1 (includes playoffs). Eagles are 4-1 all-time in championship games (1947-49, '60, '80), while the Rams are playing in their 14th title game, third-most all-time.

Viva Vinatieri
New England K Adam Vinatieri has a club-record 40 career playoff points. With nine postseason FGs, he needs one to break Tony Franklin's team mark. Vinatieri has hit 6 of 7 FGs in overtime.
Bill collector
Pittsburgh is in its fourth AFC Championship Game in the past eight years under head coach Bill Cowher. The Steelers also has won the AFC Central title six times in Cowher's 10 seasons.
Return to sender
Philadelphia KR-PR Brian Mitchell has longest kick return in playoff history, 100 yards for TD vs. Tampa Bay in the 1999 Divisional game. He is second all-time with 26 career postseason punt returns and 281 punt-return yards.
Starr gazing
St. Louis QB Kurt Warner has 95.1 career playoff passer rating, third all-time (Bart Starr -- 104.8 and Joe Montana -- 95.6). Warner's postseason career average gain (8.61 yards per attempt) is tops all-time.

Flattery: Pickin' and grinnin'
Rams CB Aeneas Williams became the first player in postseason history with two INT-TDs in a game. He has five INTs in three career playoff games, and has an INT in three consecutive playoff games, tied for an NFL record.
Flag: Sherman tanks it
In a loss to St. Louis, Green Bay RB Ahman Green had 16 carries and Dorsey Levens had one, meaning Packers head coach Mike Sherman is 20-3 when his halfbacks get 20 or more carries, and 2-9 when they don't.
Flattery: Curtain call
Pittsburgh limited Baltimore to 22 rushing yards and a 2.0 per-carry average in winning its Divisional matchup. Even more impressive, the Steelers' allowed only three points in three trips inside the 20.
Flag: Bearly functional
Chicago QB Shane Matthews, who had not appeared in a game since Nov. 4, took over for injured Jim Miller and completed 8-of-17 for 66 yards and threw two interceptions against Philadelphia.

Users sounded off on who was the seaon's most disappointing rookie:

Santana Moss -- Injuries kept him out for most of the season, but look for him next year to give good ole Vinny another down field threat.
Travis, Omaha, Neb.

Kenyatta Walker -- Brad Johnson was running for his life against the Ravens -- courtesy of Walker's matador like blocking skills.
Tony, Boca Raton, Fla.

Andre Dyson -- He couldn't even get playing time in a defensive backfield that had three starters injured for most of the year!
Tim, Voluntown, Conn.

Deuce McAllister -- But who would have figured that Ricky Williams would actually make it through the year unscathed?
Rick, Richmond, Va.

Michael Bennett -- He had some big shoes to fill with the departure of Robert Smith and he couldn't do it.
Rick, Nashville, Tenn.

Jamal Reynolds or Robert Ferguson -- Take your pick; both are pathetic and only Reynolds has gotten any playing time -- and that is due to injuries.
Pete, Racine, Wis.

Derrick Gibson -- The fact that he couldn't crack the safety position with the Raiders must say a lot about his abilities.
Michael, Los Angeles

Justin Smith -- Didn't hear his name too much. What happened to him? Wasn't much of a pass rush specialist the Bengals were hoping for.
Dave, Indianapolis

Freddie Mitchell -- Labeled as the No. 1 WR coming out of the draft, he saw more bench than playing field. Definitely didn't live up to hype.
Christian, Salt Lake City

David Terrell -- No. 8 draft pick who was outplayed by second-round counterpart Anthony Thomas. He's too cocky and drops too many balls.
Bob, Crystal Lake, Ill.

Koren Robinson -- Granted his QB situation was shaky at best, but he didn't exactly do anything to help it.
Ismail, LaCrosse, Wis.

Matt Millen -- Not a player, but a rookie in the front office, and it showed.
Jesse, Los Angeles

This week's topic: Should there be two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl?

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Your take here (in 25 words or less)

Related information
SI's Dr. Z: Conference Forecast's Donovan: NFL's Final Four
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