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For playoffs, vision helps NFL: Michael Jordan put it in focus for Randall Cunningham, but keeping an eye on the prize is a key for all with postseason hopes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was on a golf outing with basketball superstar Michael Jordan that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham stumbled upon his football epiphany.

"We were out in Santa Barbara [Calif.] at Sand Piper, golfing with a couple friends of his," Cunningham said. "Someone said to him, 'Michael, what kind of cigar is that?' He said, 'It's a championship cigar; Cunningham wouldn't know anything about that.'

"He was joking, but it kind of opened my eyes. He was kind of saying, 'Randall, go get a championship.' "

Cunningham, a 13-year NFL veteran and two-time Player of the Year, has been more focused on the big prize ever since.

Last season, he authored an improbable, come-from-behind, wild-card win over the New York Giants before losing a second-round playoff game. This season, he is the NFL's leading passer as stand-in for injured Brad Johnson. With this team, his championship potential has never been better.

The Vikings (11-1) have the best record in the NFC and the inside track to home-field advantage. They can clinch their first Central Division title in four years -- ending Green Bay's three-year run -- with a victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

If they make it to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII, they will have beaten even bigger odds: No domed-stadium team has ever reached the Super Bowl.

In the 1990s, five dome teams have combined for 20 playoff berths and a 5-20 record, including 2-8 at home. That trend bears watching because a pair of dome teams -- the Vikings and Atlanta Falcons -- have the top two records in the NFC.

And if the Vikings somehow manage to win it all, Jordan will deserve a huge assist.

This is how the December playoff drive shakes down:

NFC

Minnesota (11-1)

Status: Clinched a playoff spot, aiming for home-field advantage.

Reason to believe: Cunningham's pitch-and-catch game with Randy Moss and Cris Carter appears unstoppable. The Vikings are No. 2 in the league in scoring and total yards.

Trouble-shooting: Injuries to Cunningham or Moss, and pass defense (No. 21) are the Vikings' biggest concerns.

Atlanta (10-2)

Status: Clinched a berth, trying to lock up the division title and first-round bye, still in contention for home-field advantage.

Reason to believe: The Falcons have offensive balance with quarterback Chris Chandler and 1,000-yard rusher Jamal Anderson, and are No. 2 defending the run.

Trouble-shooting: An injury to Chandler changes the equation. The Falcons cannot win a playoff game with either Steve DeBerg or Tony Graziani at quarterback.

Dallas (8-4)

Status: Has a two-game lead over Arizona in the East with the softest finishing schedule of any contender.

Reason to believe: First-year coach Chan Gailey has restored the offense. The Cowboys are No. 4 in scoring and total yards.

Trouble-shooting: Injuries will sideline cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith this week and further weaken the 23rd-ranked pass defense.

San Francisco (9-3)

Status: Trails Atlanta by one game in the West, but holds the top wild-card seed.

Reason to believe: Quarterback Steve Young and his big-play pals Terrell Owens, J.J. Stokes and Jerry Rice are No. 1 in pass offense.

Trouble-shooting: The loss of tackle Bryant Young is devastating to the 49ers' vulnerable defense, which is 27th against the pass.

Green Bay (8-4)

Status: Reduced to a wild-card entry, stripped of its Lambeau Field advantage.

Reason to believe: As erratic as quarterback Brett Favre has played, he can still salvage the season with a hot finish.

Trouble-shooting: Wideout Antonio Freeman's broken jaw doesn't help, and neither does the Packers' slow, plodding pass rush.

Arizona (6-6)

Status: Giddy to be contending for a berth for the first time in 15 years.

Reason to believe: The West Coast system finally clicked for quarterback Jake Plummer. In the last four weeks, the Cardinals have averaged 31.5 points and 401 yards per game.

Trouble-shooting: The defense can't stop anyone. In the last four games, the Cardinals have given up 34.5 points and almost 352 yards a game.

The rest of the field

Detroit, New Orleans and Tampa Bay -- all 5-7 -- have an outside shot at passing Arizona if the Cardinals collapse. Tampa Bay is the best of the three, but the Buccaneers already have lost twice to Detroit and once to New Orleans, so their tie-breakers are problematic.

AFC

Denver (12-0)

Status: Can clinch home-field advantage with a win over Kansas City on Sunday.

Reason to believe: With tailback Terrell Davis and quarterback John Elway, the Broncos have way too much firepower for anyone to contain. They are No. 1 in scoring and rush offense, and No. 3 in scoring defense.

Trouble-shooting: Last week's ragged win over San Diego, when the Broncos had four giveaways, was atypical of their season.

Jacksonville (9-3)

Status: Holds a two-game lead over Pittsburgh in Central.

Reason to believe: For the first time in their brief history, the Jaguars can run the ball as efficiently as they throw it.

Trouble-shooting: Defense continues to be their weakness. The Jaguars rank 26th in total defense and pass defense, 19th against the rush.

New York Jets (8-4)

Status: Tied with Miami for the East lead. They beat the Dolphins in Week 5 but must play at Miami in Week 15.

Reason to believe: Running back Curtis Martin and quarterback Vinny Testaverde give them a versatile offense, and the Jets have the No. 2 scoring defense.

Trouble-shooting: They have lost to the Ravens, St. Louis and Indianapolis, teams with a collective 10-26 record.

Miami (8-4)

Status: Tied with the Jets for first place.

Reason to believe: The Dolphins' defense ranks second in total yards and first in scoring.

Trouble-shooting: The offense is one-dimensional again, and Dan Marino has lost both of his starting guards this week.

New England (7-5)

Status: The Patriots take a 6-4 conference record into Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Reason to believe: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe has been marvelous of late, pulling out last-second wins the past two weeks.

Trouble-shooting: The 29th-ranked rush offense and 28th-ranked pass defense represent major flaws.

Buffalo (7-5)

Status: On the cusp with a 5-4 conference record.

Reason to believe: Quarterback Doug Flutie is known to deliver miracles.

Trouble-shooting: The Bills' pass defense (No. 17) can be hazardous.

Pittsburgh (7-5)

Status: Its back is against the playoff wall.

Reason to believe: Coach Bill Cowher's will to win.

Trouble-shooting: The Steelers' pass offense is No. 27, and even Jerome Bettis has had trouble this season.

Oakland (7-5)

Status: Banking on quarterback Donald Hollas.

Reason to believe: The Raiders have the No. 3 defense and true grit under new coach Jon Gruden.

Trouble-shooting: They have lost two in a row since cornerback Eric Allen got hurt.

The rest of the field

Tennessee (6-6) probably needs to run the table against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Green Bay and Minnesota. Seattle (6-6) is too mediocre to make a run.

Finishing kick

The Miami Dolphins are tied for the AFC East lead, but have the toughest finishing schedule of any team in the playoff picture. Here is a look at the strength of December schedules for contending teams (current seeding for playoffs in parentheses):

AFC

Team, W-L, Rec. of opp. left, Skinny

Broncos (1), 12-0, 23-25, Need 1 win to clinch home field

Jaguars (2), 9-3, 29-19, At Minn., vs. Pitt. in last 2

HTC Jets (3), 8-4, 28-20, Huge game at Miami in Week 15

Dolphins (4), 8-4, 37-11, Jets, Broncos, Falcons in last 3

Patriots (5), 7-5, 27-21, Must win this week at Pittsburgh

Bills (6), 7-5, 22-26, Loss to Pats put them on the edge

Steelers, 7-5, 23-25, Pats, Jags their toughest games

Raiders, 7-5, 25-23, Must beat Miami at home Sunday

Seahawks, 6-6, 27-21, Putting it all on Kitna's shoulders

Oilers, 6-6, 33-15, Finish vs. Jags, Packers, Vikings

NFC

Team, W-L, Rec. of opp. left, Skinny

Vikings (1), 11-1, 23-25, Clinch division with win vs. Bears

Falcons (2), 10-2, 20-28, Soft schedule should assure bye

Cowboys (3), 8-4, 15-33, No winning teams down stretch

49ers (4), 9-3, 17-31, Pats and 3 soft touches remain

Packers (5), 8-4, 17-31, Get Bears twice in last month

Cardinals (6), 6-6, 16-32, Opportunity there for taking

Lions, 5-7, 33-15, Critical losses to Bengals, Eagles

Saints, 5-7, 31-17, Lost seven of nine after 3-0 start

Bucs, 5-7, 20-28, Lost to Lions (twice) and Saints

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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