Holmgren gets another shot at Pack

The first round of the playoffs features three rematches from this year and a battle between former divisional rivals.

Updated: December 29, 2003, 4:31 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The wild-card round of the playoffs opens with wild matchups.

In some instances, the matchup is personal. Mike Holmgren left Green Bay to become coach/general manager of the Seahawks. Mike Sherman, Holmgren's former assistant, got the job he wanted in Green Bay, and now Sherman stands in Holmgren's way as he returns to Lambeau with only the title of coach.

The Packers won an Oct. 5 game against the Seahawks in Green Bay, 35-13.

Clinton Portis
AP PhotoPortis did not play in Denver's Week 16 win over the Colts.
Colts defenders took Denver's 227-yard running effort against them in Week 16 personally. Without Clinton Portis, the Broncos backups gashed the Colts on the ground in the RCA Dome for a 31-17 victory in Week 16. The Colts defense may be small. Maybe they are tired. The Colts definitely are angry and a little embarrassed heading into Sunday's first-round AFC game.

The Panthers lost a little luster from what turned out to be their 11-5 season when they lost in Dallas, 24-20, Nov. 23. Stephen Davis was held to 59 yards on 26 carries. Jake Delhomme completed only nine passes. Quincy Carter embarrassed the Panthers secondary for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but of all people, Aveion Cason, a backup running back who now is on injured reserve, won the game with a 16-yard third-quarter touchdown run.

And the Saturday afternoon matchup of the Titans and Ravens is just sheer rivalry. The physical Ravens were the only team to get into the heads of the tough Titans when they were playing in the AFC Central. And it doesn't make the Titans happy to have a 12-win season and have to play in Baltimore, when the Ravens have the worst record among the division winners.

It's a good thing that there are regular-season carryovers from previous games because there is virtually no carryover from last year's playoffs. Only four of last year's playoff teams made it back, and two -- Indianapolis and Tennessee -- are in the same division, the AFC South. The Eagles and Packers are the only repeat playoff teams in the NFC.

Here's a preview of what to look for in the playoffs.

1. Remember, it's a league of offense: Statistically, it's beneficial to be a better offensive team than a defensive one. More top offensive teams made the playoffs than defense. The Chiefs, Colts, Packers, Broncos, Rams, Seahawks and Titans were among the league's best 10 offenses. The only defenses that rated among the best that made the playoffs were the Broncos, Ravens and Patriots. Here's another screwy part of these playoffs: The Chiefs, Rams, Colts and Eagles were among the league's worst run-stopping teams, and yet three of those teams drew first-round byes.

2. Young Guns: Aren't the most experienced quarterbacks supposed to lead teams into the playoffs? Not anymore. The average age of starting quarterbacks in the playoffs is 28.4. Brett Favre (34) of the Packers and Trent Green (33) of the Chiefs are the oldest. Steve McNair of the Titans seems like an old-timer, but he's 30. Jake Plummer (29) of the Broncos and Jake Delhomme (28) of the Panthers were signed off the free-agent market to lead their teams to the playoffs and they did. The youngest quarterbacks are Carter (26) of the Cowboys, Tom Brady (26) of the Patriots and Marc Bulger (26) of the Rams. Matt Hasselbeck makes his first playoff appearance for the Seahawks at the age of 28. Donovan McNabb (27) of the Eagles and Peyton Manning (27) of the Colts have become regulars, but they are also among the youngest. The most unlikely quarterback to make the playoffs is 27-year-old Anthony Wright, who lost his job in Dallas to Carter.

Morten Andersen
Andersen
3. Can't kick, forget about it: Ten of the 12 playoffs teams had the 10 highest-scoring kickers in football. In fact, those 10 teams had the fortune of having only 47 misses -- less than five per team -- in 336 attempts. That's an 86 percent efficiency rating. Knowing that a lot of these games could come down to last-minute field goals, almost every playoff team has a good kicker. Morten Andersen of the Chiefs didn't rank among the top 10 scorers because he only had 16 field goals -- on just 20 attempts. The Chiefs are unbelievable in the red zone at being able to score touchdowns. Cowboys kicker Billy Cundiff didn't rank among the elite kickers, but he made 23 of 29 field goals.

4. Best rivalry: No doubt, the best rivalry involves the Titans and Ravens. The Titans have trouble stopping former University of Tennessee star Jamal Lewis. The Ravens have won the past five meetings, and the Titans are still stinging from a 24-10 loss in Nashville during the 2000 playoffs. Ravens officials are still furious that the Titans played a clip on the scoreboard of Brian Billick talking about beating the Titans in a post-game locker room speech.

5. Good running or good running back: Eight of the league's 18 1,000-yard rushers made the playoffs, but the top seeds in each conference -- the Patriots and Eagles -- don't come close to having a 1,000-yard runner. Antowain Smith had 642 and Kevin Faulk had 638 yards for the Patriots. The Eagles appear to have lost their leading rusher, Brian Westbrook (613 yards) for the playoffs with a torn triceps that probably needs surgery. Andy Reid has emphasized the run but he will have to do it with Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley, who have combined for less than 1,000 yards. Jamal Lewis has rushed for more than 2,000 yards, and Ahman Green of the Packers finished second with 1,883.

6. Bad Seeds: It's better to be a top-two seed in the NFC than the AFC. Since 1990, the top two seeds have met all but twice for the NFC conference championship, which should put the Rams at Philadelphia in the NFC title game. In eight of those 13 NFC seasons, the top seed went to the Super Bowl. In the AFC, anything goes. Only two of the past nine top seeds in the AFC advanced to the Super Bowl. Watch out, New England. Home field could be dangerous.

7. Back to home field: The 12 teams that made the playoffs had combined home records of 79-17, including four teams that had perfect home records -- St. Louis, Seattle, Kansas City and New England. The worst home records involved two NFC teams -- the Packers and Eagles, who were both 5-3.

8. Reception problems: Even though the NFL is considered to be a passing league, wide receivers weren't the focal point of playoff offenses. Only five 70-plus catch receivers made the playoffs -- Torry Holt of the Rams (117), Marvin Harrison of the Colts (94), Derrick Mason of the Titans (95), Steve Smith of the Panthers (87) and Rod Smith of the Broncos (74). Even though many of the playoff quarterbacks threw more than 500 passes apiece, the go-to receivers weren't being overused. Many of the top offenses distributed the ball to halfbacks as checkdown options or, in some cases, emphasized the tight end.

9. Does conservatism work: The question facing the Ravens and Cowboys is how far they can go in the playoffs with limited offenses? The Ravens rush for more yards than they pass, one of the weirdest stats in the playoffs. The Cowboys get less than 200 yards of gross passing yardage from Carter. How much can you rely on defense?

10. Coaching job security: Unlike last season when the 49ers parted with Steve Mariucci after two playoff games, there shouldn't be much coaching turnover from the 12 playoff teams. Mike Holmgren secured a sixth year with a 10-win season and his second playoff trip in five seasons. Holmgren has three years remaining on his $40 million deal. Dick Vermeil is the only coach with an uncertain fate, but it's up to him. The Chiefs want him to extend his contract, which expires after the season. Vermeil still hasn't decided whether he wants to coach next year. He'll be 68. The players want him, but Vermeil still needs to talk to his wife and make a decision about the future.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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