The road to Houston: we know this much after surveying the field of Super Bowl contenders: this season’s champion is almost certain to come from the AFC

The road to Houston: we know this much after surveying the field of Super Bowl contenders: this season’s champion is almost certain to come from the AFC – 2003 Postseason Preview

William Wagner

LOOKING FOR THE TEAM WITH the best shot at winning Super Bowl 38? Here’s a clue: You’ll find it in the AFC.

The AFC clearly has become the NFL’s power conference, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, and Indianapolis Colts at the of the pack.

And the NFC? The team it sends to Super Bowl 38 in Houston probably is in for a long and painful evening. Contending such as the St. Louis Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles simply have too many holes to play for four quarters with any of the elite teams from the AFC.

The real drama this postseason will be in the games leading up to the Super Bowl. What follows is an analysis of the prime candidates to will the big game.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Why they can go all the way: The Chiefs are football’s most balanced team. Scan their roster and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a glaring weakness. It all starts with head coach Dick Vermeil, whose enthusiasm rubs off on everyone. Vermeil needed three years to get his program in K.C. fully operational, and the finished product is stunning.

The offense, in particular, is a marvel. Anchored by the NFL’s premier line–one that includes Willie Roar and Will Shields–it is a points-scoring machine Priest Holmes is the most versatile running back in the business, Tony Richardson is a nice complement at fullback, Tony Gonzalez is a future Hall-of-Famer at tight end, quarterback Trent Green is having a career year, and wide-outs Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison have improved immensely this season.

The defense isn’t as star-studded, but it has done its job. No defense is more adept at forcing turnovers than Kansas City’s, and that has put the offense in a position to do its thing. The offseason acquisitions of linebacker Shawn Barber and end Vonnie Holliday, as well as the emergence of lineman Ryan Sims and linebacker Scott Fujita, have enabled the defense to become respectable after a dismal 2002 season.

The final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle has been the play of the special teams. Kick returner Dante Hall has put together a season for the ages, and the coverage units also have been exceptional.

What could stop them: Yes the defense has become opportunistic, but it remains somewhat vulnerable. The Chiefs rank toward the bottom of the league in yards allowed, and if the takeaways that have flowed so freely suddenly dry up in the postseason, that stat could bite them.

Man on the spot: Holmes. Neither the running nor the passing game was the same when he missed the final two games of last season with a hip injury. Although the Chiefs have more weapons at their disposal this year, Holmes remains the pivotal figure on an offense that must continue to post big numbers for the team to win the Super Bowl.

Bottom line: The 2003 Chiefs are eerily reminiscent of the high-powered 1999 St. Louis Rams, whom Vermeil coached to the Super Bowl title.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Why they can go all away: When the Titans reached the Super Bowl in 1999, they played the ultimate brand of smash-mouth football. Their weapons of choice were running back Eddie George and a stable of in-your-face defenders. The Titans of today look vastly different: They are built around the passing of quarterback Steve McNair.

This new style has been so successful, one has to ask: Why did it take so long for coach Jeff Fisher to turn the offense over to McNair? Well, back in ’99 McNair didn’t have a receiver like Derrick Mason, who’s emerged as a bona fide playmaker. The Titans also didn’t have the type of pass-catching depth they do now;, complementing Mason are talented youngsters Drew Bennett, Tyrone Calico, and Justin McCareins.

On the other side of the ball, the Titans still are relatively stout. No one has figured out how to run the ball consistently against them, and end Jevon Kearse is rushing the passer with the same tenacity he did in his marvelous rookie season of ’99.

What could stop them: As great as McNair has been, Tennessee may be too One-dimensional on offense for Fisher’s liking. Even if the Titans wanted to establish the run, they no longer have the means to do so. George is a shell of his former self, and Robert Holcombe and Chris Brown don’t scare anyone. If the passing game falters at any point in the playoffs, Tennessee could be in serious trouble.

Man on the spot: McNair. No other player is as important to his team as McNair is to the Titans. A serious injury to the QB would be catastrophic.

Bottom line: It’s hard to find a team that plays with more intensity week in and week out than the Titans. These guys mean business.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Why they can go all the way: In just two seasons as head coach, John Fox has masterminded a remarkable turnaround for the Panthers–and he’s done it by focusing on defense. Behind playmakers like ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers, tackles Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins, linebacker Dan Morgan, and safety Mike Minter, the Panthers have replaced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the most dynamic defensive team in football. Is that enough to propel the Panthers to a Super Bowl title? It was for the Bucs last year and the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.

What could stop them: The inexperience of the offense’s triggerman, Jake Delhomme. Although the first-year starter has displayed flashes of big-play ability–his last-minute, game-winning drive against the Buccaneers in Week 10 was stirring–he isn’t yet an elite quarterback. It’s true that those 2000 Ravens didn’t have a big-time QB either, but Trent Dilfer was a veteran who had learned how to manage games. Delhomme doesn’t fall into that category.

Man on the spot: Stephen Davis. Given the inconsistency of the passing game, the veteran running back is of vital importance. Signed in the offseason as a flee agent, Davis has made all the difference for the Panthers, enabling them to play ball-control football. However, being such a workhorse has taken a physical toll on Davis. Does he have enough left in the tank to keep Carolina rolling?

Bottom line: If the chips fall the right way, the Panthers could mount quite a run. In all likelihood, though, they’re a year away from the Super Bowl.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Why they can go all the way:. This team faced its stiffest test early in the season, when several starters were felled by injuries. The Patriots, though, haven’t been a star-oriented team under coach Bill Belichick, so they were able to weather the storm. The same formula that brought them a Super Bowl title in 2001–heady role players executing their jobs to perfection, particularly on defense–could work again this season.

What could stop them: There is little margin for error. The Pats don’t have a Priest Holmes or a Steve McNair or a Marvin Harrison to bail them out if a game starts slipping away. Quarterback Tom Brady is the closest New England has to a difference-maker, but he also is prone to making costly mistakes.

Man on the spot: Bellchick. Everything revolves around the defensive game plans he concocts and his ability to keep the team on the same page during tough times. No coach will play a bigger role in the postseason.

Bottom line: The Patriots have been on a roll, one that should carry over into the postseason.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Why they can go all the way: The Eagles haven’t won many style points this season, but they have proved to be a team of great character. Even when franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb struggled mightily early on, they eked out victories. Credit the defense for keeping Philly afloat during those trying times. Although players like end Hugh Douglas and linebacker Shawn Barber left in the offseason, the defense still has played at a fairly high level.

What could stop them: Neither the receiving nor the running back corps has enough juice for the Eagles to consistently light up the scoreboard. This isn’t the same dominant team that reached the NFC Championship Game in each of the past two seasons.

Man an the spot:. McNabb, who must be the playmaker Philadelphia so desperately needs. The good news for Eagles fans is that he began to assume that role late in the season.

Bottom line: The Eagles aren’t as good as they used to be, but they may not need to be. The rest of the NFC is down a notch, too.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Why they con go all the way.” The Colts have all the offense they need with quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, and running back Edgerrin James. Now, under second-year coach Tony Dungy, the defense is starting to pull its weight, too. The Colts’ defense still won’t be mistaken with, say, Baltimore’s, but it no longer is an embarrassment. Emerging stars like end Dwight Freeney and safely Mike Doss have given it game-breaking potential.

What could stop them: The Colts have a lot of bad karma to overcome. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, going 0-4 in that stretch. And the jury still is out on whether Dungy can help them on that front; his postseason record is 2-5.

Man on the spot: Manning. Here’s more bad karma: Manning has thrown just one touchdown pass in three postseason games, which helps explain his 0-3 record. He’s been a great leader, just not in the postseason.

Bottom line: Until they prove otherwise, the Colts can’t be counted on to do much of anything in the playoffs.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Why they can go all the way: The Rams have a bit more balance than they did when they last went to the Super Bowl in 2001. The offense isn’t as prolific as it was then, but the defense has picked up some of the slack.

What could stop them: In the 2001 season’s Super Bowl, the Patriots provided the blueprint for beating the Rams: Go after the quarterback with everything you’ve got. The spotty play of the offensive line has made this season’s Rams particularly vulnerable to the pass rush.

Man on the spot: Marshall Faulk. When the Rams were flying high from 1999 through 2001, the All-Pro running back was the catalyst. But injuries the past two seasons have slowed Faulk and, in turn, the offense as a whole.

Bottom line: The Rams are still good, but they’re no longer The Greatest Show on Turf.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Why they can go all the way: Seattle’s offense–led by quarterback Matt Hassel-beck, running back Shawn Alexander, and receivers Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson–matches up with any in the NFC. And coach Mike Holmgren knows what to do with that talent. The Seahawks are starling to look suspiciously like the Green Bay Packers team Holmgreen led to the Super Bowl title in 1996.

What could stop them: The Seahawks aren’t there yet; they’re a work in progress. The defense still gets pushed around on occasion. And Robinson and Jackson, as gifted as they are, have killed Seattle with dropped balls in crucial situations.

Man on the spot: Chad Brown. Seattle’s defense has lived and died by forcing turnovers, and the outside linebacker has been at the center of the mayhem. If Brown and company can continue to be a disruptive force, the Seahawks might make some noise.

Bottom line: The Seahawks aren’t a Super Bowl-caliber team. Merely reaching the playoffs would constitute a successful season.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Why they can win it all: They have the NFL’s best defensive player in middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who makes everyone around him better. The defense consistently creates a short field for the offense.

What could stop them: The offense needs that short field. Running back Jamal Lewis, tight end Todd Heap, and left tackle Jon Ogden are the only big-time players on this unit.

Man on the spot: Lewis. As he goes, so go the Ravens.

Bottom line: Ultimately, a lack of offensive firepower will be this club’s undoing.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Why they can go all the way: With wide receiver Randy Moss, running hacks Mo Williams and Michael Bennett, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, and linemen Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie, this offense is capable of scoring 35 points on any given Sunday.

What could stop them: The defense is capable of allowing 35 points on any given Sunday. When the Vikings started the season at 6-0, the defense looked as if it had improved dramatically. But then the Vikings went on a losing streak, and the defense reverted to its 2002 form, especially against the run.

Man on the spot: Moss. For better or for worse, the Vikings are Moss’ team. They’ll go as far as he can take them.

Bottom line: When push comes to shove, the Vikings still are soft, both emotionally and physically.

FOOTBALL DIGEST’S Postseason Picks

AFC Championship Game

New England Patriots over Tennessee Titans

NFC Championship Game

Philadelphia Eagles over St. Louis Rams

Super Bowl 38

New England over Philadelphia

Postseason Schedule

Wild Card Weekend

Saturday, January 3; Sunday, January 4

Divisional Playoffs

Saturday, January 10; Sunday, January 11

Conference Championships

Sunday, January 18

Super Bowl 38

Sunday, February 1

at Reliant Stadium, Houston

The Busts

HERE’S A LOOK AT THE teams that failed to live up to expectations this season:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

They went from champs to chumps in short order.

Oakland Raiders

The defending AFC champions have been such a mess that we devoted an entire feature story to their travails starting on page 60.

New York Giants

They entered training camp as Super Bowl contenders, but by midseason their swagger had disappeared and head coach Jim Fassel’s job was ill jeopardy.

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta’s season ended before it began, when quarterback Michael Vick broke his leg in training camp.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Quick: Name 10 players on the Steelers. This once-proud franchise is sinking quickly.

Buffalo Bills

At the very least, the Bills with their high-powered offense were supposed to be exciting to watch. In the end, though, they weren’t even that. as the offense inexplicably fizzled.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group