Steelers-Pats, Rams-Eagles?

1-18-02, 1:00 p.m.

How we see this weekend's NFL playoff games: **

PATRIOTS 17, RAIDERS 13 _ ** No, this isn't the rantings of a Bostonian. A Bostonian still raging about the phantom roughing the passer call on the Pats' Sugar Bear Ray Hamilton against the Raiders' Ken Stabler in that fleece job of '76 that gave Oakland a last-minute playoff win over New England.

No, it's not that. A generation later it's about Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Give him two weeks to prepare in a film room and he can beat anybody. Up to and including the Enron auditors. (Was Raiders coach Jon Gruden even alive in '76?).

It's going to be Down East cold in Foxboro, Mass., Saturday night, not Bay Area balmy. And the Raiders won't be

able to run the ball like they have the last two weeks against the Jets' fourth-worst run defense in the land. You know that Belichick will add a wrinkle Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon won't decipher until halftime, and the Pats' factory-brand Tom Brady safe offense (making less than two turnovers per game) won't let the Raiders come back.

Plus, in the playoffs, you have to go with the coach on the sidelines who doesn't look like he constantly needs to be checked by social services. But give Gruden credit. At age 38, he has 40 wins. Belichick didn't become a head coach until he was 37, but 11 years ago in 1991 that made him the NFL's youngest head coach.

No, it's not the rantings of a Bostonian. But shouldn't Stapleton have been playing first base instead of Buckner? **

STEELERS 10, RAVENS 9 _ ** The Steelers aren't going to do what the Dolphins did and turn Baltimore running back Terry Allen into Lenny Moore. Pittsburgh won't let the Ravens run and quarterback Elvis Grbac simply won't be able to carry them against the NFL's No. 1 defense. This game ends with Shannon Sharpe pointing a big index finger at Grbac on the sidelines and Ravens coach Brian Billick trying to find a U-Haul big enough to store his ego for the winter.

Of course, the Ravens defense isn't going to give the Steelers much, either, but Baltimore's secondary has been beaten long the second half of the season. If the Bengals caught the ball deep in their Dec. 23 loss in Baltimore, it wouldn't have been a 16-0 shutout. If Dolphins receiver James McKnight didn't let a long pass bounce off his shoulder pads, last week's win in Miami isn't easy for Baltimore.

And Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart raked the Ravens just last month with a career-high 333 yards by continually going deep to 6-6 wide receiver Plaxico Burress . And that was without running back Jerome Bettis.

No one has had a bigger image change this year than Stewart. Unless maybe Rudy Giuliani, who went from Jerry Springer to Churchill. Now Stewart continues his transformation from Brister to Bradshaw. This is a one-play game and Stewart finds Burress once for the win. **

EAGLES 20, BEARS 10 _ ** The Bears have had a week off to soak in their first playoff run. Meanwhile, these Eagles have been here back-to-back years, are on a roll, and their quarterback, Donovan McNabb, won't be denied in his hometown of Chicago.

Bears quarterback Jim Miller comes into this alley fight against the swashbuckling McNabb with a pop gun. Only two other quarterbacks (the Bengals' Jon Kitna and the Panthers' Chris Weinke) joined Miller with an average pass gain of less than six yards this season. McNabb gets six yards just thinking about rolling out.

Plus, the Eagles love to blitz and Miller isn't going to break any stopwatches getting out of the pocket.

And Hugh Douglas' Eagles are better on the road than Don Henley's Eagles. They gave up 64 points on the road this season for eight points per game. According to ESPN.com, that is the lowest points per game allowed average in road games since 1942.

RAMS 28, PACKERS 17 _ For those still wondering how the Bengals could pick Dan Wilkinson No. 1 in 1994 and not Marshall Faulk, don't watch this one. It's a game that will show once and for all that not Kurt Warner and not Brett Favre is the NFL's true MVP.

The Packers' best cover linebacker, Nate Wayne, is playing hurt and Green Bay's safeties are so decimated that Willie Wood may have to come out of the '60s to get a quorum in the secondary. Faulk, the only man alive who could go to the Hall of Fame as both a receiver or a running back, will go nuts against those matchups.

Greg Garber of ESPN.com summed it up best in comparing Faulk's value to the value of Faulk's quarterback: "While Warner led the league in passing yards, touchdown passes, yards per attempt, completions, completion percentage and overall rating, Faulk made history. He became the first NFL player to gain more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage for a fourth consecutive season. Hall of Famer Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears was the only previous player to achieve three straight."

Yes, Green Bay's Favre is going to Canton, too, and Ahman Green is a nice running back for the Packers. But they won't be able to keep pace with the runnin' Rams on that plastic prairie under the dome in St. Louis.

Maybe the least written about and most effective unit besides the Green Berets is the Rams' defense. And it's not like their offense is always on the field. The St. Louis defense has played an average of 29:15 a game and is ranked second overall in the league. They are built on speed, but can a team giving up less than 87 rushing yards per game be soft? They did play Ricky Williams and Garrison Hearst twice this year.

And the Rams held foes to 17 or fewer points in 11 games this season. They did that in just one game last year.

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