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  • NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PREVIEWS

    Sunday, January 20, 6:32 AM
    NFL PLAYOFFS 
    ============ 
    
    Sunday, January 20 
    ------------------ 
    
    Baltimore (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3) 
    AFC divisional playoff                              12:30 pm EST
    ----------------------------------------------------------------
    PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- The Baltimore Ravens may have their
    swagger, but the Pittsburgh Steelers will not be intimidated.
    Round Three between the bitter Central Division rivals takes
    place Sunday to determine a trip to the AFC championship game.
    Of course, the war of words is already underway. "We've been
    looking for them (in the playoffs)," Ravens linebacker Jamie
    Sharper said.  "If 'The Bus' (Steelers Pro Bowl running back
    Jerome Bettis) is smart, he won't play." Bettis, Pittsburgh's
    leading rusher, has missed the last five games with hip and
    groin injuries. Bettis did not exactly endear himself to the
    Ravens when he favorably compared Bengals linebacker Takeo
    Spikes to Baltimore star middle linebacker Ray Lewis in a
    magazine article. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are
    5-0 in the postseason under coach Brian Billick and flexed their
    muscle in the wild card round with a dominant 20-3 victory over
    the Miami Dolphins last week. Baltimore rushed for 226 yards,
    forced three turnovers and held Miami to 151 total yards. But
    the Steelers were the AFC's best team during the regular season,
    ranked first in the league in defense and clinched their first
    division title since 1997 with a 26-21 win at Baltimore on
    December 16. Without Bettis, Kordell Stewart passed for a
    career-high 333 yards and two touchdowns against the vaunted
    defense of the Ravens as the Steelers earned their sixth AFC
    Central title in 10 years under coach Bill Cowher. Stewart also
    hurt the Ravens with his legs, rushing for 55 yards on 10
    carries. In the absence of Bettis, Stewart was flawless,
    completing 20-of-31 passes with touchdowns of 90 yards to Bobby
    Shaw and 25 yards to Plaxico Burress. Pittsburgh totaled a
    season-high 476 yards and controlled the ball for more than 41
    minutes. Meanwhile, the Steelers defense, led by linebackers
    Jason Gildon and Earl Holmes, held Baltimore to just 149 total
    yards before the Ravens went 58 yards on nine plays in their
    final drive. Baltimore's Elvis Grbac completed 20-of-38 passes
    for 159 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. The win
    was especially sweet for the Steelers, who held the Ravens to
    just 10 first downs and 183 total yards in the first meeting
    here on November 4, but suffered a 13-10 loss because Kris Brown
    missed 4-of-5 field goal attempts. Burress annoyed some
    Baltimore players when he said Pittsburgh "physically beat up"
    the Ravens in the first meeting. Sharpe took particular
    exception to Burress' comments and referred to him as
    "Plexiglass." But in the rematch, the 6-5 Burress gave fits to
    Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, catching eight passes for a
    career-high 164 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown. A key to
    Sunday's contest will be the play of corners McAlister and Duane
    Starks against Burress and fellow receiver Hines Ward, who had
    94 receptions for 1,003 yards. With pass-rushing threats Jason
    Gildon and Joey Porter on the outside and Earl Holmes and NFL
    defensive rookie of the year Kendrell Bell patrolling the
    inside, the Steelers have a linebacker corps that rivals
    Baltimore's trio of Lewis, Sharper and Peter Boulware. The
    Steelers lead the series, 8-4. 
    
    Green Bay (13-4) at St Louis (14-2) 
    NFC divisional playoff                                 4:00 pm EST
    ------------------------------------------------------------------
    ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- Once upon a time, Kurt Warner was a
    training camp quarterback cut by the Green Bay Packers.  On
    Sunday, the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player duels three-time
    MVP Brett Favre for the first time. The St. Louis Rams host the
    Packers Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff featuring the NFL's
    top quarterbacks.  The winner will meet either the Chicago Bears
    or Philadelphia Eagles in the conference championship game next
    weekend. Warner and the Rams won the Super Bowl two years ago
    under former coach Dick Vermeil with Mike Martz as offensive
    coordinator.  After getting knocked out of the playoffs in the
    wild card round last season, the Rams finished with a
    franchise-best record this season and have homefield advantage
    throughout the playoffs. Favre and the Packers are back in the
    playoffs for the first time since 1998 and posted a 25-15
    victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the wild card round last
    week. The 32-year-old Favre was the NFL's dominant player in the
    mid 1990s, restoring the Packers back to glory with a Super Bowl
    title in 1996 and a trip to the Super Bowl the following year.
    Bothered by a sore shoulder and elbow, Favre struggled the
    previous two seasons, but returned to form with 3,921 yards and
    32 touchdowns in 2001.  He excelled in the playoff win over the
    Niners, completing 22-of-29 for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
    But since becoming the Rams' starter in 1999, Warner has been
    the NFL's best quarterback, winning MVP honors that year and
    this season.  In 2000, Rams running back Marshall Faulk took MVP
    honors. The 30-year-old Warner threw for 4,830 yards, the
    second-highest total in NFL history, and 36 touchdowns this
    season.   Dan Marino holds the league record with 5,084 passing
    yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984. It's hard to believe that
    Warner was once an extra "training camp arm" for the Packers in
    1994 when Favre, Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer were the team's top
    quarterbacks.  After being waived by former Packers coach Mike
    Holmgren, Warner persevered and starred in the Arena League from
    1995-97 and played in NFL Europe before joining the Rams in
    1998. The following year, Warner wrote perhaps the league's most
    improbable story in NFL history, throwing for 4,353 yards and 41
    touchdowns and leading the Rams to their first Super Bowl title.
    Guard Adam Timmerman was a starter on the Packers' back-to-back
    Super Bowl teams in the '90s before signing with the Rams in
    1999. Whereas Favre often improvises and uses rollouts, Warner
    is the classic drop-back pocket passer with the quick release.
    And Warner throws it often to his stable of receivers headed by
    Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.  Holt is the team's top deep threat
    with 81 receptions for 1,363 yards and seven touchdowns and
    Bruce caught 64 passes for 1,106 yards and six scores. Of
    course, Warner also has Faulk, the first player in NFL history
    to surpass 2,000 total yards in four straight seasons. It will
    be up to Packers coach Mike Sherman and defensive coordinator Ed
    Donatell to figure out a way to stop the league's most prolific
    offense (503 points). The Packers ranked second in the NFC in
    sacks with 52 and will need to put some heat on Warner Sunday
    with a variety of blitzes.  Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila
    led the team with 13 sacks. Favre does not the same arsenal of
    weapons as Warner. Receiver Antonio Freeman is still a threat on
    crossing patterns, but no longer possesses the speed to go deep.
    Corey Bradford is now the primary deep threat and caught a
    51-yard bomb in last week's playoff win. The Packers have a
    strong running game with Ahman Green, who is a double threat
    with 1,385 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and 63 receptions
    for 596 yards. Compare that to Faulk, who had 1,382 rushing
    yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 83 passes for 765 yards and
    nine scores. Favre must contend with a Rams defense which ranked
    first in the NFC and third in the league overall.  Ends Leonard
    Little and Grant Wistrom combined for 24 sacks. Warner suffered
    a throat contusion in St. Louis' regular season finale on
    January 6 and the Rams want him to avoid talking until Sunday as
    a precaution. Backup quarterback Jamie Martin barked out the
    calls in the huddle during practice. The Rams lead the series,
    43-39-2. 
    
    st 01-20-02 06:17 et
    
    


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