December 31, 1998

NFL Playoffs Begin With Wild Card Weekend

Here we go!

Two days, four games, one Wild Card Weekend! All on national television.

And the eight clubs kicking off the 1998 NFL playoffs this Saturday and Sunday seek to travel the same road as last year's Denver Broncos, who went from Wild Card team to Super Bowl champion.

"We're in the dance!" says running back Larry Centers of the Arizona Cardinals, who will see their first playoff action since 1982.

Saturday's Wild Card games will mark the 37th and 38th times since 1970 that two teams have met for the third time in a season in the playoffs.

In the early game (ABC-TV, 12:30 PM ET), the AFC East Buffalo Bills travel to the division-rival Miami Dolphins. Both quarterbacks in the game have vast playoff experience - though not all in the NFL.

The Dolphins' Dan Marino has thrown 29 touchdown passes in 14 playoff games and needs two to tie Terry Bradshaw for second-most (behind Joe Montana's 45) in playoff history. Yet the NFL's career leader in all major passing categories has yet to win a Super Bowl.

His counterpart with the Bills, Doug Flutie, has won three league championships - in the Canadian Football League. In 1992, Flutie led the Calgary Stampeders to the CFL's Grey Cup title, then repeated the feat with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996-97. All three times, he was chosen the game's MVP.

Now he's looking to add the Vince Lombardi Trophy to his Grey Cup championships.

"The reason I came down from the CFL was to win the Super Bowl," Flutie says.

Marino's intent is to duplicate Denver's Super Bowl feat of '97. "Hopefully, we can do like the Broncos did last year," he says. "They were a wild card, got on a roll and got momentum going in the playoffs."

The Bills started out the season with no momentum. They lost their first three games, including in Week 2 at Miami, 13-7. But, thanks in part to Flutie (7-3 as a starter in '98), Buffalo became the fifth team in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-3 start. They won their next five after 0-3, with the fifth being a 30-24 victory over the Dolphins. Four of the past five games between the clubs have been decided by seven points or less.

The game will feature Buffalo's third-ranked AFC offense (346.3) against Miami's second-ranked conference defense (277.2). It also highlights the AFC's leading receivers -- reception-leader (90) O.J. McDufie of Miami, and receiving-yards leader (1,368) Eric Moulds of Buffalo.

In Saturday's second Wild Card game (ABC-TV, 4:05 PM ET), an updated version of those old "Cardiac Cards," the Arizona Cardinals, will be in their first playoff game since 1982, visiting the NFC East-rival Dallas Cowboys, who are in their sixth playoffs in the past seven years.

"It's going to be fun," says Cardinals second-year quarterback Jake Plummer. "In the playoffs, everyone tells me the level of intensity goes up another notch."

You can't get more intense than the Cardinals were this season. They set an NFL record by winning seven games by three points or less. Included was their no-time-left, 52-yard-field-goal victory (16-13) last Sunday over San Diego that earned them their first playoff berth in 16 years. The Cowboys - their 32-19, .627 playoff record ranks second all-time - have defeated the Cardinals 16 of the past 17 times, including twice this year. Division champion Dallas became the first team ever to go undefeated and untied (8-0) in the NFC East.

But these are the never-give-up Cardinals, led by hometown (Arizona State) hero Plummer. In two seasons, he has taken the Cardinals to nine victories in the 11 games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter.

Plummer's quarterback rival with the Cowboys, Troy Aikman, ranks second all-time in playoff history with a 96.0 passer rating (to Bart Starr's 104.8) and is the most accurate passer in playoff annals with a 66.5 completion percentage.

The Cardinals, along with the Bills and New York Jets, are one of three 0-2 teams to make the playoffs. They should keep a statistic in mind when they confront Dallas Saturday. Since 1966 (the first Super Bowl season), there have been 12 occasions in the playoffs that a team faced a rival that had beaten them twice in the regular season. The 2-0 teams won the third game seven times, the 0-2 teams five times.

In Sunday's early Wild Card game (CBS-TV, 12:40 PM ET), it will be a matchup of two stellar rookie running backs -- and perhaps the return of two top quarterbacks.

It's the New England Patriots at the AFC Central-champion Jacksonville Jaguars - a rematch of the 1996 AFC Championship Game.

The Jaguars - in the first home playoff game in franchise history -- feature the NFL's top rookie rusher, Fred Taylor. The first-rounder led the league's rookies in rushing yards with 1,223, and his 14 rushing touchdowns tied for second in the NFL. Taylor's six 100-yard rushing games are the most by a rookie since 1995 (New England's Curtis Martin, 9).

"If you're not careful," says CBS analyst Phil Simms, who will broadcast the game, "the Jaguars will run it down your throats."

The Patriots have that same capability in Robert Edwards, who finished second (1,115 yards) in rookie rushing to Taylor. He is only the third rookie in New England history (Curtis Martin: 1,487 in '95 and John Stephens: 1,168 in '88) to rush for 1,000.

The quarterbacks? The guys who got their teams into the playoffs finished the season on the bench, nursing injuries. Drew Bledsoe (finger) led the Patriots to a 20-6 victory in that '96 Championship Game on the way to Super Bowl XXXI over the Jaguars' Mark Brunell (ankle).

Even with the total of five games they missed, Bledsoe and Brunell each threw for the fifth most touchdowns in the AFC, 20. Scott Zolak for the Patriots and Jonathan Quinn for the Jaguars would be the replacements.

"I'll be there," says Brunell. "Even if I have to hop all over the field, I'll be there."

So will two teams who always seem to be there when the playoffs begin - the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.

In the final Wild Card game of the weekend (FOX-TV, 4:15 PM ET), these teams meet for the fourth consecutive year in the playoffs, the second-longest such streak to the five years in a row of Oakland vs. Pittsburgh from 1972-76.

The 49ers are hoping Sunday's home game helps reverse the outcome of the last three playoff meetings of the teams - Divisional Playoff victories by Green Bay in '95 and '96 and a Packers NFC Championship Game win last season.

The location of the game, to one Packer, is irrelevant. "Doesn't matter," says Green Bay tight end Tyrone Davis. "Wherever we play, if we play like we can play, we'll win."

The game will be a matchup of the NFL's No. 2 (49ers, 266.0) and No. 3 (Packers, 256.9) passing games.

Quarterbacks Steve Young of the 49ers, with the most TD passes in the league this year (36), and Brett Favre of the Packers, with the third-most (31), can throw to three of the top 10 receivers in the NFC.

Green Bay's Antonio Freeman led the conference in receiving yards with 1,424, and has had a combined 300 yards and three touchdown catches in his past two games against the 49ers, including 107 and one TD in last season's Championship Game. San Francisco's Jerry Rice (1,157) and Terrell Owens (1,097) ranked fourth and seventh in yardage in the conference, respectively.

The Packers are seeking to become the first NFC team to go to three consecutive Super Bowls. "We expect to go back," says Freeman.

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