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ON FOOTBALL

Playoff scales tipped

NFC can't measure up to AFC powerhouses

Mike Shanahan and Aaron Kampman have different viewpoints on the NFL playoffs. That's probably because the Broncos coach is sentenced to seeking survival in the AFC while the Packers defensive end knows his team need only win three games in the lowly NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

"I don't fear any of them," Kampman said boldly when asked about the Packers' chances of beating the field and representing the NFC in Jacksonville come Feb. 6. "There's no one that I say, `Boy, they're a pretty good team.' "

Kampman probably didn't mean it the way it came out, but he's exactly right. Even though the Eagles finished 13-3 and the Falcons were 11-5, they don't strike the kind of fear into anyone that the 15-1 Steelers or 14-2 Patriots do in the AFC. Matter of fact, no one in the NFC strikes the kind of fear into anybody that Shanahan is feeling as he prepares his Broncos to return to the RCA Dome to face the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs for the second straight year.

"I don't think anybody wants to play Peyton Manning, to be honest with you," Shanahan lamented. "Anybody that does is not very smart. We know how good he is and how good he has played at home. Obviously we didn't play very well out there in the playoffs [last year]."

Indeed the Broncos didn't, which is why Shanahan was less than pleased to end up facing the Colts again after beating them Sunday on a day when not only most of the offense sat out but so did half of Indianapolis's secondary.

A year ago, the Broncos faced a similar situation and soon were sitting out themselves after the Colts destroyed them, 41-10, in a wild-card game, taking a 31-3 halftime lead on a day when Manning passed for five touchdowns and registered a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.

Kampman knows the Packers face no such obstacles getting through the NFC lineup, where they are really the only team entering the postseason on an upswing.

The Vikings (8-8) have lost seven of 10 and backed into the playoffs to get an invitation to Green Bay to face a team that beat them twice this year by the same 34-31 score. St. Louis, the other 8-8 team, travels to division rival Seattle having lost six of its last 10 (it won its last two, but one was a game in which the Eagles didn't bring the varsity). Is this any way to march into the postseason? Not even Vikings coach Mike Tice thinks so.

"We won enough games to get in," Tice said after his team lost Sunday. "But we're not going to do some stupid crap like open up a bottle of champagne or anything."

If they didn't then, they won't be doing it any time soon. Might they beat the Packers? When you lose two times to the same team by a field goal, why not? But even if they become the first 8-8 team to win a postseason game, where do they go from there?

To either Philadelphia or Atlanta. Then home for the winter.

One might conclude the Rams' woes give the Seahawks a great advantage. They don't. Seattle was on shaky legs itself for weeks, losing four of its last eight games.

The NFC has struggled all season to maintain its self-respect in a league dominated by AFC firebrands. It really should be renamed the UDC (Ugly Duckling Conference). The UDC held form right to the end when its two hottest teams, Carolina and New Orleans, both failed to make the playoffs, its two best teams, Philadelphia and Atlanta, finished the season with back-to-back losses, and two of its weakest teams, Seattle and St. Louis, staggered into the postseason.

"A lot of teams would like to be in our place," Rams coach Mike Martz said. True, but a lot of teams would like to have a winning record, too.

Anything is possible in the NFC, as Kampman noted. He was right when he said, somewhat inelegantly, that there isn't anyone in the conference that makes you say, "Boy, they're a pretty good team." The truth hurts. The UDC -- sorry, NFC -- is hurting.

The Falcons are as dangerous, or as erratic, as Michael Vick makes them on any Sunday he plays, and the Eagles without Terrell Owens will struggle mightily in the passing game, just as they did last year in the postseason when the Panthers became the third straight team to beat them in the conference championship game. Might the Eagles again torment owner Jeffrey Lurie and lose before they get to the Super Bowl? If the Packers or Falcons are waiting for them, they very likely might.

The AFC is far more competitive, filled with teams at varying degrees of molten hot. San Diego (12-4) hosts the slipping Jets and has won nine of its last 10 games. The only loss was in overtime to the Colts, who have won eight of their last nine.

The AFC is crammed with arguably the top four teams in football. Only the Jets and Broncos skidded into the postseason in NFC fashion, with New York losing three of four (to Pittsburgh, New England, and the Rams) while the Broncos lost three of their last six.

Waiting for the AFC's weekend survivors will be the Steelers, who are 15-1 and winners of 14 straight, and the Patriots, who have won eight of nine and are 14-2 for the second consecutive season. No wonder Kampman looks at the playoffs and sees opportunity while Shanahan looks and sees looming disaster.

"The main key is to try and keep them off the field, for one," Shanahan said when asked how to stop the Colts. "They're going to make things happen if they're out there a lot. If they do throw a few touchdown passes on you early, you've got to stay within your game plan because with the complications with crowd noise and how they rush the passer first and react to the run second, you're in for a long day if you get too far behind and just go to the pass."

If you have to play the Steelers, the problem is different but no less formidable. Pittsburgh's team fits its city. It's wide-necked and powerful, a no-frills affair.

On Sunday, the Steelers pounded out a win using many backups against a Bills team that needed only one more victory to reach the playoffs. Pittsburgh had nothing to play for but pride, but that was enough to convince them to ram the ball down the throats of the Bills 43 times, trampling Buffalo both on offense and defense. That being the case, what happens if you have to face their real team?

As for the Patriots, who wants to play a team that's won two of the last three Super Bowls, never falls behind, seldom makes a mistake, and jumps all over yours like a winemaker with a hotfoot?

Not even Kampman, who was pretty bold talking about his Packers' chances in the playoffs, and with good reason: Nobody asked him about the AFC. 

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