Were those wild-card playoffs wild enough for you? Wait till you see what's coming this weekend, because the divisional playoffs have a history of being wild and wacky, sometimes magnificent and often controversial.
Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception came in a divisional playoff 32 years ago. The longest game in NFL history, with the Miami Dolphins beating the Kansas City Chiefs, was in the 1971 divisional round. Who can forget the San Diego Chargers' 41-38 overtime victory over the Dolphins in a 1981 divisional playoff, during which Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow caught 13 passes and blocked a potential winning field goal?
Controversy? How about the New England Patriots' overtime victory against the Oakland Raiders in the Tuck Game three years ago, when Adam Vinatieri sent the divisional game into overtime with a 45-yard field goal in a blizzard?
"The divisional round is the best weekend of football all year," says special teams ace Ike Reese of the Philadelphia Eagles, who will line up against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. "The Super Bowl is great, but it's just one game. The conference championships are just one day. But in the divisional round, you're getting eight quality ball clubs and four real good games.
"It's like the NCAA basketball tournament. Everybody talks about the Final Four, but to me the best part is the second week, because you've weeded out the low seeds and every game is a good one."
Except in the NFL last week the low seeds refused to be weeded out. Three wild-card road teams, including the NFC's two accursed 8-8s, knocked off three division champs. Never before had that happened. The results created intriguing matchups:
•On Saturday the New York Jets, who upset the Chargers (box, page 46), get another shot at the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers and sensational rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 13-0 as a starter.
•The St. Louis Rams, who many assumed were headed to cold-weather Philadelphia after they beat the Seattle Seahawks (box, page 47), got a reprieve and instead will take their high-powered offense indoors to the Georgia Dome for a Saturday night game against the Atlanta Falcons and electric quarterback Michael Vick.
•The Vikings, who tripped up the Green Bay Packers (box, page 48), head to Philadelphia for a game that pits quarterback Daunte Culpepper and limping wideout Randy Moss against an Eagles secondary that features three Pro Bowl players.
Form held in the fourth wild-card game, as the Indianapolis Colts ran the Denver Broncos out of the tournament, 49-24. It was as if some higher power were saying, "No, I will not ruin the keynote matchup of the season."
Even before the Broncos-Colts kickoff, pulses were quickening at the thought of Indianapolis facing the Super Bowl--champion Patriots. Peyton Manning was like a surgeon against Denver, directing an offense that racked up 529 yards against the league's fourth-ranked defense. He is at the top of his game and at the peak of a record-breaking season, but it'll all end in smush if Bill Belichick's Patriots hang one on him again.
New England has beaten Manning five straight times. In the AFC Championship Game last year the Pats intercepted him four times and roughed up his pass catchers so much that in the off-season the league announced it would strictly enforce the no-contact penalty against receivers. (Colts president Bill Polian has been accused of being the force behind that move.)
In the opener this year New England survived a furious Indianapolis ground assault and pulled out a three-point victory, thanks to a Willie McGinest sack and a missed 48-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt at the end. But this time New England will be without injured starting corners Ty Law, an All-Pro in 2003, and Tyrone Poole. The replacements will be Asante Samuel, who had been the nickelback, and Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie. The new nickelback is wideout Troy Brown.
Facing Manning with backups in the secondary is a scary prospect, and controlling the offensive monster that Indy has become will be the ultimate test of Belichick's coaching artistry. On Sunday we all saw what Manning did to Denver's rookie nickelback, Roc Alexander. Reggie Wayne had a career day, thanks to Manning, with 10 catches for 221 yards and two scores (box, page 49).
"That's the difference between Manning now and what he used to be," says a personnel scout who knows Indy and New England well. "He's not worried about making his receivers happy. He's like a shark. If he smells blood, he'll keep going to the same guy--anything to give his team the best chance to win.
"New England won't make the same mistake Denver did, though. The Broncos rolled their coverage toward [All-Pro] Marvin Harrison, and they put Alexander on an island on the other side. But instead of having Alexander play Wayne tight and try to disrupt him, they had him playing off. The Patriots won't do that.
"And they won't blitz, even though they'll be talking about pressure all week," the scout continued. "You can't do that to Manning because he'll find the open guy too quickly. It'll be up to the New England defensive coaches to give Manning different looks on every play, and then have their guys moving and adjusting at the snap. You want to make him think for a moment, instead of going to his timed read right away. Then if you can get pressure, you've got a chance.
"When they met in September, Indy hurt New England by running and going to play-action. I think that's what they'll do this time. And the Colts can run any kind of offense without changing personnel packages. If they split their second tight end, Dallas Clark, then it's like they're in three wides because he has become a very dangerous receiver. Or they can go with three true wides, with Brandon Stokley. Defenses have a hard time changing personnel against them because Manning gets the ball snapped so quickly that he'll catch the other team with 12 men on the field."
Indianapolis--New England will get most of the attention, but don't overlook the other games. The unchartable element for the Jets is their great courage, as they displayed in their nail-biting overtime win at San Diego last Saturday. Then there's the confidence that comes from beating a quality team on the road, in a playoff game, with a quarterback whose injured throwing shoulder is at least functional if not fully healed.
The Jets and the Steelers were tied 3-3 heading into the fourth quarter of their Dec. 12 game, during which Roethlisberger showed he is human. (He had his first off day as a starter, with two interceptions and only nine completions.) It took some hard running by Jerome Bettis, plus a bit of trickery on a touchdown pass from Bettis to Jerame Tuman, to subdue stubborn New York.
Bettis and Roethlisberger will be coming off two weeks' rest. Bettis says the time off has "given me a fresh set of legs." Roethlisberger had two more subpar efforts after the Jets' game, giving him a total of five interceptions for the three outings, and he injured his ribs in a Dec. 26 game against the Baltimore Ravens. No one knows what kind of shape he'll be in on Saturday and, with the stakes so high, how he'll react to a defense that gave him trouble last time.
Over in the NFC, have the Eagles been neutered by the loss of wideout Terrell Owens? Will they revert to the offensive team that went belly-up against the Carolina Panthers in last year's NFC Championship Game? And what should be made of the two lethargic losses that closed out their regular season? Historians point out that it has been 32 years since a team that finished with two losses went to the Super Bowl and 37 since such a team won it. "Well, that's what the media does," says Philly defensive end Hugh Douglas. "Finds these meaningless stats, these blurps of history. That was 60, 70 years ago, whatever. We're worrying about the 'now.'"
Finally, to get a read on the Rams, listen to coach Mike Martz. If he says he's going to open it up against the Falcons and test their secondary, you can bet he'll come out with two tight ends and a fullback and pound away. If he says he has to establish the running game, he'll be in four wides and throw on his first 20 plays. "It's nice that we're playing our best football right now," says Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
It's just one more reason why we could be in for a special weekend.