- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Pity Tennessee. The Titans will play Sunday's AFC Championship game in Oakland's Black Hole where they were drilled 52-25 four months ago and where the Raiders are 7-2 this year and 21-7 over the last three seasons.

However, a funny thing happened on the last step to the Super Bowl in the AFC playoffs the past three seasons: The road team won the AFC title game.

New England upset Pittsburgh last January, Baltimore shocked Oakland the previous season and Tennessee surprised Jacksonville the year before that. That victory in 2000 makes the Titans the only one of the four teams playing Sunday who have been to a Super Bowl since 1983.

Include Atlanta's stunner in Minnesota in the 1998 season's NFC Championship game and Denver's victory at Pittsburgh in the 1997 season's AFC finale and it has been six years since the home teams both won in the conference title contests.

In fact, the road team was 6-4 in the past 10 AFC Championship games, with San Diego winning in Pittsburgh after the 1994 season and Buffalo doing so in Miami after the 1992 season. The only such NFC teams other than the 1998 Falcons were Green Bay after the 1995 season and Dallas after the 1992 season, both in San Francisco. So all told, NFC road teams are 5-31 in the final two conference playoff rounds dating to 1990 compared to a respectable 13-23 for AFC visitors. That's pretty long odds against Tampa Bay winning at Philadelphia, where its season ended in January in 2001 and 2002.

Life of Brian Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell is about to add all the postseason NFL return marks to those he holds in regular season play. Mitchell is first with 750 playoff kickoff return yards and 32 kickoff returns. He needs eight yards to pass the retired Dave Meggett's record of 312 punt return yards and five punt returns to pass Meggett's record 34 in that category.

QBs mean more Though just one of the NFL's 10 leading rushers Tiki Barber of the New York Giants was on a playoff team, five of the top 10 passers reached postseason and three of them Oakland's Rich Gannon, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson are still playing. The others were Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington of the New York Jets. Four of the top 10 wide receivers the Colts' Marvin Harrison, the Raiders' Jerry Rice, Pittsburgh's Hines Ward and San Francisco's Terrell Owens made the playoffs.

Eight of the top 11 (three players tied for ninth place) sack leaders played this month with St. Louis' Leonard Little, Carolina's Julius Peppers and Washington's LaVar Arrington the exceptions. By the way, Arrington is the only linebacker in that top 11.

Nowhere men The NFC North's four coaches Chicago's Dick Jauron, Detroit's Marty Mornhinweg, Green Bay's Mike Sherman and Minnesota's Mike Tice have a 1-3 playoff record (admittedly in 10 combined seasons). Mornhinweg and Sherman did go to Super Bowls with the Packers but only as the quarterbacks coach and tight ends coach, respectively.

Compare that weak record to the quartets in the other seven divisions.

The NFC East boasts: Dallas' Bill Parcells (three Super Bowls, 11-6 playoff record), the Giants' Jim Fassel (a Super Bowl, 2-3), the Eagles' Andy Reid (4-2) and Washington's Steve Spurrier, who won a national championship at Florida. The AFC West has Denver's Mike Shanahan (two Super Bowls, 7-2), Kansas City's Dick Vermeil (two Super Bowls, 6-4); Oakland's Bill Callahan (1-0) and San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer (5-11).

The AFC North boasts Baltimore's Brian Billick (a Super Bowl, 5-1); Cleveland's Butch Davis (0-1 but second in the nation at the University of Miami), Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher (a Super Bowl, 7-8) and Cincinnati rookie coach Marvin Lewis (a Super Bowl title as Baltimore's defensive coordinator). The AFC East has Miami's Dave Wannstedt (2-3), New England's Bill Belichick (a Super Bowl, 4-1), the New York Jets' Herman Edwards (1-2) and Buffalo's Gregg Williams (a Super Bowl as Tennessee's defensive coordinator).

The NFC South boasts Atlanta's Dan Reeves (four Super Bowls, 11-9), New Orleans' Jim Haslett (1-1), Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden (3-2) and Carolina's John Fox (a Super Bowl as the Giants' defensive coordinator). The NFC West has St. Louis' Mike Martz (a Super Bowl, 2-2), Seattle's Mike Holmgren (two Super Bowls, 9-6), Arizona's Dave McGinnis, whose lack of postseason success would fit well in the NFC North, and the San Francisco vacancy with Steve Mariucci's dismissal Wednesday. The front-runner for the 49ers' job is former coach Bill Walsh's protege, Dennis Green, who led the Vikings to the playoffs eight times in 10 seasons before being forced out in December, 2001.

And the AFC Central has Houston's Dom Capers (1-1 and a Super Bowl as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator), Indianapolis' Tony Dungy (2-5), Tennessee's Jeff Fisher (a Super Bowl, 4-2) and the Jacksonville opening that yesterday was filled by Jack Del Rio, who in his one season as Carolina's defensive coordinator, improved the defense from last in the rankings to second.

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