- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

The Baltimore Ravens gained 134 yards last week and won a playoff game. I got out my reference books yesterday to see if that had ever happened before, if a team had ever gained so few yards and advanced to the next round. Guess what? It hadn't. The next-lowest yardage total by a winning team in postseason play is 170 by the '42 Redskins in the title game against the Bears.

I mention this not to numb you with numbers but to point out what an interesting time this is for pro football. We seem to be in the midst of a Period of the Improbable in the NFL. All sorts of weird stuff like a team gaining 134 yards and winning a playoff game is going on. Who knows what's in store for us on Conference Title Game Sunday, when the Ravens travel to Oakland and the Vikings emerge from their dome to battle the Giants. A record-breaking 64-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski that sends the Raiders to the Super Bowl? A last-second Hail Mary from Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss that does the same for Minnesota? I can hardly wait to find out.

Maybe it's free agency, or maybe it's expansion, but these last five years have been as fascinating as any five-year stretch in pro football in recent memory, maybe ever. You've had Green Bay capturing its first Super Bowl since the Lombardi Era. You've had Atlanta making the Super Bowl after 32 years of (mostly) misery. You've had New Orleans finally winning a playoff game. And that's just the beginning.

You've had Carolina and Jacksonville reaching the conference championship game in their second year. You've had the Music City Miracle. You've had Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a kick all season, missing a 38-yarder to cost the Vikes the NFC title game. You've had a Super Bowl between the former Los Angeles Rams and the former Houston Oilers. (And now you've got the former Cleveland Browns, the Ravens, trying to get to Tampa.) You've had the Jaguars putting up 62 points against the Dolphins in the playoffs, second only to the Bears' 73 against the Redskins in 1940.

You've had the Saints trading their entire draft and part of another for one player. You've had Dick Vermeil returning to coaching after a 14-year hiatus and lead St. Louis to the championship. You've had the Redskins failing to qualify for the postseason despite a $100 million payroll. You've had coaches in such demand that clubs have been giving up draft picks for them the Jets for Bill Parcells, the Patriots for Bill Belichick, the Seahawks for Mike Holmgren, the Redskins for Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs for Vermeil.

You've had quarterbacks, a bunch of them, suddenly blossoming in their 30s Chris Chandler, Doug Flutie, Vinny Testaverde, Steve Beuerlein, Rich Gannon. You've had the amazing story of Kurt Warner, who went from the Arena League to NFL MVP in two years. You've had Barry Sanders retiring while still in his prime with Walter Payton's all-time rushing record close enough to touch.

You've had Corey Dillon breaking Payton's record for rushing yards in a game. You've had Marshall Faulk doing things, running and receiving, that no back has done. You've had Jason Elam booting a 63-yard field goal. You've had the Rams giving up 471 points nearly 30 a week and earning a playoff berth. You've had the Ravens allow 165, the fewest in a 16-game season.

You've had an official hitting a player in the eye with a penalty flag and ending his career. You've had Darrell Green playing a darn good cornerback at the age of 40. You've had Dennis Miller being added to the "Monday Night Football" crew. You've had so many strange, intriguing, wonderful things happen, I don't have the space to list them all.

Every five years in the NFL aren't like the last five. Not by a long shot. It's as if all the rules are being rewritten. Can't go very far with a young quarterback? Then how do you explain Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and Aaron Brooks? Or Warner, Peyton Manning and Shaun King last year? The best offense is a balanced offense? St. Louis threw the ball more than 60 percent of the time this season and outgained and outscored everybody. It takes years to turn an expansion team into a winner? Look at what Jacksonville has done. With luck and a little bit of brainpower, a club can become a contender rather quickly.

Which is reason enough to look forward to Sunday's games and whatever treats they may have in store. A year ago, you may recall, the AFC title game turned on a safety, and the NFC title game was a 6-5 affair with five minutes left. The only thing predictable about the NFL these days is its unpredictability.

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