Jets left tackle Jumbo Elliott remembers the last time he played
in a conference championship game. It was nine seasons ago. He
was a Giant. Bill Parcells was the coach. The team traveled to
San Francisco to meet the favored 49ers. "They were going for a
three-peat," Elliott said after the Jets beat the Jaguars on
Sunday. "We beat them, but when we checked into our Super Bowl
hotel, the gift shops in the lobby were full of 49ers stuff. No
one had expected us to win."

The man who runs Parcells's defense is Bill Belichick, the same
guy who set up the Giants' defense that held the 49ers'
star-studded cast--Rice and Montana and Taylor and Craig; you
know the names--to 240 yards in the 15-13 victory nine years
ago. How will the Jets respond in the AFC Championship Game
against a Broncos team that, stung by whispers that its season
was sliding away, unloaded early and often on the Dolphins?
First there's the Jets' 3-4 defense, a good run-stopping setup,
with an emphasis on closing down Terrell Davis's cutbacks. Then
there are the coverage matchups: Otis Smith will probably draw
deep threat Rod Smith, and 5'8" Ray Mickens will cover 6'5" Ed
McCaffrey. Sounds like a mismatch, but Mickens is a terrifically
instinctive cornerback. The Jets' offense will attack
aggressively, as it did against the Jaguars, from some wildly
imaginative alignments. If New York can make Denver play from
behind, well, anything could happen.

My feeling? Two years of experience at the highest level of
competition will be the difference. Broncos in a squeaker.

In the NFC title game, I have a hunch that the Falcons' Chris
Chandler will come out throwing. Then Atlanta will hammer with
Jamal Anderson, mindful of the way the Bucs pounded the Vikings
in Minnesota's only loss. But the Vikings have simply too much
firepower in their arsenal. Minnesota will be facing a sturdier
defensive line than it did against Arizona, but the war of
attrition will go the Vikings' way.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Broncos' Bill Romanowski (53) will face an aggressive Jets attack. [Bill Romanowski tackling Bernie Parmalee]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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