San Francisco-Green Bay. Tampa Bay-Philadelphia. Baltimore-Miami. New York Jets-Oakland. The NFL couldn’t have come up with a better wild-card weekend if commissioner Paul Tagliabue had picked the matchups himself.
The Packers and 49ers, who both run offshoots of Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh’s high-powered West Coast offense, met in the playoffs for four straight seasons beginning in 1995 and will renew acquaintances tomorrow in the first postseason game for each in three years.
The Ravens begin defense of their Super Bowl title against the equally defensive-minded Dolphins, who have gone 28 years without a championship.
And the Jets, who had to win in Oakland last Sunday for the first time in 10 tries just to make the playoffs, must repeat the feat tonight as they begin their quest to make their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
Niners-Packers San Francisco doubled its victory total this season, but that 12-4 record not only wasn’t good enough to capture the NFC West, it didn’t even earn the 49ers a home playoff game. San Francisco is the first of the 10 wild-card teams in NFL history with at least 12 victories to open the playoffs on the road. And not just anywhere on the road but in Green Bay, where the Packers have never lost a playoff game.
The Packers (12-4) are 11-0 at Lambeau Field in the postseason and 5-0 since Brett Favre first quarterbacked them into the playoffs in 1993 with current 49ers coach Steve Mariucci as his position coach. A touchdown pass in his 11th consecutive playoff game would move Favre into second place behind Dan Marino (13) in that category. Favre is famous for winning in the cold. He’s 30-0 when the mercury is below 35 degrees, as it well might be tomorrow.
“This is what we wanted,” said center Mike Flanagan, whose Packers are 72-13 at home with Favre taking snaps. “They have to come to our place, cold weather and our fans.”
The 49ers counter with Jeff Garcia, who quarterbacked in six CFL playoff games in which the average temperature was 23 degrees and was the MVP for Calgary’s 1998 Grey Cup champion. Garcia also topped Joe Montana and Steve Young by becoming the first Niners quarterback to throw 30 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons. Sixteen of those scores went to Terrell Owens, who led all NFL receivers in reaching the end zone.
But the passers might not be as critical as the runners on the frozen tundra, and both teams have fine ones. Green Bay’s Ahman Green was second in the NFC with 1,387 yards. San Francisco’s Garrison Hearst, back after missing two years with knee woes, had 1,206.
While Green Bay’s defense forced 11 turnovers and lost just three in its last three games, San Francisco’s defense is also surging. The 49ers, who allowed an average of 22.8 points during the first eight games while forcing 11 turnovers, gave up an average of just 12.5 points the past eight games while forcing 23 turnovers and recording three shutouts.
Bucs-Eagles Forget Philadelphia’s 17-13 victory last week in a game during which both teams rested many regulars. The game that resonates is last year’s wild-card contest in which the Eagles held the Bucs to 11 first downs and 199 yards in a 21-3 triumph.
“We have something to prove,” Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said. “We went up there and got embarrassed last year.”
Tony Dungy is 54-42 with four playoff berths in six years coaching the previously downtrodden Bucs, but his job is on the line unless he can avoid falling to 0-4 on the road in the postseason (the Eagles are just 4-4 at home this year).
Philadelphia has dynamic quarterback Donovan McNabb and Tampa Bay has NFC receiving champion Keyshawn Johnson, but the Bucs and Eagles win with defense, ranking third and fourth, respectively, in the NFC. The NFC East champion Eagles (11-5) have allowed 24 or fewer points in 32 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest streak in 30 years. The Bucs (9-7 after winning five of their last seven games) forced an NFC-high 39 turnovers.
Jets-Raiders Three coast-to-coast flights in a week would faze most teams but not the Jets, whose 7-1 road record was the AFC’s best. The seventh victory came last Sunday in Oakland, 24-22 on John Hall’s last-second 53-yard field goal.
“We’ve already been to the jungle,” Jets safety Nick Ferguson said before the first prime-time wild-card game. “We conquered the beast, and now we have to go back and try to do it again. The odds say we can’t, but the odds said we wouldn’t get to this point.”
Although four wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl, most recently Baltimore last year, no sixth seed has reached a conference championship game.
“Why can’t it be us?” said Herman Edwards, first-year coach of the 10-6 Jets. “There is no name on that [Vince Lombardi] trophy last time I checked.”
The Raiders (10-6) haven’t put their name on the trophy in 18 years, and after losing their last three games the AFC West champions don’t exactly look primed to do so, especially with quarterback Rich Gannon sparring with his coach and teammates.
“We need to go out and play with confidence and quit reading about how old and tired we are,” said coach Jon Gruden, whose Raiders reached last season’s AFC title game.
Gannon was the first Oakland quarterback to lead the AFC in passing since 1976, but New York corners Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman controlled Raiders Hall of Fame-bound wideouts Jerry Rice and Tim Brown last week. Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde has been wildly inconsistent, but receivers Laveranues Coles and Wayne Chrebet torched Oakland corners Eric Allen and Charles Woodson for 10 catches and 194 yards.
“We’ve done the losing streak thing,” Woodson said. “It’s time to get back on track.”