Ravens-Raiders, Vikings-Giants battle for title berths
Updated: Sunday January 07, 2001 9:09 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- A matchup of the top-ranked rushing offense and defense in the AFC title game will follow an NFC championship featuring two surprise teams next Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens, in their fifth season since moving from Cleveland, play at Oakland for the AFC crown. The Raiders haven't been this far since the 1990 season, when they played in Los Angeles, and not since 1980 while representing the Bay Area.
Baltimore, the only team to beat the Titans in Adelphia Coliseum, won there again, 24-10 on Sunday. Oakland routed Miami 27-0 on Saturday.
The NFC matchup has Minnesota, which appeared to be in a rebuilding mode when the season began, at the New York Giants. The Giants, criticized all year for playing an easy schedule in a weak division, also were a preseason long shot.
But they whipped Philadelphia 20-10 on Sunday, one day after the Vikings beat New Orleans 34-16.
Baltimore at Oakland
As the Titans showed last year and the Broncos did in 1997, getting to the Super Bowl as a wild card no longer is far-fetched. Of course, the Ravens (14-4) must do more offensively, protect their punter better and remain staunch on defense against the Raiders (13-4).
The defense is a given, particularly with Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis making a million or so tackles every game. It shut down Denver's potent attack in the wild-card round, then befuddled Eddie George and Steve McNair in Sunday's victory.
Next up is the balanced Oakland attack, which will test Baltimore's skill against the rush with halfback Tyrone Wheatley and quarterback Rich Gannon, who is terrific at escaping pressure and running. The Raiders led the league in rushing and the Ravens were No. 1 against it.
"What can you say about the Baltimore Ravens defense?" Oakland head coach Jon Gruden said. "To break an NFL record in terms of points yielded, that's a great accomplishment."
Expect more out of Oakland's receivers, led by Tim Brown, and its kicking game than Tennessee managed.
"This is a new challenge for us," said safety Rod Woodson, a veteran of AFC championship games while with Pittsburgh. "They have the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL. It seems we have three weeks of challenges."
Baltimore, winner of nine consecutive, must gain more than the 134 yards it got vs. Tennessee, because the Raiders are far more dangerous offensively than the Titans. If the Ravens don't move the ball efficiently, they have to rely on turnovers and special teams again. Even though they led the league in takeaways, that's still a difficult way to survive. And Oakland had only 20 giveaways, the fewest in the AFC.
Early betting line: Oakland by 6.
Minnesota at New York Giants
The Vikings earned their spot in the NFC title game thanks, as usual, to their offensive strengths: playmakers Randy Moss and Cris Carter catching passes from Daunte Culpepper, plus Robert Smith running behind a rebuilt but solid blocking unit.
They received somewhat unexpected help from a maligned defense that ranked 28th overall. New Orleans did little with the ball Saturday.
"You don't win 11 games with just an offense," Carter said.
That defense will need to shut down New York's inconsistent running game, particularly outside threat Tiki Barber. Then the Vikings (12-5) can turn to their powerful offense, with Culpepper, basically a rookie, throwing to the dynamic Moss and Carter.
Of course, the nasty winds of the Meadowlands could play havoc with Minnesota's big-play attack. That means Smith would become the offensive key.
That wouldn't serve the Vikings well, because the Giants, led by linebackers Jessie Armstead and Mike Barrow, can stop the run. But if the Vikings can turn this into a shootout, their arsenal is far more impressive. Neither team's secondary is a strength, either.
Still, the well-coached, determined Giants (13-4) have displayed great resilience. They didn't impress all season, but look where they are.
And the last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa, they won it.
Early betting line: Minnesota by 1.