Seahawks at Vikings exemplifies weak NFC

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

This is what the NFC has come to: Seattle at Minnesota, two mediocre teams that could win divisions despite some horrible losses.

Including last week.

The Vikings, tied with Green Bay at 7-5 for the lead in the NFC North, were beaten by a Chicago team starting a quarterback, Chad Hutchinson, who began the season as a California surfer.

The Seahawks blew a 10-point lead over the Cowboys with less than 3 minutes left to fall to 6-6 and into a tie with St. Louis in the West. The Rams hold the tiebreaker because they won the head-to-head meetings.

''In a perfect world, we'd be sitting here at 8-4 with a one-game lead on Green Bay,'' Vikings coach Mike Tice said. ''Unfortunately, I'm 45 years old and I haven't lived a perfect day yet.''

Nor has anyone in the NFC this season except Philadelphia, which appears on course for the Super Bowl by default in a conference that's as weak as any has ever been.

St. Louis (6-6) at Carolina (5-7)

More NFC futility.

The Panthers, the defending conference champions, are making a playoff run despite a spate of crippling injuries. Carolina has won four straight and is in the middle of the wild-card race. It has been sparked by career backup Nick Goings, the fourth-string running back who has three straight 100-yard-plus games.

Marc Bulger remains out for the Rams, so the venerable Chris Chandler will start at quarterback.

New York Jets (9-3) at Pittsburgh (11-1)

The Jets have won three straight, have Chad Pennington back at quarterback and could clinch a playoff berth if they win and a few other things break in their favor.

There might be more pressure on the Steelers.

New York is almost sure to make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Pittsburgh is almost sure to win the North, but it really needs home-field advantage for the entire playoffs. It might have to win out to get it over New England the tiebreaker would be the Steelers' 34-20 win over the Patriots.

Cincinnati (6-6) at New England (11-1)

The Patriots have played extremely well since their loss in Pittsburgh, even with injuries that have forced them to use receiver Troy Brown as a defensive back. They only had one win by more than 14 points during their 21-game winning streak; they have four such victories during their five-game streak since the loss.

Cincinnati's win in Baltimore last week after trailing 20-3 in the fourth quarter might have been its best in more than a decade. This week, the Bengals go against Corey Dillon, their franchise running back for seven years who was traded to the Patriots after falling out of favor.

Indianapolis (9-3) at Houston (5-7)

The Colts' potential division-clincher could be a sidelight here if Peyton Manning throws five TD passes, as he did in the first meeting, a 49-14 Indianapolis victory. That would give him 49 touchdown passes for the season, breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old record of 48.

The Texans weren't happy after that loss in Indy, suggesting Manning was throwing late just to run up numbers. But they are less concerned now about revenge than winning one after four losses in five games.

New Orleans (4-8) at Dallas (5-7)

Like Carolina, the Cowboys are making a late run at a playoff spot despite a losing record.

Dallas' run has been fueled by rookie Julius Jones, who rushed for 198 yards in Seattle on Monday night, including the winning TD on a 17-yard run with 32 seconds left.

''It's his fault that we lost seven games. It is,'' receiver Keyshawn Johnson joked about Jones, who before Nov. 21 had only five carries because of rib and shoulder injuries. ''I tell him that after every time that he scores a touchdown.''

Oakland (4-8) at Atlanta (9-3)

The Falcons fell flat in Tampa Bay, their first shot at clinching their division. They should do it here, although their loss to the Bucs indicated they are far closer to the rest of the NFC than they are to the Eagles at the top.

Kerry Collins is playing better for the Raiders, but promising wide receiver Ronald Curry tore his left Achilles' tendon in the loss to the Chiefs last week.

Tampa Bay (5-7) at San Diego (9-3)

Tampa Bay is yet another NFC team that thought it was out of the playoff race and finds itself back in. The Bucs have won four of six and it would go against the trend to suggest they could beat an AFC division leader.

But their defense is good enough and the Chargers might be due to lose after six straight victories, including one over Denver last week that put them in command of the AFC West.

Philadelphia (11-1) at Washington (4-8)

The Redskins scored more than 18 points for the first time this season in their 31-7 win over the Giants last week, but New York was missing a half-dozen defensive starters.

They stayed close to the Eagles for a half in Philadelphia before losing 28-6. They might stay close again, but the Eagles have so much momentum now, it's hard to stop them or shut their mouths Terrell Owens is openly campaigning for MVP.

Kansas City (4-8) at Tennessee (4-8) (Monday night)

This is just the kind of Monday night matchup the NFL's new television contract will try to avoid, a game between teams that were supposed to be good but aren't.

Injuries have played a part, with Priest Holmes out for the season for the Chiefs, although they were losing with him. And Tennessee's Steve McNair continues to nurse his bruised chest.

Cleveland (3-9) at Buffalo (6-6)

Like Carolina, Tampa Bay and Dallas, the Bills are coming on. The difference is that Buffalo plays in the AFC and has only a remote shot at making the playoffs despite three straight wins and five of six. The streak has coincided with the insertion of Willis McGahee as the starting running back, and he has five 100-yard rushing games, all in victories.

Rookie Luke McCown starts his second straight game at quarterback for the Browns under interim coach Terry Robiskie.

Chicago (5-7) at Jacksonville (6-6)

The Bears are another losing NFC team that has a shot at the playoffs, even with Hutchinson, their fourth starting quarterback this season.

The Jaguars have lost three straight and four of five and their postseason hopes may have been lost when they surrendered that late game-winning drive to Pittsburgh last week.

New York Giants (5-7) at Baltimore (7-5)

The Ravens' proud defense has folded late in its last two games, last week blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to Cincinnati at home.

Miami (2-10) at Denver (7-5)

The Dolphins play hard with few weapons. The Broncos find ways to blow games, as they did in San Diego.

Detroit (5-7) at Green Bay (7-5)

The Packers, who won 38-10 in Detroit two months ago, had their six-game winning streak broken in Philadelphia last week, a blowout that demonstrated how far ahead the Eagles are from the other ''good'' teams in the NFC.

San Francisco (1-11) at Arizona (4-8)

If it wasn't for the Cardinals, the 49ers would be winless. Their only victory was 31-28 over Arizona at Candlestick on Oct. 10. And they'll play this week without QB Tim Rattay and RB Kevan Barlow.

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