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PLAYOFF PICKS FAVOR WELL-RESTED TEAMS

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In the NFL, reaching the playoffs is what it's all about. But traveling the wild-card route is one of the roughest roads in sports.

In 1970, the NFL officially merged with the AFL and one wild-card team per conference was added to the playoffs. In 1978, it was expanded to two teams per conference. In 1990, the NFL added a third team. From those 84 wild-card teams since 1970, only four have reached the Super Bowl.Now two division winners join the six wild-card teams for the first round of the playoffs. The division winners, in this case Miami and Minnesota, get to play at home, but they would have to win two more games, most likely on the road, to reach the Super Bowl. In effect, what you will see this weekend is eight clubs facing an uphill fight.

The teams that win this weekend must go on the road to play teams that not only are good but have rested and regrouped after a grueling regular-season grind. Players are physically and mentally drained at this time of year, and that week off is very beneficial.

In our first playoff season with Dallas in 1991, we went on the road and managed to make enough plays to eke out a win over Chicago. The next week we were feeling pretty good about ourselves before we got buried by a rested and ready Detroit team, 38-6.

In looking for sleeper teams who could make an impact on this year's post-season picture, I look for a team with solid defense and premier players on offense. Here are my rankings for the clubs playing this weekend and into the middle of January:

1. Miami - The Dolphins have been somewhat inconsistent on defense, but they play solid run defense. They have been outstanding in that category in recent weeks as they held Barry Sanders to 52 yards Sunday night. On top of that, they have the most dangerous quarterback in football in Dan Marino.

When Marino is rolling, there are no limits. They have great incentive in that Joe Robbie Stadium is the site for this year's Super Bowl. The one negative is that I believe Keith Byars is a great fullback, perfect for the Dolphins' system, and he's out for the season with an injury.

2. Green Bay - The Packers play in a much tougher conference, which limits their chances. But if their defense could play the way it did early in the season when it was highly ranked - they finished No. 6 - they could get on a roll. Brett Favre is playing better than how I think he normally plays.

If he plays at that level again next year, then I would have to rank him among the game's elite quarterbacks. But I'm still skeptical.

3. Minnesota - The Vikings' strength is a sound defense under Tony Dungy, although their pass defense at times is suspect. The offense depends on Warren Moon. He threw for a lot of yards this year (4,264) and a lot of interceptions . The post-season has not generally seen Moon at his best.

4. Cleveland - The Browns open at home and have an outstanding defense. But once you start playing for real in the tournament, you need to have firepower on offense. Nothing they do offensively scares anybody.

5. New England - The Patriots have a chance to become a threat, because their defense improved throughout the year, leading the NFL with 40 takeaways. In Drew Bledsoe, they have the premier player on offense they needed. I think teams need to be wound tight for the playoffs, and Bill Parcells knows how to create that kind of intensity and get a team ready to play its best.

6. Detroit - Personally, I would like to see Detroit advance for the simple reason that I love watching Barry Sanders run. I wish he could run as long as this season lasts, but I don't think he'll be running after this weekend. Unfortunately, the Lions' defense isn't stopping people and it looks like Dave Krieg has returned to Earth.

7. Kansas City - The Chiefs' defense picked it up last week against the Raiders, but the Dolphins aren't the Raiders and Marino isn't Jeff Hostetler. I don't see the Chiefs getting to Marino enough to make a difference. So I don't see the Chiefs playing in January.

8. Chicago - Kudos to Dave Wannstedt and his staff for taking a team without a Pro Bowl player to the post-season. It will be fun watching the effort the Bears give in the Metrodome, but unless they can produce three or four turnovers from the Viking offense, it's probably the end of a fun ride for them.