John Madden
John Madden
Wild-Card Viewer's Guide
By John Madden

With the fine line that exists in the NFL today, none of the 12 playoff teams should be ruled out of contention for the Super Bowl. The thing to remember is that this is a sudden-death tournament. Win or go home! It's not like most other sports where a team can lose and come back to play again. After every game, someone's season is over. Every team in the playoffs will lose its last game with the exception of one. The finality of that is what makes the NFL playoffs special.

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens
Saturday's matchup (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET) features two tough teams that play hard and are anchored by good defenses.

Uncertainty the Theme in '03
John Madden
In the NFL this season nothing was certain from the first week of the season to the last.

Just look at Week 17! The St. Louis Rams needed a win against the lowly Detroit Lions to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they lost -- which gave home field to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then the Minnesota Vikings went on the road to play the Arizona Cardinals, needing to hand the Cards their 13th loss of the season to make the playoffs ... but the Vikings lost on the final play of the game. That loss handed the NFC North division title to the Green Bay Packers.

There was a thin line between the NFL's top teams and bottom teams this season. Because of that parity, every season probably will be filled with uncertainty from week to week.

The thing to remember is that teams can't win in the playoffs with just a good defense, and the Ravens are starting to remedy that situation with some firepower on offense.

When you look at the 2,066-yard year Ravens RB Jamal Lewis had (second-most in NFL history), it's easy to assume Baltimore is all about the running game.

But QB Anthony Wright has been a pleasant surprise. He's played well and gives the Ravens an opportunity to get some offense going in the air.

Meanwhile, the Titans are a team that has shown all year they can win with both offense and defense.

QB Steve McNair has put up MVP-type numbers and gives the Titans more of a passing dimension than we've seen in the past when RB Eddie George was the workhorse.

Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers
This Saturday game (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) is similar to the Titans-Ravens matchup because both the Cowboys and Panthers feature good defenses and ball-control offenses. It's also a rematch of a Week 12 matchup that Dallas won 24-20. In that game, the Cowboys' D was able to put the brakes on Carolina's running game. That victory should give the Dallas defense confidence that it can stop Carolina.

QB Quincy Carter is doing a fine job managing the game and allowing the No. 1 defense in the NFL to put Dallas in a position to win. For the Panthers, it's pretty much the same story, because QB Jake Delhomme manages the game and allows the defense to win. But that may not be enough to win this week for either quarterback. Someone has to step up and make a play, and both teams have players who can do that.

The Cowboys have receivers and tight ends who can be difference-makers as well as a veteran coach (Bill Parcells) who has a ton of experience in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Panthers have a good running back, Stephen Davis, who was an early-season MVP candidate.

But Dallas' defense has two safeties (Roy Williams and Darren Woodson) who combine with three linebackers to make running the ball difficult. That means Delhomme will have to step up and count on his receivers to be playmakers if the Panthers are to have success against Dallas.

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers
Seattle has played well at home (8-0) but has had trouble on the road (2-6). But the Seahawks showed promise by defeating the 49ers on the road this past Sunday. That win should give them some much-needed confidence as they travel to Green Bay for Sunday's game.

On the other side of the coin, though, the Seahawks have to go to Lambeau Field, one of the toughest places to win in the playoffs. But just a year ago the Packers suffered their first home playoff loss in franchise history, so it can be done. Right now there seems to be something magical about the way the Packers are playing.

It started in Week 16 in ABC's "Monday Night Football" game in Oakland, a day after QB Brett Favre's dad died. Favre decided to play the game and posted perhaps the best performance of his career (399 yards, four touchdowns). Then, in Week 17, Denver went to Lambeau Field with the Packers needing a win (and also needing Minnesota to lose to Arizona) for Green Bay to make the playoffs. Somehow everything fell into place, and now the Packers are hosting a wild-card game!

I've always said that it's important to be peaking when entering the playoffs, and if that's true the Green Bay Packers are in good shape.

Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts
Sunday's matchup is a rematch of Week 16, when the Broncos trounced the Colts 31-17 without star RB Clinton Portis. He didn't play because of a sprained knee and ankle that kept him sidelined for a few games. But even without Portis, the Broncos were still able to exploit the weakness of Indianapolis' run defense.

It's a tall task for any defense to stop a team with such potent offensive weapons as Portis, QB Jake Plummer, TE Shannon Sharpe and WR Rod Smith. But the Colts' defense is particularly prone. If somehow the D could step up to the level of Indianapolis' offense, the Colts would go a long way.

For the Broncos to win this game, they need a combination of ball control and good defense. The Colts, though, have a better chance to win in a shootout.

This season the Colts have proven they can score lots of points in a short period of time on the best defenses in the league (as they did in a memorable Monday Night Football overtime win, 38-35, over Tampa Bay in Week 5). The Colts need to recreate that offense this week against the Broncos to advance to the AFC semifinals.
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