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Sunday's qualifiers lacking

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2005

The Jets, Vikings and Rams made it into the NFL playoffs Sunday.

The way they played, they might be out in a week.

New York and Minnesota backed in, the Vikings losing seven of their last 10 for the second straight season. The Jets lost 32-29 in overtime at the Rams, and the Vikings lost 21-18 at the Redskins.

But the Jets, who went 5-6 after starting 5-0, got in as an AFC wild card. And Minnesota and St. Louis both qualified in the NFC at 8-8, the second time that's happened; Dallas and Detroit were .500 playoff teams in 1999.

It all meant that the NFC's hottest team got left out of the postseason.

That was New Orleans, which won its last four games, three on the road, including a 21-18 victory at the Carolina Panthers on Sunday to finish 8-8. Carolina, which lost to New England in the last Super Bowl, won five straight games after starting 1-7, but finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs after losing two of its last three games.

''It's a shame ... we don't get a chance to show off what we can do in the playoffs,'' said New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, who may have saved his job with the late run.

Buffalo, which had won six straight, blew a chance to make the playoffs by losing 29-24 at home to Pittsburgh, even though the Steelers rested many starters. With the Jets losing, the Bills (9-7) would have made the playoffs with a victory.

It wouldn't be too surprising if the Jets, Vikings and Rams wind up as first-round losers. Then again, it's hard to predict anything in the NFC.

The Vikings will play Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. EST at Green Bay (10-6), to whom they have lost twice by the same score — 34-31 at Lambeau Field on Nov. 14 and at the Metrodome on Dec. 24.

The Rams will be at Seattle at 4:30 p.m. EST on Saturday to open the wild-card round.

The Seahawks (9-7) clinched the NFC West by holding off Atlanta 28-26 Sunday. But the Rams won both meetings this season, coming back from 17 points down with six minutes left in regulation to win in Seattle 33-27 in overtime.

Then they won in St. Louis 23-12.

The Jets will play at the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers (12-4) at 8:30 p.m. EST next Saturday as the fifth-seeded team. The Chargers beat Kansas City 24-17 on Sunday with backups.

New York beat the Chargers 34-28 in the second week, but that was before San Diego came together to win 10 of the last 12 games that meant anything. AFC South champion Indianapolis (12-4) will be at home Sunday at 1 p.m. in a rematch against Denver (10-6), which got in by beating the Colts 33-14 as Indy rested Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and most of its record-setting offense.

The top seedings in each conference were set before Sunday.

In the AFC, North champ Pittsburgh (15-1) and East champ New England (14-2) will host second-round games the weekend of Jan. 15 and 16. Both won Sunday despite using backups; the Patriots beat San Francisco 21-7.

In the NFC, East winner Philadelphia (13-3) earned the top seeding, and South winner Atlanta is No. 2. The Eagles clinched home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs two weeks ago, then lost their final two games with backups.

The teams with byes traditionally advance.

But in this wacky season, who knows what will happen, especially in the NFC.

Minnesota, for example, ended up 8-8 after starting 5-1. Last year, the Vikings finished 9-7 on a last-second play in Arizona and missed the playoffs.

So, maybe making it with a loss will change things.

''This team's going to drive me crazy,'' said Mike Tice, in the playoffs for the first time in his third full season as head coach.

''You spend the whole week trying to make sure they understand that you don't want to get yourself too worked up or too uptight, and you don't want to go out and play like you can't make a mistake. When you play like that, you go out and make mistakes.''



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