DENVER, DEC. 28 -- While players on 18 teams are packing up and heading home for the offseason, six NFL division champions are getting a brief rest and four distinctively different wild-card teams are preparing for playoff games Sunday.
New Orleans (12-3), a team that has never before reached the playoffs or had a winning season, earned an NFC wild-card berth by winning its final nine games. Sunday at 12:30 p.m., the Saints will face a Minnesota Vikings team (8-7) that has lost three of its last four games and is lucky to even be in the playoffs.
In the AFC, Seattle, a team many picked to win the West Division and challenge for the Super Bowl, enters the playoffs after a disappointing loss to non-playoff team Kansas City. The Seahawks (9-6), who went into the weekend hoping for home-field advantage, instead have to play the feisty Houston Oilers (9-6) at 4 p.m. in the Astrodome. The Oilers were picked by almost everyone to finish last in the 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 eventually have to beat division winners on the road. But the Oakland Raiders' victory in Super Bowl XV and New England's trip to Super Bowl XX proved wild-card teams have hope, even though the odds are against them.
New Orleans would seem to have the best chance to beat those odds this season. The Saints have the second-best record in the NFL (trailing only 13-2 San Francisco) and beat the 49ers Nov. 15.
Originally, it was thought 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 improved 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. Another 49ers loss would have given the Saints playoff home-field advantage.
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.
The New Orleans fans are ready as 23,000 playoff tickets that went on sale yesterday were bought in less than three hours.
When the Saints were 7-3, owner Tom Benson predicted they would finish 12-3. But only one of those victories (over Houston) was against a playoff team.
Despite the remaining doubts about New Orleans, the Saints appear 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 from Coach Jerry Burns.
The Vikings were in position to score a go-ahead touchdown against the Bears three weeks ago, when Burns' decision to run four consecutive times against the NFL's then-No. 1-ranked defense probably cost Minnesota 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 be on vacation, too. This doesn't seem to be the same team that rebounded from the players strike by going 6-1.
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) to visit the red-hot 49ers. A Minnesota victory would send the Vikings to San Francisco and the Redskins to Chicago.
Seattle's season has been just as bizarre as Minnesota's. Since the strike, the Seahawks have beaten the Los Angeles Raiders and Minnesota, lost to the New York Jets, beaten Green Bay and San Diego, lost badly at home to the Raiders, lost in Pittsburgh, beat division champions Denver and Chicago, and lost badly in Kansas 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 rookie Alonzo Highsmith and Mike Rozier. Highsmith, just getting comfortable after holding out most of the season, scored his first two touchdowns, one receiving and one rushing, and Rozier turned in his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season Sunday.
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 1981-86, 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 Denver.