NEW ORLEANS — The two National Football League wild-card winners are a little better this year. The division champions will have the home-field advantage in the next round, as usual, but the challengers demonstrated Sunday that they have the skilled athletes to play on even terms with most clubs.
And that's what is different about the playoffs this winter. Neither wild card is a pushover.
After Minnesota surprised New Orleans, 44-10, in Sunday's early game, Coach Jerry Burns explained how his Vikings so easily ended the Saints' nine-game winning streak: "There's more talent in this room than most people realize."
He could have been speaking about those who wondered about Houston, too, before quarterback Warren Moon led the Oilers with the sharply thrown passes that ended the Seattle Seahawks' season in overtime, 23-20, at the Astrodome.
The Oilers have put together a kind of all-star club this year with Mike Rozier and Alonzo Highsmith in the backfield and a bunch of first draft choices in the offensive line plus underrated defensive backs Steve Brown, Patrick Allen and Keith Bostic--not to mention three tough little wide receivers.
Minnesota has concentrated elsewhere, developing a kind of all-pro front four.
The Vikings and Oilers haven't always played this well this season, of course, but the point is that they're capable of games like this, particularly in the playoffs. They have the players. You can be sure that the champions are worrying.
At the Superdome, the Saints were never the same after Anthony Carter's 84-yard punt return put the Vikings ahead late in the first quarter, 10-7.
It may not be true that he and halfback Darrin Nelson are most of Minnesota's offense, but they're a lot of it.
And the strange thing is the aggressiveness they bring to the football field for athletes of their size.
At 5-foot-11 and 174 pounds, Carter is one of the NFL's smallest players. And at 5-9 and 185, Nelson is about as small as running backs get. But whereas most little guys play soft, Carter and Nelson play hard.
When carrying the ball, they attacked the New Orleans defense before it could attack them.
The Vikings' defensive line played exactly the same way. From his station at defensive right tackle, Keith Millard came off the ball as swiftly as the Saints' offensive linemen--who knew the count.
And coming right behind Millard on most plays were Minnesota's defensive ends, Chris Doleman and Doug Martin, who, like Millard, arrived in Minnesota as No. 1 draft choices.
Carter, Nelson, their defensive linemen and several other Vikings are known in today's football as impact players. They are also called big-play players--and the difference between the teams was that New Orleans doesn't have any big-play or impact people.
The best two Saints are halfbacks Rueben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard, who can be contained by defenses as strong as Minnesota's.
It's true that big-play players don't always make big plays, but when they do, as Minnesota's did Sunday in New Orleans, it's usually all over for the other side.
If the Vikings are as good as they seemed, why did they back into the 1987-88 playoffs as a wild card team?
"Our quarterbacking has been shaky this season," Burns said. "Our kicking game has been shaky. And we went 0-3 during the strike."
That's most of it. And it's a tossup whether an erratic quarterback, erratic special-team play or the strike hurt the Vikings the most. No other playoff team lost every replacement game.
In New Orleans, the Vikings got a big enough game from quarterback Wade Wilson. And this time their kicker, Chuck Nelson, kicked the ball straight and high.
The Vikings have so many impact players that that's all it took.
In the second quarter, for example, when they led by only three points, Nelson carried Wilson's one-yard pass 37 yards to the New Orleans one--exhibiting speed and moves along the sideline followed by tackle-breaking power after he cut in.
That made it 17-7 and, coming on top of Carter's big run, it took the confidence out of the Saints. They were ready for Minnesota this time--they scored first. There were just too many big-play Vikings.
The result of the Saints' first playoff game should have solidified the place of their new leader, Jim Mora, as coach of the year.
It is plain now that when the Saints went 12-3 this season, Mora was doing it with mirrors.
He doesn't have 12-2 talent.
Before the game, he and Burns agreed that it was the Saints' special teams that got them this far--which doubtless means two things. First, their offense and defense haven't done that much. Second, special-team excellence is the hallmark of good coaching.
In their first wild-card game, two cheap plays did the Saints in--Carter's punt return that not even Minnesota expected and the alley-oop touchdown just before halftime, when Minnesota led, 31-10.
Take those two away and it's a game. The Saints can come back from 17-10. The Vikings, for one thing, might have fumbled, and that would have brought in the crowd.
The Saints couldn't come back from 31-10--not against Millard and Doleman.