Seeds of fortune
Underdogs playing at home in wild-card round
Updated: Friday December 29, 2000 2:48 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- The St. Louis Rams would be frustrated spectators if not for an unlikely win by Chicago in Detroit last weekend.
Yet when they open the playoffs Saturday in New Orleans, they'll be one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. That's partly because they won it last season, partly because they still scare everybody, particularly on offense.
"I think we've got a heck of a chance at it, I really do," said head coach Mike Martz, whose Rams were just 10-6 in the regular season and backed in when the 5-11 Bears upset the Lions. "I think it's up for anybody to take. It's up for grabs. Anybody can win this thing in the NFC."
The Rams-Saints game is one of four on the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs. It will be preceded by an AFC wild-card game -- Indianapolis at Miami. On Sunday, Denver will be at Baltimore and Tampa Bay at Philadelphia.
The New York Giants, Minnesota, Tennessee and Oakland have first-round byes.
Even though the Saints (also 10-6) won the NFC West on a tiebreaker over the Rams, are seeded third and are playing at home, they are underdogs by almost a touchdown -- by more, in fact, than their 26-21 loss to St. Louis in the Superdome last Sunday. Two other home teams, Miami and Philadelphia, also are underdogs.
If the Rams beat the Saints, they go to the Meadowlands to play the top-seeded Giants (12-4) and will probably be favored -- they beat New York 38-24 in the regular season without Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, league MVPs last season and this season, respectively.
The Saints, who split two games with St. Louis, already have had a great season, improving by seven games after a 3-13 year in 1999. They also have a history -- they've been to the playoffs just four times in their 34 NFL seasons and have yet to win a postseason game.
But there will be at least one change -- New Orleans will wear white jerseys instead of their usual home black.
"I don't like the black jerseys," Saints head coach Jim Haslett said. "People grab them, they pull them, they stretch. The white jerseys are tight for whatever reason.
"They look better."
The question is whether they play better.
Indianapolis (10-6) at Miami (11-5)
The Colts are in the same position as the Rams -- a feared sixth seed. They made it into the playoffs with their third consecutive victory, 31-10 against Minnesota, while the New York Jets were losing in Baltimore.
This also is a recent repeat -- the Colts won 20-13 in Miami two weeks ago.
"We know their strengths. We know their weaknesses," Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "And we have beaten them once, so our players know if we do things the right way we can beat this football team again."
But Miami has struggled recently -- its quick but small defense often wears down in December and January. The Colts, written off when they were 7-6, have upgraded their defense in their last three games, and Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison have been at their best.
Denver (11-5) at Baltimore (12-4)
Even though the Ravens set a record by allowing the fewest points in a 16-game season, this could be a shootout. The Jets gained 532 yards last week in Baltimore, while the Broncos finished 24th on defense, last against the pass.
There's also a sideshow aspect: Shannon Sharpe, Baltimore's tight end, will be playing against the Broncos for the first time since he left Denver after last season. The loquacious Sharpe already has been heard from -- but his target is his own offense, which gained only 142 yards last week against the Jets but capitalized on six turnovers.
"You won't win a playoff game with that," Sharpe said.
Tampa Bay (10-6) at Philadelphia (11-5)
Here we go again: The Bucs are now 0-19 in weather under 40 degrees and will try again Sunday.
"It's the worst-case scenario, going to Philly," says Frank Middleton, the Bucs' talkative guard. "We're playing on the worst turf in the league. It's going to be cold. Once again, we're going to have to answer all those questions about whether we can win in the cold."
Although snow is forecast for the day before the game and the kickoff won't come until after 4 p.m. EST, the weather in Philadelphia is bound to be better than it was last week in Green Bay, when the Bucs barely lost in wind chills well under zero.
Tampa Bay is another low-seeded team that's favored, perhaps because the Eagles have disappeared for the last few weeks. They had a bye in the next-to-last week, then finished their season ho-humming past hopeless Cincinnati.