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MOORE: Can wild cards find winning hand?

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David Moore

David Moore has been the senior football writer for FOX Sports since Aug. 2005. He appears weekly on the FSN Baseball Report and MLB on FOX. One more line lorem ipsum dolor sit amet e pluribus unum.

 
   
 
If the purpose of a 17-week regular season is to put the NFL into some sort of logical order, to establish a favorite or two for the Lombardi Trophy, what transpired in 2002 must be considered an entertaining, yet colossal waste of time. We are no closer to identifying a Super Bowl favorite at this moment than we were when the regular season kicked off Sept. 5. If anything, we're more confused. The two teams in last year's Super Bowl — New England and St. Louis — aren't even in these playoffs. There are statistical anomalies and trends among the playoff teams in both conferences that just don't make sense. Let's begin with the NFC. Apparently, no one passed along the wisdom that a team wants to be playing its best football of the season heading into the playoffs. Of the six teams still standing, only the New York didn't lose a game in the final eight days of the regular season. San Francisco has lost four of its last seven games while Atlanta has dropped three of its last four. The AFC has several teams that finished strong. But three of the conference's top four seeds — Oakland, Tennessee and the New York — lost four consecutive games at one point of the season. "I think it has been great for the fans and great for the nation to see such a competitive league and so many different things happening all the way down to the last week of the season,'' quarterback said. With more to follow. Eight teams open the playoffs this weekend. A compelling argument can be made as to why each of these teams will advance. Of course, a strong argument can also be made as to why none of these teams will emerge from the wild-card round. Here's a quick guide of what these eight teams have going for them and working against them.

NFC

Green Bay

Reasons to get excited: Quarterback doesn't lose in the cold. The don't lose playoff games at Lambeau Field. That's a winning combination for Saturday night's game. But what about afterward? Favre can put this team on his shoulder pads and carry it to the Super Bowl. Running back can also carry this team in stretches, although he doesn't appear completely healthy and certainly isn't playing behind a healthy offensive line. Still, with Favre and the league's most opportunistic defense, the can't be discounted. Maybe next year: The won't lose their chance to win the Super Bowl in the next few weeks. They lost it Sunday in the Meadowlands. If Green Bay had beaten the to secure home-field advantage in the NFC, the team could have gone ahead and booked its flight to San Diego. Now, the will likely have to win in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia to get that far, and it's doubtful that will happen.

San Francisco

Reasons to get excited: The offense isn't as explosive as it was during its championship days, but it's remarkably efficient. San Francisco controls the clock with its two-headed, four-legged running back (Garrison Hearst and ) and an offensive line that allowed only 22 sacks. Quarterback is often at his best when forced out of the pocket and receiver can break open a game regardless of the coverage. Maybe next year: San Francisco focused on upgrading its secondary during the off-season. It didn't work. Rookie cornerback is like the kid who wandered around school with the "Kick me'' sign taped to his back. When opponents need yardage, they look in his direction and are rarely disappointed. The confidence this team built early in the season appears gone, especially when you consider its only two victories in December were close calls against Dallas and Arizona.

New York

Reasons to get excited: No team in the NFC played better to end the regular season. Quarterback (4,073 yards), running back (1,387 yards) and receiver (1,343 yards) are the most prolific players at their positions in these NFC playoffs. It seems that coach Jim Fassel did know what he was doing when he took over the play-calling. The cornerbacks are so good that the can drop a safety into the box for run support. Maybe next year: New York is the only team in the NFC playoffs that has lost more turnovers (27) than it created (25). This isn't something you want to hang your helmet on this time of year. The will also have to win three games on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Since this team won only one road game all season against a team with a winning record, that's a problematic proposition.

Atlanta

Reasons to get excited: It's impossible not to get excited when the ball is in 's hands. He can beat a team with his arm or his legs, and there aren't a lot of players left in the playoffs who can say that. The played with Green Bay in the season opener and arguably should have won, which gives them confidence for Saturday. Maybe next year: Vick can make plays. The problem is he doesn't have enough talented receivers to maximize his potential. would be ideal as a second or third receiver, but he's the best Atlanta has. That's not good enough at this time of year.

AFC

Pittsburgh

Reasons to get excited: The got to the AFC championship game last year with at quarterback. They can get farther with . He brings an upside to the passing game that Stewart didn't, and receivers and have responded. Pittsburgh's offense was good last season. Now it's dangerous. The defense, meanwhile, is dangerous for opposing quarterbacks, leading the AFC with 50 sacks. Maybe next year: Special teams played a major role in the ' downfall last year, and they haven't done much to improve in that area. Field-goal kicker has been a welcome addition, but Pittsburgh has allowed two kicks returned for touchdowns, lost three fumbles on returns and have had four kicks blocked. The secondary can also be exploited by a team with the personnel to spread the field.

New York

Reasons to get excited: A team that won eight of its last 11 games — and beat Denver, New England and Green Bay in the final month of the season — has momentum. The are riding high, much like the were heading into last year's playoffs. There are a lot of similarities here, right down to the quarterback — in this case, — who has come off the bench to lead his team into the playoffs. Maybe next year: Expecting the to catch lightning in a bottle just because the did at this stage last season isn't realistic. New York ranks in the bottom third of the league in offense and defense, and those sort of numbers have a way of catching up with teams in the playoffs.

Indianapolis

Reasons to get excited: Defensive coordinators have had several years to come up with a scheme to slow the -to- connection. Nothing has worked yet. The are never out of a game with these two around, which minimizes the angst Indianapolis might feel if it were to fall behind early in a game. The defense has improved dramatically, which is why the team is back in the playoffs. Maybe next year: While the defense has improved, it may not have improved enough. The ' run defense has been gashed in recent weeks, a trend that is sure to have running back licking his chops. The Indianapolis running game has also struggled as has not approached his previous form in his first season back from major knee surgery. The might not have the offensive balance they need to keep going.

Cleveland

Reasons to get excited: Teams fight all season to earn home-field advantage. But it can be argued the are right where they want to be. Cleveland was the league's best road team in 2002 with a 6-2 record. That's good, since every game they must play in these playoffs will be on the road. The have a penchant for playing close games — and winning close games — away from home. They won't be intimidated. Maybe next year: Cleveland fans were too hard on quarterback this season. Maybe they will let up after observing backup in the playoffs. Holcomb did an outstanding job in filling in for the injured Couch in the first two games of the season to stir the controversy. But what he's about to see now doesn't compare with the Kansas City and Cincinnati defenses he took advantage of to start the season. Senior writer David Moore can be reached at his e-mail address, dmoore@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Falcons, Browns, Packers, Colts, Patriots, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Steelers, Michael Vick, Brian Finneran, Brett Favre, Ahman Green, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Amani Toomer, Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, Curtis Martin, Chad Pennington, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Kordell Stewart, Terrell Owens, Tommy Maddox, Jeff Reed

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