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  Before getting to the serious matter at hand -- previewing the upcoming NFL playoffs -- let us bask once more in that most improbable of moments: The Arizona Cardinals influencing the postseason picture.

On Sunday, in the final game of the regular season, the Cardinals completed what might be the greatest comeback in NFL history,


scoring two touchdowns in the final 1:54 to knock the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs.

Consider the talent levels involved. Josh McCown, who threw the two TD passes, was a third-round pick; receiver Nathan Poole, who caught the winning TD, was undrafted and cut four times by the Cardinals; Steve Bush, the tight end who caught the earlier TD passes, also was undrafted. Vikings safety Brian Russell, defending Poole on the fateful play, shared the NFL lead with nine interceptions. The Vikings roster is littered with star players and high first-round picks, most of whom are apparently overpaid.


Earlier this year, the Indianapolis Colts rallied from 21 points down against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with less than four minutes left, later winning the game in overtime. That was the largest deficit overcome in the shortest time and all the more shocking because we still thought then that Tampa Bay's defense was good. But the Bucs defense was exposed over the rest of the season and the Colts' comeback was led by Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison - one of the top quarterback-receiving duos of this era. Back in 1993, the Buffalo Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in a playoff game. But both of those teams had already made the playoffs.

So these plucky Cardinals, who had lost their previous seven games by an average score of about 33-13, should get serious consideration for greatest comeback after engineering this rally. In fact, the Cardinals played a major role in determining the playoff picture. Earlier in the year, they beat the Green Bay Packers, which would have been the reason the Packers missed the playoffs if not for the Vikings' collapse. And Arizona's two other wins were against San Francisco and Cincinnati when a victory by either could have resulted in those teams playing to get into the postseason by the end of year.

But they weren't because they didn't and a bunch of other teams did. The 12 teams in this year's Super Bowl tournament again do not include those Cardinals, but they now include the Packers. The NFL will love tugging on the heartstrings of the Brett Favre story for likely a couple more weeks, while showcasing a dynamic offense balanced by running back Ahman Green. As for Vikings fans, well, don't they have a bunch of snow to shovel or something?

Here's a look at this season's playoff bracket.


Denver at Indianapolis

Two weeks ago, the Broncos torched the Colts 31-17 in Indianapolis in a game that wasn't that close. Denver rushed for 227 yards in that game without the injured Clinton Portis, who might be the best back in the league on those rare occasions that he is healthy. The Colts have done nothing to solve that problem and nearly closed their season by losing to the Texans. Indianapolis has the better record but the lesser team. The only way the Broncos lose is if Portis tries to play on his bad knee but is so ineffective that he actually hurts the clubs. He will have rested for nearly three weeks by game time and should be fine.

Broncos win.



Tennessee at Baltimore

Jamal Lewis brings his bad self and his 2,066 rushing yards into this matchup, but he might as well turn around and take them back home. The Titans will come in with the NFL's best run defense. And while Lewis still might crack off a 100-yard game, it will be a "quiet" 100-yard game and he'll need close to 30 carries to do it. Tennessee has a physical defensive front that will not be pushed around or intimated by Lewis or the Ravens' offensive line, as some teams clearly have been. The Titans will control the tempo, especially after Steve McNair had his own personal bye week last week.

Titans win.



Dallas at Carolina

This figures to be the ugly duckling of the first-round games, yet it gets the prime-time slot on Saturday night because we are all surrounded by Cowboys fans wherever we go. Both teams would love to run 45 times, throw 15 and escape with a 10-6 win in a tidy 2 hours, 30 minutes. The Panthers have a better chance of doing that because they have Stephen Davis, who is a better runner than Troy Hambrick despite being beat up, and because they were 7-0 in games decided by three points or fewer this year.

Panthers win.



Seattle at Green Bay

I have been as big a supporter of the Seahawks as anybody this season, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how they can win. Of course, that means they probably will pull the upset of the weekend. If the Seahawks do, I'm guessing Shaun Alexander will run for about 175 yards and Favre will have one of those weird games where he throws four interceptions in the first half. But Favre is playing too well and the Packers' run defense has improved notably since Grady Jackson added his 350-pound frame to the defensive line in midseason.

Packers win.



Denver at New England

Way back on Nov. 3, 2003, the Broncos and Patriots played a dandy of a Monday night game. Denver starting quarterback Jake Plummer was out that night with a foot injury so Danny Kannell started. The Broncos came out with an effective ball-control offense that put them in position to pick up a big midseason victory, leading 24-23 in the final minutes with the Patriots backed up. For some reason, I seem to remember that the Broncos were favored by 2 or 2 1/2 points so their chances of covering were infintessimal because the Broncos were ready to run out the clock. Then, the genius himself Bill Belichick ordered up an intentional safety, pushing the potential margin of victory to 3. All was right in the world.

Unfortunately, cornerback Deltha O'Neal completely botched the ensuing free kick, leading to the Patriots' miracle rally and victory and also leading to O'Neal being moved to wide receiver, where he has not been heard from since. None of this, except maybe for that part about Plummer being healthy again, has anything to do with this game. He probably will wish he were hurt, though. The Patriots have allowed an average of 3.7 points in their past six home games and will get at least two interceptions off Plummer to put the game away.

Patriots win.



Tennessee at Kansas City

Unlike recent seasons, Tennessee has all the weapons to hang around in what should be a shootout and perhaps one of the more entertaining games of the season. The Chiefs' power/speed/finesse running game won't be affected by the Titans' plodding, physical defensive interior. The Chiefs will pull their guards and run those patented sweeps, with Priest Holmes picking up about 8 yards a clip. He'll score three touchdowns and McNair will respond by winging the ball all over the field. McNair will keep he game close until midway through the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs, playing with defensive confidence at home, get a key interception and win by 10.

Chiefs win.



Green Bay at Philadelphia

The feel-good story line, assuming the Packers win in the first round, will be about the Packers being a team of destiny because of the death of Favre's father, etc., etc. Destiny has a funny of way of getting creamed in the face of a dozen or two of Eagles blitzes and that's what'll happen again. The biggest worry for Philadelphia is a lack of a running game now that Brian Westbrook is hurt. This week, though, Donovan McNabb should make a point to throw. The Packers' cornerbacks can take away deep routes, but those aren't in the Eagles' game plan anyhow. McNabb will carve them up with the short routes, take a lead and force the Packers to abandon the running game in the second half.

Eagles win




Carolina at St. Louis

Losing home-field advantage might have helped the Rams here because they get to play the Panthers, who would have no chance of winning, instead of the Packers, who might have a sliver of hope. One way or another (does it really matter?), the Rams will waltz to at least 27 points, a level the Panthers reached twice all season. Carolina will put up a nice effort and be able to hold their heads high after a season that far exceeded expectations, but the Rams will wallop them pretty good.

Rams win.



Kansas City at New England

These teams have been on a collision course for this matchup since about Week 5; the only doubt was the site. It will be the ultimate, 21st-century offense vs. a beefy 19th-century defense. Kansas City's glaring weakness is its so-called run defense, but lucky for the Chiefs, the Patriots don't have a running game. The Patriots will do a solid job turning this into a low-scoring, ball-control game - as they usually do - but they didn't encounter the likes of Holmes all season. Expect the Chiefs to stay with him and pound out an upset victory, with a botched field goal by Boston cult hero Adam Vinatieri playing a vital role.

Chiefs win.



St. Louis at Philadelphia

Two years ago, the Rams lost in the Super Bowl when the Patriots outmuscled their wide receivers. St. Louis got physical in the secondary and the results finally will pay off. Safeties Adam Archuleta and Aeaneas Williams are drilling everything they can reach and a couple young, speedy linebackers roam the field, ocassionally giving up some pass plays but quickly getting their revenge with some brutal hits. That's the thing that will take a toll on the Eagles' offense and everything will grind to a halt without Westbrook to take advantage of a suspect Rams' run defense. This also will be an ugly game, but it's one the Rams can win if they lean on running back Marshall Faulk.

Rams win.



St. Louis vs. Kansas City

Call it the battle of Missouri, or the Dick Vermeil Bowl or anything else you want. The subplots will run deep, with coaches at the forefront like they were last year. There were all kinds of rumors when Vermeil left St. Louis that he and Martz weren't really getting along so each one will really want to stick it to the other. Vermeil is the more professional coach and the one more able to put aside his emotions. Both teams have great running backs and suspect defenses. But the Chiefs have the quarterback making fewer mistakes, though they don't have nearly the equal of the Rams' receivers. It'll be a glitzy game with the Chiefs prevailing in the end and Vermeil walking away in tears and walking away for the second and last time as a Super Bowl champion.

Chiefs win.