A Wild Guide To The Wild Cards

Bob George
January 12, 2002 at 9:21 pm ET

Another weekend of no Patriots. Sigh.

Oh sure, few people are complaining, thanks to the fact that the Patriots are two wins away from Super Bowl XXXVI. Those who are afraid that the Patriots will be too stale come next Saturday night might have cause to worry. Those who will once again be twiddling their thumbs with no game to watch are another problem.

Actually, this piece is dedicated to those thumb-twiddlers. If some of you out there simply don’t know what to do with your life without the Patriots to look forward to on a given weekend (assuming you’ve never heard of the Bruins or Celtics), this article is for you. We’re going to inject some energy and enthusiasm into your otherwise ruined weekend because those dadblasted Patriots had to go and get a playoff bye.

And we’re not only going to delve into the AFC games. There are four games this weekend, not two. You the Patriot fan need to watch all four of them, no matter what significant others might say. Every one of the four games has some connection to the Patriots, some great, some small. But you need to keep your eyes peeled for each game, and watch it with some degree of vigor.

You the Patriot fan have every right to entertain the notion that your team might go to the Super Bowl this year. If you would like to see your favorite team actually win a Super Bowl versus merely being there for posterity, certain things need to happen. Some of those “certain things” will take place this weekend.

So, quit twiddling your thumbs. Make sure your fridge is stocked. Ditto for your munchy cabinet. You’ll be plenty busy this weekend. Or rather, you’ll be wild. Wild about the Wild Cards.

That said, let us now guide you through the process of whom to root for, and why.

Buccaneers/Eagles
Close-Up
What: NFC Wild Card Game
Where: Veterans Stadium
Philadelphia, Penn.
When: Saturday 1/12/02
4:30 PM EST
Television: ABC
WCVB Channel 5 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
Team Records: Buccaneers 9-7
Eagles 11-5
Latest Line: Eagles by 3 1/2

Buccaneers at Eagles

Team to root for: Buccaneers

Now, what in the Sam Hill does this game mean to the Patriots?

As far as the Super Bowl is concerned, not a thing. Neither of these teams will figure in the Big Show. One of these teams will fall Saturday, the other will fall the next weekend. They will either get frozen out in Chicago or their tongues will be drooping with exhaustion in St. Louis. Where the Patriots and the Super Bowl are concerned, forget this game. There are other issues pending with the outcome of this game.

Word broke today that Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer will fire head coach Tony Dungy if the Pewter Patrol loses to Philly. If Dungy is fired, word is out that former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells is ready to sign a five-year deal to take over as head coach of Tampa Bay.

How does this affect the Patriots? Well, don’t be surprised if guys like Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Bryan Cox and Drew Bledsoe wear Buccaneer uniforms next year if Parcells takes over as Buccaneer head coach. The latter is a reach, but look for most every Patriot free agent or cap casualty, especially those who have played for Parcells once upon a time, to be lured down to the sun and fun of Florida.

Johnson and McGinest might be salary cap casualties if they don’t agree to restructuring. If they get cut loose, Parcells might scoop them up quick. Both Cox and Phifer are a bit long in the tooth, but both, especially Phifer, have lots of football left in them.

It is not likely that Bledsoe would be dealt to a playoff team, given that team’s low draft position. Washington might be a great fit, if Daniel Snyder pulls a reverse of the Ricky Williams/New Orleans deal of a few years back. But Washington will pick about in the middle, and the Patriots might want a higher pick for Bledsoe.

Tampa Bay would draft near the bottom of the first round, which might discourage the Patriots from wanting to deal Bledsoe to Tampa. How badly Parcells might want Bledsoe is open to debate; Bledsoe was Parcells’ first Patriot pick in 1993. Parcells might not have enough to give, or want to give up, to entice the Patriots to send Bledsoe to Tampa.

But the thought is there. If Parcells can be kept out of Tampa, or anywhere for that matter, the Patriots will take it. Root then for Tampa Bay to win at Philadelphia, and Dungy will hold on to his job a bit longer.

Will Tampa Bay win? They’re 0-20 in cold weather games. You do the math.

Jets/Raiders
Close-Up
What: AFC Wild Card Game
Where: Network Associates Coliseum
Oakland, Calif.
When: Saturday 1/12/02
8:00 PM EST
Television: ABC
WCVB Channel 5 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
Team Records: Jets 10-6
Raiders 10-6
Latest Line: Raiders by 4 1/2

Jets at Raiders

Team to root for: Raiders

We’ve been here before, so we’ll be brief this time.

The Jets did their thing last week by defeating the Raiders, thereby handing the Patriots the two seed. This week, the Jets go back to being the scum of the earth.

There are two real dangerous teams in the AFC playoff field. One of them is the Jets. If any team can blast the Patriots at home in the playoffs, it’s the Jets. They must be taken down.

And if Oakland does take them down, the Raiders will then travel to Foxborough for the next round. Oakland provides a much more beatable opponent for the Patriots than the Jets. The Raiders’ play of late has been very inconsistent, but the cold Saturday night weather would give the Patriots a healthy advantage.

Who will win? It would be surprising if the Jets can win two in a row in a city where they hadn’t won until Sunday since the year Marilyn Monroe died. The Raiders should be primed for revenge, despite playing against the best road team in the NFL. Our nod here goes to the Raiders, hopefully their final victory of the season.

Ravens/Dolphins
Close-Up
What: AFC Wild Card Game
Where: Pro Player Park
Miami, Florida
When: Sunday 1/13/02
4:00 PM EST
Television: CBS
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
Team Records: Ravens 10-6
Dolphins 11-5
Latest Line: Dolphins by 2 1/2

Ravens at Dolphins

Team to root for: Dolphins

If the Jets somehow defeat Oakland again, the winner of this game will come to Foxborough next Saturday night. Again, it all depends upon who’s more beatable where the Patriots are involved.

The Patriots got off a schnide on Sunday. They beat Carolina for the first time in team history, and that meant that for the first time since the merger, the Patriots have beaten every NFL team at least once (which will hold until the Houston Texans begin play next fall). Conversely, the Baltimore Ravens are one of two teams that have never beaten the Patriots in regular season play (Jacksonville is the other, and we did say “regular season”). So, one might think that Baltimore makes for a nicer opponent than Miami, right?

Not quite. Baltimore is the defending Super Bowl champ. They are the other real dangerous team in the AFC playoff field. They are a cold weather team. They employ someone named Ray Lewis. When you see Lewis play against your team, it will make you wish that Georgia prosecutors had done a better job of throwing this guy in the slammer for life.

Regardless of your opinion of Lewis’ guilt or innocence, he is the most dangerous defensive player in the league today. He can take over a game like no other player can. If you don’t want a repeat of the Reggie White and Max Lane show, you must root very hard for the defeat of Baltimore on Sunday.

You can shoot back with your condemnations of the Raven offense in general and Elvis Grbac in particular. Sorry, but it rings hollow.

Hate Shannon Sharpe all you want, but he gives Grbac a great security blanket. Rejoice all you want that the Patriots have Antowain Smith versus Terry Allen, but the Ravens offensive line can open holes for him (Barney Fife could gain 100 yards in a game if he could run behind Jonathan Ogden).

Grbac could have a worse game than last Monday night, and his team could still win by something like 9-6. If Miami runs the ball like they did at Foxborough a few weeks back, Baltimore could very well win this game regardless of how bad Grbac plays.

Miami is at home. The Fish also have a great defense in their own right. What the Dolphins have to do is to contain Allen and force Grbac into some turnovers. If Miami can win the battle of turnovers and not allow Lewis to totally have his way, Miami could win this game. If Lamar Smith has a huge day, the Ravens will have a hard time winning this game.

If Miami can somehow survive this game, they head to Foxborough if the Jets beat Oakland. The Patriots would greatly prefer Miami over Baltimore in that Miami, like Oakland, is not a cold weather city and will suffer in the cold night air of Foxborough. The proximity to their last meeting ought not to be a problem for the Patriots, if 1997 is any indication. The teams played on consecutive weeks, one in Miami, and one at home, and the Patriots won both. The latter of the two games was a playoff game, of course.

The game should be a toss-up. All you can do is sit tight and cheer on the Fish.

49ers/Packers
Close-Up
What: NFC Wild Card Game
Where: Lambeau Field
Green Bay, Wisconsin
When: Sunday 1/13/02
1:00 PM EST
Television: Fox
WFXT Channel 25 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 945
Team Records: 49ers 12-4
Packers 12-4
Latest Line: Packers by 3 1/2

49ers at Packers

Team to root for: Packers

You might still be angry at the Packers, like you were at the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, the 1986 New York Mets and the 1985 Chicago Bears. These rotten teams took away the glory that you have never seen your team achieve.

But you might want to give a cheer for the Packers. Again, the reason lies in the fact that the Patriots could likely wind up in the Super Bowl.

Could you handle another matchup with the Packers? Or, God forbid, the Bears? Whatever the case, either matchup becomes more possible if Green Bay can get past San Francisco on Sunday.

The main problem is this: If the Patriots have to play the Rams in the Super Bowl, forget all about the world championship. The Patriots will not beat the Rams, period. Unless Kurt Warner gets hurt, there is no way. The Rams are too fast for anyone in either conference. It’s not fair. They’re just too quick. Score 45 on them and they’ll score 48.

The Rams are too quick.

Except for the Packers?

Or, can Brett Favre outshoot Warner in a shootout?

Many experts believe that the only team that might extricate the Rams from the playoffs is the Packers. The reason begins and ends with Favre. Favre is still that good in that he can elevate his entire team to play out of its mind, and is the near-equal of Warner in the ability to put lots of points on the board quickly.

If the Packers are to beat the Rams, it will have to be because of Favre. As good as the Ram offense is, the defense is almost as good. The Rams are third in the NFL in total defense, and third against the run. They are tenth against the pass, about the only window of opportunity Favre might have.

To play the Rams in the second round, they need to beat the Niners and Philadelphia needs to beat Tampa Bay. Philly would then head for Chicago and Green Bay would go to St. Louis. Then if Green Bay pulls the upset and Chicago wins at home, the NFC title game pits the two Super Bowl opponents of the Patriots in team history.

The Pack should take care of San Francisco. It should be a great game, and it is a shame for a 12-win team like San Francisco to not get a home playoff game. But the Packers are undefeated at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. The Niners will be overmatched in many ways, unless Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens have big games.

So, there you have it. Root for Tampa Bay, Oakland, Miami and Green Bay. Only Tampa Bay is a reach, and Miami is a big maybe. The other games should play out the way Patriot Nation would want it. Oakland should send the Jets home with their tails between their legs, and the Pack will send the Niners packing.

Now, can you possibly entertain the thought of thumb-twiddling after all this appetite whetting? If so, perhaps you are holding your breath until the day the truck leaves Fenway Park for Florida, and you use the Patriots to pass the time.

Right now, New England is football crazy. The Sox can wait. Watch the B’s and C’s some other night. Hang on these four games, and root for whom we told you to root for.

The Patriotic Road To The Vince continues Saturday. Every game is wild.

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