Contenders often learn the hard way about teams with nothing to lose. Just ask the Saints, Falcons and Jets.
One after another Sunday, New Orleans stumbled against Minnesota, Atlanta lost to Seattle, and New York threw in its annual late clunker by losing to Chicago.
So the Jets are just about out of the playoff race, while the seemingly certain wild-card spots reserved for the Saints and Falcons aren't quite so certain.
''We were a 3-10 team. What did we have to lose?'' Minnesota coach Mike Tice said after the Vikings upset the Saints by making a 2-point conversion in the last 10 seconds rather than kick an extra point and send the game into overtime.
The Jets' loss to Chicago -- another team that was 3-10 -- dropped New York to 7-7, two games behind Miami in the AFC East with two games to go. They are in a five-way tie for ninth in the tightest conference race in recent memory, making a playoff spot a dim possibility.
The losses by New Orleans (9-5) and Atlanta (8-5-1) left them just a half-game ahead of the New York Giants (8-6) for a wild-card berth. The Giants can get in if they win their last two, and Atlanta or New Orleans loses one.
But New York has by far the toughest closing schedule -- at Indianapolis and home to Philadelphia. The Saints play the Bengals on the road and Panthers at home, while the Falcons finish at Cleveland after hosting Detroit.
What happened Sunday?
''When you know you're not going to the playoffs, you wonder whether you're going to show up and win -- or show up and lose,'' said Shaun Alexander, whose 27-yard touchdown run gave the Seahawks (5-9) their win at Atlanta in the 22nd overtime game this season, an NFL record.
The Jets, who had won six of eight going into Sunday, do this kind of thing every season.
Two years ago, they were upset at home by Detroit in their next-to-last game and ended up losing their final three and missing the playoffs. Last season, they lost in the 15th game to a Buffalo team that finished with just three wins, although the Jets won their finale in Oakland to get in.
''These December games mean so much, and we come in here against a team with nothing to gain and we let them beat us,'' Jets defensive back Ray Mickens said after the loss to Chicago.
Maybe Mickens should look at it in reverse. The Bears might not have had anything to gain, but they had nothing to lose, either.
AFC LOGJAM: With two games to play, no AFC team has clinched a playoff spot. The last time that happened was in 1987, a strike-shortened season when teams played 15 games.
And it's the first time it's happened since the league went from five to six qualifiers per conference in 1990.
The reason: 13 of the 16 AFC teams are between 9-5 and 7-7.
In 1996, by contrast, Denver clinched home-field advantage Dec. 1, when it improved to 12-1. The Broncos then lost two of their last three games, never got momentum back and lost their first playoff game to Jacksonville.
The next season, the Broncos were 12-4, but were a wild-card entry because Kansas City won the AFC West. Denver went on to win the first of two straight Super Bowls.
ENDURANCE RECORD: Brett Favre made his 171st consecutive start at quarterback Sunday for the Packers.
But no passer in NFL history has done what Kerry Collins did over the past four seasons: throw 1,852 consecutive passes for his team. That streak was snapped Sunday when Collins was lifted in the fourth quarter of the Giants' 37-7 win over Dallas and replaced by Jesse Palmer, who went 3-for-4.
Collins' streak dated to Nov. 21, 1999, when he replaced an injured Kent Graham. He has started all 52 games since.
The difference is that Green Bay QBs other than Favre have thrown passes. Doug Pederson has 20 attempts this season, and tight end Bubba Franks has thrown one.
One asterisk, however:
In the Giants' 41-0 win over Minnesota in the NFC title game two years ago, Jason Garrett played the fourth quarter and threw one pass, a 4-yard completion to Ike Hilliard.
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE: The Philadelphia Eagles will clinch home-field advantage in the NFC if they win their final two games, at Dallas and at the Giants.
Many of their players say they consider it critical.
But Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, whose team also is 11-3, said Monday he doesn't consider home-field advantage crucial, even though the Bucs have lost in Philadelphia in each of the last three seasons. They were eliminated from the playoffs there the last two seasons under Tony Dungy, and lost in Philly 20-10 on Oct. 20 -- the reason the Eagles own the tiebreaker.
''There is a perception around here that we are going to curl up in a fetal position and die if we have to play a road playoff game,'' said Gruden, who lost the AFC title game to Baltimore at home when he coached the Raiders two years ago.
''I say 'hogwash.' We're in the playoffs. I saw the Ravens, close range, do it three consecutive weeks. They did it to me at a previous employment and rallied to win the Super Bowl.''
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