2003 features strong playoff field

The 2003 playoff field is power-packed, but no team looks more powerful than the Patriots.

Updated: December 30, 2003, 4:58 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

It hangs like an invisible albatross around the neck of Peyton Manning, a yoke of yin, the NFL equivalent of an uncomfortable hair suit. For all his brilliance over the first six seasons of what will be a Hall of Fame career, even with all his prowess in the pocket, Manning has yet to win his first playoff game.

And the winner is ...
Call it instant karma. Dumb luck. A numerologist's windfall. The auguries of some mysterious force, some inexplicable guiding hand, that sees the New England Patriots as the Super Bowl XXXVIII champions.

It will be precisely 729 days between the time Patriots coach Bill Belichick traveled back to Boston with the franchise's first Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand and the second time he gets to hold the prized hardware aloft on a riser in Reliant Stadium. OK, now, here's the spooky part: In the two seasons since the Pats last captured the NFL title, they have scored -- drum roll, here, please -- 729 points.

Yep, we agree, quite a reach there on our part. But what the heck, since the Patriots were going to be our choice anyway, and we just happened to find a too convenient excuse for choosing them in what figures to a tremendous playoff derby.

Watching the Patriots dismantle the Buffalo Bills on Saturday afternoon, we counted no fewer than 17 blitz permutations, before our head started swimming. There are a whole lot smarter people in the NFL than me, many of them plying their trade at quarterback, and capable of decoding defenses. But when it comes time to comprehend a Belichick-designed defense, well, it's like reading a tome, not a primer.

The guy who will be plotting the opposition defense in the Super Bowl, Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles, is no slouch either at drawing up esoteric fronts. But in a close game, we like Belichick's exotic X's just a little bit more.

--Len Pasquarelli

And now the Indianapolis quarterback and his teammates must face the Denver Broncos, an explosive opponent that destroyed the Colts at the RCA Dome on Dec. 21, in the wild-card round of the playoffs next Sunday afternoon. Once again, much to Manning's likely chagrin, here come all those questions about his ability to win in the postseason.

Then again, with the quality of the 12-team assemblage, this could be a playoff field that is rife with question marks. And, far more appealing, with exclamation points as well.

"It's a tough game, yeah, especially with what the Broncos did to us the last time that we (played) them," acknowledged defensive end Dwight Freeney, referring to Denver's 31-17 victory in a game in which Mike Shanahan's team punted only once. "But you know what? Every playoff game is a tough game. That's how the playoffs are supposed to be."

Certainly that is how the Super Bowl tournament figures to be, since the lineup of a dozen competitors is one of the deepest and most dangerous in recent history, despite a fairly glaring dearth of playoff-tested quarterbacks. In a season of turnover, one in which eight of the teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2002 failed to advance this year, the dynamic dozen for 2003 pretty much ran over the competition.

For only the second time since the NFL adopted the current 12-team format in 1990, all of the qualifiers posted double-digit victories in the regular season. Miami became the first franchise since Philadelphia and San Francisco, both in 1991, to win 10 games but fail to secure a playoff berth. The 136 combined victories by the 2003 playoff franchises represent the second-most for a postseason field under the 12-team pool.

"(This is) a really powerful bunch," allowed New England quarterback Tom Brady, who led his team to a 14-2 record and homefield advantage throughout the AFC bracket.

Want more power points on which to focus? There are more than enough, in terms of statistics and stature, to emphasize the quality of a group that nudged the NFL away from the parity party-line a bit in 2003. This is a pool that has demonstrated its mettle over the past four months and which will again, as the playoffs begin, flex its collective muscle.

There are a record six teams this year who fashioned a dozen regular-season wins, double the number of 12-victory franchises from the playoffs of a year ago, and well above the 3.7 average of the past 13 years. Five of the eight division champions posted 12 or more victories in 2003. This also marked just the second time since 1990 that the playoff field won't include a single entry with nine or fewer wins.

Looking for another indicator to illustrate the strength of the 2003 playoff field? Consider this one: The Tennessee Titans, who won 12 games this year, must face a Baltimore team in the wild card round that posted two fewer victories.

Playoff strangers
The 2003 playoff pool is one of strength but is also a group that includes some strangers to the postseason experience.

Four of the dozen playoff teams -- Carolina, Dallas, Kansas City and Seattle -- have been removed from the postseason for at least three seasons each. The Panthers, who went to the NFC championship game in 1996, only the second season of their existence, haven't been back since.

They represent the team, from among this year's qualifiers, with the longest absence from the playoffs. But the Panthers are hardly the only entrant that will have to brush up on its playoff etiquette. Kansas City hasn't been to the postseason since 1997. The droughts for Seattle and Dallas date back to the '99 season.

"I was starting to forget what that old (playoff) feeling was like," said Cowboys strong safety Darren Woodson. "But it will come back, believe me, pretty quickly."

It will be interesting to see, based on this season, just how quickly some teams that did not qualify for the playoffs this year get back into the Super Bowl chase. This was, by any measure, a season of startling turnover in the playoff pool.

Eight teams that were in the playoffs in 2002 didn't cut muster this season. That is the most ever since the NFL adopted the 12-team format in 1990. The previous high was seven teams in 1999 and the average number of that failed to repeat, since 1990, is 5.4 teams. Only once, in 1995, has there been fewer than five non-repeaters.

Of course, leading the litany of ignominy this year are Oakland and Tampa Bay, who faced off only about 11 months ago Super Bowl XXXVII, but who combined for just 11 victories. The Raiders, in finishing a dismal 4-12, set a new record for fewest wins by a team in the season following a Super Bowl appearance.

-- Len Pasquarelli

As is the case with the Colts, who won two more games than the Broncos, there are some who feel several first-round matchups favor the team with the poorer record. Three of the wild card contests, in fact, are rematches of games played in the regular season. Beyond the Broncos' victory at Indianapolis, the Green Bay Packers thrashed Seattle at Lambeau Field (35-13) on Oct. 5, and Dallas defeated Carolina at Texas Stadium (24-20) Nov. 23.

Of the first-round combatants, only Tennessee and Baltimore didn't play in the regular season this year. But the two franchises still harbor plenty of hard feelings gleaned from when they both played in the old AFC Central, before realignment, and some bloody long memories of past playoffs contretemps.

Familiarity, in the case of the wild card matches and the playoff brackets more generally, will almost certainly breed an industrial-strength dose of contempt. A qualifying season that went down to the final snap authored by a club playing for little more than personal pride, and for a coach who will soon be unemployed, set the tone perfectly for what ought to be a highly competitive upcoming month.

As the games of Sunday proved, when Arizona stunned Minnesota and a pathetic Detroit team could force the St. Louis Hothouse Tomatoes outdoors, anything is possible if teams play hard. And in the postseason, with few exceptions, the play is hard.

Said Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has never appeared in a playoff game in his five previous NFL seasons: "When we played the Cowboys the last time, the hitting was about as (fierce) as it could be. It's hard to imagine the intensity could get higher than that but, from what the veterans tell me, it's a whole new level. Now that I've heard about it, I'm looking forward to the experience, I suppose."

Experience, in fact, is another strong suit of the '03 playoff field. At least, that is, experience among the 12 head coaches involved in the postseason.

Six of the 12 playoff head coaches own at least one Super Bowl ring each. Two others have been to a least one Super Bowl and another pair of head coaches had their teams as far as a conference title game. Only John Fox of Carolina and Green Bay's Mike Sherman have fewer than two playoff victories on their resumes.

In just his second season, less than two full years removed from inheriting a franchise that won only one game the year before he arrived, Fox is looking forward to notching a first postseason win on his belt. He has been to the playoffs before, was defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, but being the boss makes it different.

"Being in the playoffs, well, it's a tremendous honor," Fox said. "And this is certainly a tremendous group of teams, very, very strong, to be playing with."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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