<
>

2003 features strong playoff field

12/30/2003

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 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.

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.