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Teams look to cash in on home field advantage in NFL playoffs

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

Three of the four home teams won last week in the NFL's wild-card round. That's not unusual: In the past four seasons, home teams have won 27 of the league's 34 playoff games.

This week could be different.

The Baltimore Ravens, coming off a win in Miami, go to Pittsburgh, where they've won once already this season. Philadelphia, with Donovan McNabb back in peak form, goes to Chicago, and Oakland visits New England in games in which the home teams rose from 5-11 seasons to win divisions this year.

In fact, St. Louis, which faces Green Bay, seems to be the only home team that has a distinct advantage as the playoffs enter the second round, and even the Rams could have a shaky Kurt Warner. Still, with a week off and in its own dome, St. Louis can play an entirely different game than if it had to go outside and meet the Packers at Lambeau Field.

Can teams turn it on for the playoffs?

In order of appearance:

Philadelphia (12-5) at Chicago (13-3) (12:30 p.m. AST Saturday)

It's the first playoff game since 1994 for the Bears, and it's the fourth in two seasons for the Eagles. Philadelphia has beaten Tampa Bay in the first round each of the past two seasons, but it lost to the Giants at this stage last season.

''Our goal was never to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,'' defensive end Hugh Douglas says. ''Our goal is to go all the way.''

To do that, McNabb has to keep performing. Early in the season, he tried to prove he was a pocket quarterback, standing endlessly behind the line of scrimmage.

But every time he moves, even just rolling out to pass, things happen. He brought the Eagles back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter on opening day against the Rams, an overtime loss, and he produced 10 points in the final 2 1/2 minutes to beat the Giants by three points in the game that clinched the NFC East.

The Bears, on the other hand, have quicker linebackers than any team the Eagles have faced. And they have Anthony Thomas, the offensive rookie of the year, to exploit one of Philadelphia's few defensive weaknesses -- problems against the inside run.

Jim Miller, the journeyman quarterback, isn't McNabb, but. ...

''Jimmy wins games,'' Bears coach Dick Jauron says. ''He's a strong leader. There's a lot of intangibles in the position. Jimmy has them all.''

Oakland (11-6) at New England (11-5) (4 p.m. AST, Saturday)

How much was Oakland's rejuvenation its own work or the fatigue of the Jets, who were playing after their third transcontinental trip in six days? Is 39-year-old Jerry Rice (nine catches for 183 yards) back to being 29-year-old Jerry Rice?

Like the Bears, the Patriots have had a magic season, orchestrated by Bill Belichick, who made what was probably the most important decision of the season when he decided to keep Tom Brady at quarterback even when Drew Bledsoe got healthy.

Brady is 11-3 in his 14 NFL starts but is starting his first playoff game. Rich Gannon has 14 NFL seasons and will be starting his fourth postseason game in two years, a huge experience advantage.

But New England's core is a group of veterans brought in by Belichick from previous stops. Most are role players -- Otis Smith, Bryan Cox, Anthony Pleasant, Roman Phifer -- but they've added a lot of leadership. Terry Glenn, whose off-field problems and on-field ''injuries'' have been a problem all season, is suspended again.

The key will be the ground game -- Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley for the Raiders, Antowain Smith for the Patriots. The Raiders have been vulnerable on the ground late in the season.

Baltimore (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3) (8:30 a.m. AST Sunday)

The major question is whether Baltimore is back to last season's form after beating Miami 20-3. The Ravens say they are, but they beat a banged up Miami team that played poorly at the end of the regular season.

Example: Baltimore ran for 226 yards, double its season average of 113. But Pittsburgh led the NFL in stopping the run -- fewer than 75 yards a game.

And while the teams split in the regular season -- Pittsburgh won at Baltimore 26-21, and Baltimore won at Pittsburgh 13-10 -- the Steelers dominated, outgaining the Ravens 824-390. Pittsburgh lost at home only because Kris Brown missed four field-goal attempts.

Pittsburgh also should get a lift with the return of Jerome Bettis, who missed the team's last five games, including the win in Baltimore, with a groin injury. After the Ravens won in Miami, linebacker Jamie Sharper suggest that it might be better for Bettis' health if he sat out this week.

That's typical of the trash talking that goes on between these teams.

''It's funny sometimes to see the stuff that comes out of Baltimore, because every time we play them, it's something different,'' Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers says. ''They're supposed to be a team that didn't lose in December, and they lost in December, so now they're a new team in January.''

Green Bay (13-4) at St. Louis (14-2) (Noon AST Sunday)

Track meet?

''The fact that they can score 50 points poses a little bit of a problem,'' Brett Favre says of the Rams. ''We're playing at their place, on turf, in a dome, which hasn't been to our advantage historically.''

No surprise: The Rams have been held under 20 points just twice this season -- at home against the Giants (15) and Buccaneers (17). The Eagles also held them to 17 points in regulation in Philadelphia, a game the Rams won 20-17 in overtime.

But the Packers can say the same. They were held under 20 only in a 14-10 loss in Tampa, a 17-7 win in Chicago and a 35-13 loss in Minnesota, by far their worst game of the season (omen: that was in a dome).

And while Favre triggers the Packers, he tends to get help in the playoffs from Antonio Freeman, his long-time favorite receiver. Freeman had six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in the Packers' 25-15 win over San Francisco last weekend.

The major question might be whether the Rams can hear signals.

Warner was silent for 10 days to heal a vocal cord injury from the final regular-season game. Then he missed a day of practice last week with the stomach flu.

But he's the NFL MVP.

MVPs play when they're ailing.



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