BOSTON — Before anybody gets too excited about the first week of the National Football League playoffs, consider this: The four best teams won't be in action. Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Green Bay all earned time off to rest and recuperate by virtue of superior regular-season results.
One of these teams likely will prevail at Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego on Jan. 25.
Some observers would say Kansas City and defending champion Green Bay are currently playing the best football. If they continue to do so, the result could be a rematch of the very first Super Bowl opponents, in which quarterback Bart Starr (see story at left) led Green Bay to a 35-10 victory.
The eight teams suiting up Saturday and Sunday in the NFL's Wildcard Weekend, of course, aren't out of it yet. And with everything resting on single games rather than playoff series, the atmosphere is both scary and hopeful for every postseason qualifier.
Certainly the Miami Dolphins must be encouraged, knowing that they can erase the anguish of two regular-season losses to New England by beating the host Patriots Sunday (12:30 pm., ET, on NBC). The teams met this past Monday in a game that decided home-field advantage. New England won 14-12, but in the kind of struggle that has characterized the team's whole season. And now the Dolphins' ever-dangerous passer Dan Marino gets one more opportunity to pull a rabbit out of his helmet.
In the other American Conference game, Jacksonville visits Denver on Saturday (4.p.m. on ABC). The Broncos have looked vulnerable during the latter half of the season, yet there will be no letdowns against the team that upset them in last season's playoffs.
In the National Conference, Barry Sanders makes every game interesting. The Detroit running back just completed the league's second most productive season ever, with 2,053 rushing yards. Now he must try to lift the inconsistent Detroit Lions over Tampa Bay Sunday (4 p.m., FOX). The Buccaneers are making a rare postseason appearance. The other NFC game pits Minnesota against the New York Giants (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., on ABC). The Vikings had to snap a five-game losing streak to make the playoffs. The Giants are the first NFC East team to ever finish the season unbeaten in the division.