Pack at home should chill playoff field Favre attack, Lambeau are enough to put NFC foes in deep freeze; Home Broncos loom in AFC; Cowboys capable of raising game, too

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How cold is a Wisconsin winter?

Cold enough to solve the mystery of the Dallas Cowboys' annual postseason domination.

Cold enough to put the San Francisco 49ers' trendy West Coast offense in the deep freeze for the year.

Cold enough that the NFC's Super Bowl berth is the Green Bay Packers' to lose.

Finally, perhaps, the Packers will get the dreaded Cowboys where they want them -- in arctic-like conditions, on Lambeau Field's famed "tundra," with a Super Bowl berth hanging in the balance.

That's if form -- and home-field advantage -- holds up the first two weeks of the NFL playoffs.

"Dallas ain't even in our class no more," Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler said in the regular season. "That's my personal opinion."

When the playoffs open with tomorrow's wild-card round, winners ultimately will have to ponder the home-field advantage held by the Packers in the NFC and the Denver Broncos in the AFC. Both sites are formidable in January.

What follows is a rundown on the 12 playoff teams. In parentheses are each team's odds of reaching the Super Bowl, calculated by The Sun.

NFC

Packers (3-2): Green Bay may never have a better shot at returning to the Super Bowl. Brett Favre's quick-strike passing game resulted in 39 touchdowns this season, and six of them covered 50 yards or more.

Andre Rison, cut by the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars this season, gives Favre a full complement of receivers, joining Antonio Freeman, Mark Chmura and Don Beebe. The Packers led the NFL with 28.5 points per game, and their defense held foes to a league-low 13.1.

Cowboys (3-1): Dallas was creative in finding new ways to overcome its moribund offense. Quarterback Troy Aikman has thrown two touchdowns passes and eight interceptions in his past seven games. Emmitt Smith averaged a modest 3.7 yards and was even benched once. The offense virtually disappeared in December.

But you don't win three Super Bowls without knowing how, and it is entirely possible these Cowboys again will elevate their game. Only three of the 92 teams that have had to play first-round games since 1978 have made it to the Super Bowl. But this team has the capability.

Panthers (8-1): Carolina knew what it was doing when it signed four defensive players with Super Bowl experience -- Kevin Greene, Eric Davis, Carlton Bailey and Mike Fox. The defense led the league in sacks and was fourth in take-aways. That enabled quarterback Kerry Collins to progress naturally.

The Panthers went 8-0 at Ericsson Stadium and gave up only 13 second-half points there all season. But an offense whose biggest receiving threat is tight end Wesley Walls has a way to go to reach the Super Bowl.

49ers (10-1): You could make a case that San Francisco will be there at the end. If not for a bad officiating call, the 49ers would've beaten the Packers in Green Bay in Week 7 instead of losing in overtime. If not for a critical Elvis Grbac interception, they would have beaten the Cowboys at home.

Steve Young was the NFL's top-rated passer again, and the tough 49ers defense surrendered a league-low 3.4 yards per rush. But the 49ers were 1-4 against playoff teams, and posted just two victories against teams with winning records.

Vikings (50-1): Minnesota has a hot quarterback in Brad Johnson, a big-play receiver in Cris Carter and a capable runner in ex-Raven Leroy Hoard. Defense is where the Vikings will have problems against Dallas, with its huge offensive line.

They got into the playoffs with a soft finishing schedule and a collapse by the Washington Redskins. That finish may have saved coach Dennis Green's job. But Green is 0-3 in the postseason, and a wild-card upset wouldn't hurt his chances to return.

Eagles (75-1): Philadelphia will be overflowing with motivation Sunday against the 49ers -- coach Ray Rhodes and running back Ricky Watters are former 49ers. The Eagles will need a big game from Watters to have a chance.

But neither Watters nor quarterback Ty Detmer has played well down the stretch. After beating Dallas to go 7-2, the Eagles went 3-4 the rest of the way. Watters averaged 3.3 yards a carry in those games, and Detmer threw six interceptions in his final three games.

AFC

Broncos (2-1): Like the Packers in Green Bay, the Broncos were unbeaten in Denver this year. They had the most balanced offense of the John Elway era, as Terrell Davis claimed the AFC rushing title. Anthony Miller and Shannon Sharpe give Elway two big-play receivers.

For all of their offense, the Broncos made their biggest strides on defense, jumping from 15th in total yards a year ago to fourth. They increased their take-aways from 21 to 32. It's a Super Bowl-caliber team.

Patriots (12-1): New England went 11-0 when Drew Bledsoe completed 55 percent of his passes and 0-5 when he didn't. Bledsoe, with a tendency to self-destruct in big games, threw five interceptions in his final two games. His best receiver turned out to be the guy coach Bill Parcells wanted least -- rookie Terry Glenn.

Hammered at home by the Broncos, 34-8, in Week 12, the Patriots were not as physical as Parcells' old Giants teams. They could stop the run, but couldn't stop the pass.

Steelers (15-1): Pittsburgh limps into the wild-card round with uncertainty at quarterback. Coach Bill Cowher will be quick to pull starter Mike Tomczak (13 interceptions in his last seven games) for elusive Kordell Stewart, who dazzled with an 80-yard touchdown run last week. But that's not a Super Bowl formula.

Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Steelers can't win without a healthy Jerome Bettis, who gained 19 yards the past two games with a sprained ankle.

Bills (25-1): Buffalo lost a chance for a first-round bye when its offense went in the tank the final month. Injuries and age have undermined what was once a prolific attack. Jim Kelly threw 19 interceptions this season, and Thurman Thomas averaged 3.7 yards a carry. On defense, Bruce Smith is playing for next year's contract.

The Bills get a favorable matchup with Jacksonville at Rich Stadium, where they are 9-0 in the postseason, but are in trouble after that.

Colts (40-1): Just when the Colts were poised to bring their first playoff game to Indianapolis, they lost to the Bengals and have to hit the road. Their first stop, Pittsburgh, was their last stop a year ago, one game short of the Super Bowl.

Quarterback Jim Harbaugh has run out of magic, with nine interceptions in his last six games.

Jaguars (200-1): Jacksonville is in only because Morten Andersen missed a chip-shot, 30-yard field-goal attempt last week. The Jaguars won their last five games, but none was against a winning team.

It will be lights out in Buffalo.

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Playoff teams at a glance

NFC -- Packers

W - L --. 13-3

VS. playoff teams -- 4-2

Momentum -- Won 5 in row

Key statistics -- Won last 16 at Lambeau

NFC -- Panthers

W - L --. 12-4

VS. playoff teams -- 3-3

Momentum -- Won 7 in row

Key statistics -- Led NFL in sacks

NFC -- Cowboys

W - L --. 10-6

VS. playoff teams -- 4-3

Momentum -- Won 9 of 12

Key statistics -- Scored 7 TDs in 7 games

NFC -- 49ers

W - L --. 12-4

VS. playoff teams -- 1-4

Momentum -- Won 5 of 6

Key statistics -- Best defense vs. run

NFC -- Eagles

W - L --. 10-6

VS. playoff teams -- 2-4

Momentum -- Lost 4 of 7

Key statistics -- Detmer 6 INTs in 3 games

NFC -- Vikings

W - L --. 9-7

VS. playoff teams -- 2-2

Momentum -- Won 3 of 4

Key statistics -- Johnson avg. 236 yards as starter

AFC -- Broncos

W - L --. 13-3

VS. playoff teams -- 2-1

Momentum -- Lost 2 of 3

Momentum -- Unbeaten at home

AFC -- Patriots

W - L --. 11-5

VS. playoff teams -- 4-3

Momentum -- Won 8 of 10

Key statistics -- Bledsoe 6 INTs last 3 games

AFC -- Steelers

W - L --. 10-6

VS. playoff teams -- 2-3

Momentum -- Lost 3 of 4

Key statistics -- Bettis 19 yards last 2 games

AFC -- Bills

W - L --. 10-6

VS. playoff teams -- 4-3

Momentum -- Lost 3 of 4

Key statistics -- Kelly 61.6% in last 3 games

AFC -- Jaguars

W - L --. 9-7

VS. playoff teams -- 2-2

Momentum -- Won 5 in row

Key statistics -- Means avg. 4.0 last 2 games

AFC -- Colts

W - L --. 9-7

VS. playoff teams -- 3-3

Momentum -- Won 3 of 4

Key statistics -- Harbaugh 9 INTs last 6 games

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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