FOR THE last three years, and 16 of the last 17, at least one road team has triumphed on wild-card weekend. Which one will it be this year? I won't keep you in suspense. It'll come in the first game out of the box, when St. Louis upsets the homestanding Seahawks.
It has been duly recorded that in October, when the Rams came from 17 down to beat 3-0 Seattle in overtime, they left the Seahawks in shock. The winning TD came on a play in which defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes blitzed the house, rushing eight men at Marc Bulger. Two more losses followed. Rhodes's unit was so deeply scarred that when the teams met again in November, the Seattle defense looked like the firm of Layback & Watchit. The Rams ran up 214 yards of total offense in the first quarter of a game that was never really close. Even after St. Louis lost two offensive linemen, the Seattle front got no pressure.
The only thing that can stop St. Louis is its weird arrogance on offense. The Rams inject bizarre twists when least expected, resulting in an inordinate number of turnovers--and turnovers might keep the score close.
I don't like the Jets' chances in San Diego, because I am certain that Chad Pennington's shoulder is not right. You could tell by the way he was throwing against St. Louis on Sunday, cranking up and delivering floaters. Of his 21 completions, only seven were longer than 10 yards, and the deepest was 17. I guess the Jets feel that at this stage of the season a wounded Pennington is better than a healthy Quincy Carter. It's the El Cid syndrome. Prop him up, tape his eyes open and tie him on his horse.
After his tough outing against the Patriots on Dec. 26, Pennington said his sore right shoulder was O.K.; the problem was that his feet weren't planted correctly. Right. Against the Rams they were planted so well that ferns were growing out of them, and his ball still had nothing on it. I'll bet that within a week of the end of their season, the Jets announce that he's having shoulder surgery. Barring a miracle or a 200-yard explosion from Curtis Martin, the Chargers will win it.
Last year Peyton Manning threw for 377 yards and five TDs against Denver in a wild-card playoff, which, they say, is why the Broncos traded for Champ Bailey. The Champ has had an odd season. Supposedly the league's premier shutdown corner, he has had strange lapses in concentration. The Bengals' Chad Johnson caught a couple of 50-yarders on him. The Raiders' Jerry Porter ate him alive. Bailey will probably cover Marvin Harrison all over the field, which might work out for Denver, if Bailey's head is in it.
The toughest matchup for the Broncos will be Roc Alexander, a rookie free agent who inherited the nickelback job after two others were lost for the season, on Indy's third wideout, Brandon Stokley, who has destroyed nickel coverage all year. I guess that's where the Broncos will provide double-team help, which will leave the corners manned up against Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The Colts win it, maybe big.
Finally there's Minnesota, dragging its sorry behind into Green Bay to take its licking and go home. Did you happen to catch Randy Moss heading for the locker room as the Vikings were lining up for an onside kick against Washington on Sunday? The only thing that can keep Minnesota in the game is the Packers' secondary. Green Bay has given up 33 TD passes this season, an alltime Packers record. And when you say alltime with this franchise, you're going back 84 years. But I get the feeling that the Vikings are ready to bid the season bye-bye and head for warmer climes. The Packers advance. --P.Z.