The National Football League's regular season is finally over, leaving in its wake a path of imponderables best left to Rodin's contemplative statue, ``The Thinker.'' One is how the early-season players' strike affected the final standings. Might the playoff picture have differed with a full 16-game campaign instead of an interrupted season that lost one week and had three others contested with replacement players?
But now it is time to turn to the playoffs, which begin Sunday with the wild-card games involving the two teams in each conference with the best records among non-division winners. In the AFC it's Seattle at Houston, while in the NFC the amazing New Orleans Saints, whose 12-3 record marked the first winning season in the history of the franchise, are at home against Minnesota.
The division winners, who get the first week off, are San Francisco, whose 13-2 regular-season record was the best in the league, Chicago, Washington, Denver, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Conspicuous by their absence are the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who started 0-3, lost whatever chance they might have had to recover when the season then got disrupted by the strike, and eventually finished last in the NFC East with a 6-9 record.
Now for a capsule look at Sunday's games:
Houston vs. Seattle - Just when you think the Seahawks are about to explode they do something goofy, such as getting upset by a struggling team like the Bengals, Jets, or Raiders. You can't trust them. They are like a squirrel that gets halfway across the street and then changes directions five times in the next five seconds. Seattle will also be without its best running back, Curt Warner, who is out with injuries.
Yet this is a team that often comes up with days when it looks unbeatable; that has ``the mouth that roars'' in rookie linebacker Brian Bosworth; and that has a super wide receiver in Steve Largent. Last Sunday in a loss to Kansas City, Largent caught six passes to increase his career total to 752. That's two more than previous NFL record-holder Charlie Joiner.
Houston is back in the playoffs for the first time since 1980. Most of the credit for the Oilers' improvement goes to coach Jerry Glanville, who has toughened up this team's defense while elevating the confidence of quarterback Warren Moon. Glanville may also have located a secret weapon in 240-pound rookie fullback Alonzo Highsmith, who missed the first eight games of the season because of a contract dispute. Last Sunday against Cincinnati, Highsmith scored his first two NFL touchdowns, one on a run, the other on a pass reception. The Bosworth-Highsmith matchup should be good for several instant replays.
New Orleans vs. Minnesota - After years of coming up empty, the Saints ended their season on a nine-game winning streak, including a 26-24 victory over San Francisco, probably the best team around right now.
The biggest change in New Orleans is that the Saints have learned how to play the tough defense. They also have an underrated quarterback in Bobby Hebert, who completed 54.6 percent of his passes. Even a loss to Minnesota probably would not affect Jim Mora's chances of being named NFL Coach of the Year.
While few people really expect the Vikings to beat New Orleans, it only takes a slight shuffling of letters to turn ``setup'' into ``upset.'' Minnesota often plays well defensively - especially the Front Four of Doug Martin, Tim Newton, Keith Millard, and Chris Doleman, who are consistently hard to run against. So the Vikings could be tough if they get a big effort from quarterback Wade Wilson, who has played well all season and who burned the Saints with three TD passes in a game last year.
Playoff schedule Sunday, Jan. 3 Seattle at Houston Minn. at New Orleans Saturday, Jan. 9 Seattle or Indianapolis at Cleveland Minn. or Wash. at S. Fran. Sunday, Jan. 10 Houston or Indianapolis at Denver Wash. or New Orleans at Chicago Sunday, Jan. 17 Conference title games Sunday, Jan. 31 Super Bowl at San Diego