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Championship Sunday

Super Bowl XXXV matchup hangs in the balance

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Thursday January 11, 2001 12:09 PM

 
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By B. Duane Cross, CNNSI.com

When New York plays host to Minnesota on Sunday, the memory of how the Giants' 1997 season came to an abrupt halt will definitely be in the memory bank. The Vikings rallied for 10 points in the final 11/2 minutes for a 23-22 NFC wild-card victory.

But New York defensive tackle Keith Hamilton says things are different now. "Now we're at an age -- 29, 30 -- where we understand how precious these chances are," he says. "We're more determined. That '97 season was special because the defense was just dominating, but this team is more prepared for the playoffs."

Minnesota head coach Dennis Green agrees. "The Giants have an excellent defense," says Green, who takes his club into its second championship game in three years. "They dominated in the divisional game from start to finish."

It will be the Vikings' sixth consecutive game against the Giants on the road. "We've been to New York before," he says. "We think we've got the right character and the guts to play on the road."

The AFC Championship Game will feature one team (Oakland) playing for its first conference title in a decade against another (Baltimore) that has never played for one. It also matches the Raiders' No. 1 NFL rushing game this season against the Ravens' No. 1 rushing defense -- and a Baltimore club that has never witnessed the fan cauldron that can be Network Associates Coliseum.

"Maybe I'll come out in a biohazard suit," jokes Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett. "I'm going to Oakland. Those people are pretty scary."

It will be only the second time since 1970 that the league's No. 1 rush offense has faced the league's No. 1 rush defense in a championship game (1971 AFC championship: Miami 21 (173.5 rush offense) vs. Baltimore 0 (79.5 rush defense)).

"They have the No. 1 rushing game in the league," says Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "We have the No. 1 rush defense in the league. So it will be a great battle."

QB Comeback, Chapter I
Giants QB Kerry Collins quietly finished third in the NFC in TD passes (33) and ranked fifth in passer rating (83.1). If he needs the running game, he can hand off to Tiki Barber, who topped his three-year career total of 935 yards with a 1,006-yard season, or Ron Dayne, the NFC's top rookie rusher (770). Or Collins can throw long to wideouts Amani Toomer (78 catches; 1,094 yards) or Ike Hilliard (55; 787).
QB Comeback, Chapter II
QB Trent Dilfer (134-of-226, 1,502 yards, 12 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions) joined the Ravens this season after six years with Tampa Bay. After backup duty the first half of the season, he took over following a scoring lull and has built a 9-1 record as Baltimore's starter. One of his main cogs is rookie running back Jamal Lewis, who has rushed for 1,084 yards in his past 10 games (1,364 season total).
Flattery -- Keith Washington blocked a field-goal attempt and Anthony Mitchell returned it 90 yards for the go-ahead score, then Ray Lewis returned an interception 50 yards for the clinching TD in the Ravens' divisional-round victory against Tennessee. If the adage "defense wins championships" holds true, certainly Baltimore must be considered the odds-on favorite -- with special teams' play an added bonus -- for a trip to Tampa.
Flag -- The Raiders' most fanatical, loyal fans didn't take kindly to the team's influx of supporters now that Oakland is headed to the AFC Championship Game. One large sign in the north parking lot read "Welcome Bandwagon Fans!" above a drawing of a mildly obscene gesture. Hey, it's not that the fans are "bandwagoneers" -- it's because lost in the shuffle is whether the Raiders play in Oakland, or L.A. ... oh, right, they're back in Oakland.
The good news for Oakland (8-1 as the host team this season): The home club has won four of the past eight AFC championships. The bad news for the Raiders: The visiting club has won four of the past eight AFC championships -- and the Ravens were 7-2 on the road this season. The Raiders ranked second in AFC with 29.9 points per game, while Baltimore ranked first in NFL with 10.3 points allowed per game.
Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (23 years, 351 days) will be the fifth-youngest QB to start a conference championship game. The youngest four and how they fared: Shaun King (Tampa Bay, 1999 -- lost to St. Louis), Bernie Kosar (Cleveland, '86 -- lost to Denver), Dan Marion (Miami, '84 -- beat Pittsburgh) and Pat Haden (L.A. Rams, '76 -- lost to Minnesota).
Minnesota at New York (12:30 p.m. EST) -- We all know about Minnesota's potent offense. Blah, blah, blah. And we all know about New York's aggressive defense. Yada, yada, yada. The difference in this game will be the Giants' offense moving at will against the Vikings' defense, which is akin to a sieve. These aren't the patchwork Saints, so post the storm warnings in the Meadowlands: "Thunder and Lightning" strikes.
New Orleans at Minnesota (4:05 p.m. EST) -- If there is anyone who doesn't enjoy watching Oakland third-year head coach Jon Gruden, speak up and face the Raider Nation. Any of Gruden's sideline rants are better -- and funnier -- than NFL Films' clip of George Allen dancing a locker-room jig. That said, Gruden is a top-flight coach, whose head-to-head battle of wits against Baltimore's Brian Billick will make Super Bowl XXXV anticlimactic.
Stock tip: It has been estimated that 14,500 tons of chips and 4,000 tons of popcorn are eaten on Super Bowl Sunday.


 
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CNNSI.com's AFC / NFC Championship Preview
CNNSI.com's 2000 AFC Championship Coverage
CNNSI.com's 2000 NFC Championship Coverage
Statitudes: Finalists are an unpredictable quartet
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