Titans on top?
ESPN's Chris Mortensen thinks the Tennessee Titans will be the team to beat in the playoffs.
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Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

Tampa Bay analysis
Martin Gramatica's miss Sunday hurt the Bucs in more ways than one, according to Chris Mortensen.
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ESPN.com's 2000 NFL playoff section

Chris Mortensen archive: columns

Wild-card road teams were ripe for defeat

Sometimes, you can get in a slump, especially when it comes to picking games. I am in a slump. I am also guilty of being shortsighted, because the four playoff games this weekend had logical conclusions.

In particular, why would anybody really believe that all four road teams (Colts, Rams, Broncos and Bucs) would win? It doesn't work that way, regardless of results during the regular season that suggested that winning on the road wasn't such a task.

But here was the most blatant oversight: The Colts, Rams and Bucs all were teams that were spent physically and emotionally because the last three games of the regular season were "must-win" situations. In essence, this weekend represented their fourth straight playoff game. They did not have a lot left in their tanks, certainly not sufficient fuel for road playoff games.

Even the Broncos expended some emotional energy in their final game at Mile High Stadium in Week 17 against the 49ers -- one week, I might add, after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs.

We also reinforced most of our basic principals in the NFL this weekend. Run the ball, stop the run. Play defense. Quarterback play usually must be efficient and timely, not necessarily spectacular.

On Saturday, Jay Fiedler and Aaron Brooks beat Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner. On Sunday, Brian Billick and Andy Reid beat Mike Shanahan and Tony Dungy.

Really, it's a very interesting league.

Lamar Smith
Miami's Lamar Smith celebrates his winning 17-yard touchdown run.

Dolphins 23, Colts 17 (OT): The blame in Indianapolis most likely is going to get pinned on Jim Mora. And it's true, he is 0-6 in the playoffs. In New Orleans, I always thought Mora had coached brilliantly a bunch of overachievers only to face the reality of having average to below-average playmakers that are so sorely needed in the postseason. But here with the Colts, he has Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. Those are playmakers.

Now, Mora doesn't have a very stout defense and it was exposed by this resilient, tough Dolphins team. One thing that is apparent about the Dolphins -- you better put 'em away big time in the first half because they make terrific halftime adjustments. In each of their past four games, they have allowed just three points in the second half, and they have yet to allow a third-quarter touchdown all season. Bravo for Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey for their opening drive of the third quarter by allowing their offensive line and running back Lamar Smith to take over the game. I'm still rather amazed that Miami overcame a dreadful first half by QB Jay Fiedler (allowing that his receivers have trouble getting open). Defensively, the Dolphins cracked down on big plays in the second half. They tackled, they hustled. They made Manning and Co. play a game of inches, where every pass had to be perfect, or every catch was vital.

Every decision in a tight game like this will be scrutinized. I thought both Mora and Wannstedt made questionable calls in the first half. It's OK to try a fake field goal every now and then (as the Colts did), but it better work. Maybe it wouldn't have come down to Mike Vanderjagt (one of those "automatic" guys) missing a 49-yard field goal that allowed the Dolphins their winning drive. As for the Dolphins, we almost forgot that they were the AFC East champs. They may have dropped three of their last six games, but we never should have ignored the character wins in the other three contests -- road decisions over the Bills, Colts and Pats.

Speaking of which, the Dolphins have a little psychological advantage as they prepare for the AFC West champion Oakland Raiders. They have made four trips in the previous four seasons to Oakland, and they have won their last three out west. The Raiders are better, rested and hungry, but it doesn't hurt to know you've been there and done that.

One last thought on the Colts: They need to address every aspect of their defense this offseason. They need a bigger, physical receiver to take the heat off Marvin Harrison. They still could use a couple more nasty O-linemen. I believe Bill Polian will get this done. As for Mora, I think he gets next year to get it done, or he will be done, and we'll be hearing rumors about Nick Saban (LSU) again.

Saints 31, Rams 28: There was a lot of celebrating around the NFC when Az Hakim fumbled that punt. The Giants and Vikings, in particular, did not want to see the defending Super Bowl champions again. No problem. Jim Haslett's incredible debut as an NFL head coach put yet another exclamation point to improbable season by the Saints.

Haslett sounded all week like a coach who was debating whether or not the Saints had extracted all their grace from this season. On one hand, he noted that in the Rams 26-21 win over the Saints the week before, "as bad as we played on both sides of the ball, we still had a chance to win with 2:37 left in the game." On the other, he also knew that the long list of injuries to a team with a seemingly shallow pool of talent may be taking its toll. And young quarterback Aaron Brooks may have displayed his bright potential, but he was playing real young in recent starts. Then what happens Saturday? There were more injuries, with star receiver Joe Horn going out early. Brooks played like it didn't matter. He made a star of Willie Jackson (three TD catches) and showed the poise of a, dare we say, Kurt Warner.

But you know what Haslett and staff extracted from their guys? The Saints got back to that punch-you-in-the-mouth style of football on both sides of the line. Did you see left tackle William Roaf destroy Rams DE Grant Wistrom (a pretty good player)? Right tackle Kyle Turley did the same to Kevin Carter on the other side. Then the defense made it their mission to make the '99 MVP (Warner) beat them, as opposed to the 2000 MVP (Marshall Faulk). Warner wasn't up to the task. Sure, he rallied the Rams from a 31-7 deficit, and may have had a legendary finish if not for Hakim's fumbled punt return. But the facts are the facts. The Saints are still marching and the Rams go into the offseason as a trampled ex-champ. There's going to be a lot of changes in St. Louis. Take that to the bank. As for next week, the Vikings await the Saints. Minnesota is 7-1 at home; New Orleans is 7-1 on the road.

Jamal Lewis
Jamal Lewis proved his playoff mettle.

Ravens 21, Broncos 3: When it was so very evident that the wind was going to be a major factor, the Ravens had the advantage. This game was not going to be won through the air, and you don't beat Baltimore on the ground. Broncos QB Gus Frerotte looked like a man overwhelmed by three elements -- the weather, the playoff challenge and the great Ravens' defense.

What a terrific player Ray Lewis is. Maybe he is what Mike Singletary was to the '85 Bears, perhaps even more physically imposing. Sunday's domination of the Broncos gives the Ravens' defense one more step to their historical challenge to the great defenses that have carried teams to the Super Bowl. I know this much -- it isn't Trent Dilfer who will carry this load. Dilfer's stats were modest, and even padded by the fortunate pass that bounced into the arms of tight end Shannon Sharpe on that 58-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a 14-3 lead. Rookie running back Jamal Lewis showed he is playoff worthy by pounding some hard yards, and breaking off a few big ones. Too bad the rookie of the year balloting wasn't delayed until this game -- Lewis might have had a better shot at beating out his Denver counterpart, Mike Anderson.

Give Ravens coach Brian Billick credit for reeling in his offensive instincts. He realized that this game belonged to his defense and offensive line. Still, as the Ravens get ready for the Tennessee Titans for what should be a true football war, Billick must wonder if he can really pull this off with Dilfer under the center.

The Broncos? Somehow, I just don't see Frerotte back in Denver next year. He had a 4-3 record subbing for Griese this year, but even Bubby Brister made a better show of it filling in for John Elway a couple of years back.

Eagles 21, Bucs 3: You know what? Regardless of my pick (the Bucs), this should have been a no-brainer. The Bucs had played some excruciatingly tough games to finish the season. They were beat up. They were back on the road, in the cold. Not just the cold, but the chilling concrete of Veterans Stadium. Bad turf. Passionate fans. The Eagles not only had matured down the stretch, the schedule gave them a bye in week 16 and a season-finale at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. They were well rested. The Philly defense also had great matchups (DE Hugh Douglas on LT George Hegamin, for one) against a mediocre Bucs offense.

Ah, and then there was Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. What a neat player. Sure, he was MVP material. He also continued to show his maturity as he applied all the principles taught by coach Andy Reid. McNabb just made plays. He didn't get greedy. He used the West Coast scheme to near-perfection by using short passes to compensate for a running game compromised by the injury to Duce Staley. The Bucs had such a healthy fear of McNabb, it really appeared to affect the normal recklessness of great players like Warren Sapp. And yet, McNabb still was able to improvise for some big plays.

On the other side, Bucs QB Shaun King ended the season by failing to answer the question: Is he the right guy? If Bucs coach Tony Dungy isn't careful, too much allegiance to King will cost him his job. The Bucs must assess whether to make a play for Brad Johnson or Trent Green in the off season. But I can share this -- you didn't make a mistake letting Trent Dilfer go. As the Bucs sink into the think tank, the Eagles have a week to figure out a way to beat their biggest nemesis, the New York Giants.



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