DENVER — While 18 NFL teams pack up and head home for the offseason and six division champions take some time off, four distinctively different wild-card teams are beginning immediate preparation for playoff games Sunday.
New Orleans (12-3), a team that had never made the playoffs and never had a winning season, earned an NFC wild-card spot by winning its final nine games. Sunday at 1 p.m. PST, the Saints will face a Minnesota Vikings team (8-7) that has lost three of his last four and is lucky to even be in the playoffs.
In the AFC, Seattle, a team many picked to win the West and challenge for the Super Bowl, comes into playoff competition after a disappointing loss to non-playoff team Kansas City. The Seahawks (9-6), who went into the weekend thinking about maintaining home field advantage, now have to play on the road against a feisty Houston Oilers team (9-6) at 9:30 a.m. PST in the Astrodome. The Oilers were picked by almost everyone to finish last in the AFC Central, but came within one game of winning the division.
Strangely enough, all four wild-card teams play their home games in domed stadiums, and half of the 10 playoff teams play home games indoors.
Through the 1970s, wild-card teams were almost an afterthought, largely because they have to beat division winners on the road. But the Oakland Raiders' victory in Super Bowl XV (January, 1981) after getting into the playoffs as a wild-card team, and New England's trip to Super Bowl XX give wild-card teams plenty of hope even though the odds are still against them.
New Orleans would seem to have the best case of the wild-card teams going into the playoffs. The Saints (12-3) have the second-best record in the NFL (trailing only 13-2 San Francisco) and have won nine straight, including a Nov. 15 victory in San Francisco.
Originally, it was thought that the Saints were all defense and special teams, and just not ready offensively to beat playoff-caliber teams. But recent results make it appear that the Saints have advanced offensively in the last four weeks.
The Saints overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Cincinnati nine days ago and an 11-point deficit to beat Green Bay Sunday. New Orleans has won seven of its nine straight by more than seven points. A slip-up by the 49ers would have given the Saints home-field advantage as long as they stayed in the playoffs.
The big question now is whether the Saints will feel the pinch playing for the first time in the postseason. "It's like Star Trek: 'Go where no Saint has gone before,' " said New Orleans defensive end Jim Wilks.
Owner Tom Benson predicted when the Saints were 7-3 that they would finish 12-3. But only one of those victories (over Houston) was against a playoff team.
Whatever doubts remain about New Orleans, the Saints appear to be in much better shape than the Vikings, who have gotten some strange performances from key players lately and what some regard as equally strange decisions by Coach Jerry Burns.
The Vikings were in position to beat the Bears three weeks ago, when Burns' decision to run four straight times against the NFL's then-No. 1-ranked defense probably cost Minnesota a touchdown and a victory.
Were it not for a 17-14 victory over lowly Detroit in Week 14 and the Cowboys' upset of St. Louis, the Vikings would on vacation, too. This doesn't seem to be the same team that rebounded from the 24-day players strike by going 6-1 with the regulars.
And the Vikings aren't exactly playoff veterans, having made their last appearance in 1982 in the strike-marred season's "Super Bowl tournament" that was nearly as large as the NCAA basketball tournament field.
In Minnesota, that is all being discounted. "Now that you're in the playoffs, it doesn't matter what you did last week or last month," said Vikings defensive coordinator Floyd Peters. "It's zero-to-zero and now the question is: What are you going to do next Sunday?"
Should New Orleans win, the Saints would visit the Bears (11-4) in Chicago on Jan. 9 or 10, forcing the Redskins (11-4) out to San Francisco (13-2) for a date with the red-hot 49ers. A Minnesota victory would send the Vikings to San Francisco and the Redskins to face the Bears in Soldier Field.
Seattle's season has been just as bizarre as Minnesota's. Since the strike, the Seahawks went through stretches where they beat the Vikings, then lost to the Jets, beat Green Bay and San Diego, then lost badly at home to the Raiders, beat division champs Denver and Chicago, then lost to Kanas City.
Not even the Seattle coaches know which Seahawks team will show up in the Astrodome Sunday. The matchups favor Seattle, but Houston has shown a great deal of resourcefulness in recent weeks.
Quarterback Warren Moon is playing well now that the Oilers have a strong running game in fullback Alonzo Highsmith and Mike Rozier. Rookie Highsmith, just really getting the hang of things after holding out most of the season, scored his first two touchdowns, one receiving and one rushing; Rozier turned in his fifth 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
Quite a few of Seattle's veteran players were on hand for playoff victories in 1983-84, but hardly any of the Oilers were around for Houston's last playoff appearance, in 1980. From '81-86, Houston was 23-66.
"After all the suffering, this sure does feel sweet," said Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville. "Nobody believed in us except us."
A Houston victory would send the Oilers to Mile High Stadium for a game with Denver (10-4-1) and Indianapolis (9-6) to Cleveland (10-5). But a Seattle victory would put the Seahawks in Cleveland and Indianapolis in snowy Denver.