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Strange turn of events

NFL's final four teams weren't highly touted entering season

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Posted: Monday January 08, 2001 3:40 PM
Updated: Tuesday January 09, 2001 12:38 PM

  Robert Smith Robert Smith carried the ball 25 times for 74 yards and one touchdown against the Saints. AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- When NFL training camps opened last summer, the Minnesota Vikings were 12-1 to win the Super Bowl, a figure that pretty quickly jumped to 30-1 because they were going with untested Daunte Culpepper at quarterback.

The other Super Bowl semifinalists faced even longer odds: Oakland at 35-1, the New York Giants at 50-1 and Baltimore at 60-1.

That's life in the salary-cap era: The four remaining teams were 33-31 last season and only the Vikings made the playoffs.

Two trends for these playoffs: defense wins and so does home field. Home teams have won seven of the eight games and even Oakland and Minnesota, whose defenses were suspect going in, won this weekend because they played decent defense - the Raiders' 27-0 win over Miami marked the first time the Dolphins had ever been shut out in the postseason.

Two more things:

  • The last time the Super Bowl was played in Tampa was 10 years ago. The Giants beat the Bills 20-19. Remember Scott Norwood.

    The only other Tampa Super Bowl was in 1984. The Raiders won it, beating the Redskins 38-9. Remember Jack Squirek and Marcus Allen.

  • They won't admit it but the Saints (3-13 last season) and the Eagles (5-11) had wonderful seasons.

    They were the "just glad to be here" teams and they made it to the second round. Even the Eagles' Andy Reid acknowledged that after the 20-10 loss to the Giants on Sunday. "We established ourselves this season," he said. "We have a lot to build on."

    One problem: These days, when a team opens the season expected to win, it often doesn't.

    NFC Minnesota (12-5) at N.Y. Giants (13-4) 12:30 p.m. EST

    Reasons the Vikings can win: Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Daunte Culpepper and Robert Smith.

    Reasons the Giants can win: Michael Strahan, Jessie Armstead, Keith Hamilton, Cornelius Griffin, Jason Sehorn, Shaun Williams. Note those Vikings are all offensive players, the Giants all defenders.

    Weather is the wild card. The last time the Giants played an NFC title game at home, in 1987, they won the toss, took the 35-mph wind, scored 14 quick points and beat Washington 17-0. The Vikings and their fastbreak offense are not built for the Meadowlands in January.

    But in half-decent weather (that's the best it will be), New York can't do to Culpepper what it did to Donovan McNabb. That's because McNabb has no other weapons; Culpepper has Smith to run and Carter and Moss to catch.

    Three years ago, the Vikings beat the Giants 23-22 in a playoff game at Giants Stadium when New York blew a 9-point lead in the last two minutes. But the cast has changed. The Vikings didn't have Moss; the Giants had Danny Kanell at quarterback, not the more adept Kerry Collins.

    So Sehorn, big and athletic, probably will shadow Moss. Three years ago, he shadowed Carter, meaning that Carter will get Dave Thomas -- big, but not as athletic as Sehorn -- plus help from Williams, the free safety.

    Matchups to watch: Moss-Sehorn; Carter-Thomas; the Vikings' suspect secondary against Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard; John Fox, the Giants' defensive coordinator, vs. Sherman Lewis, the Vikings' offensive coordinator.

    The Giants' offense is better than the Vikings' defense. But the Giants' defense has had trouble this season with aerial offenses that feature good receivers.

    Prediction: Watch the Weather Channel.

    AFC Baltimore (14-4) at Oakland (13-4) 4 p.m. EST

    Reasons the Raiders can win: Rich Gannon, Tim Brown-Andre Rison-James Jett, Eric Allen, Charles Woodson, Darrell Russell.

    Reasons the Ravens can win: Ray Lewis (defense). Jamal Lewis (offense), Jermaine Lewis (special teams).

    Wild card: Ray Lewis.

    On paper, the Ravens seem a little overmatched after gaining just 134 yards in their 24-10 win over Tennessee.

    Oakland, on the other hand, is the most balanced team left - its offense is very good, its defense can be when it feels like it. And it certainly should feel like it with the Super Bowl a game away.

    But forget paper.

    The Ravens have won nine in a row. They find ways to win, as they did against the Jets, when they allowed 532 yards but forced six turnovers and won 34-20.

    And Ray Lewis, the defensive player of the year, can turn a game by himself, as he did on Sunday, when he wrested a pass from Eddie George and took it 50 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

    Matchups to watch: Ray Lewis vs. Tyrone Wheatley and Gannon; Chris McAlister and Duane Starks against Brown, Rison and Jett. The two coaches: Oakland's Jon Gruden of the ever-changing expressions and Baltimore's Brian Billick, who seems to have changed overnight from laid back to intense.

    Plus the owners -- two guys from Brooklyn, Art Modell and Al Davis. Modell was an insider until he moved his team from Cleveland to Baltimore and lost credibility with some of his friends.

    Davis is a career maverick.

    Prediction: Silver and Black.

    Related information
    Closer Look: Touchdown returns difference-maker for Ravens
    What We Learned: Ravens-Titans
    SI's Banks: Ravens taking it personally
    SI's Peter King: MMQB: Nice guy, bum deal's Pat Kirwan: NFL's final four face a quartet of questions
    Ravens head coach Brian Billick is not looking forward to playing Oakland at Oakland. (179 K)
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