Playoff picture could remain unclear until final week

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

Here's how quirky the AFC playoff picture is with two weeks to go:

The Pittsburgh Steelers can clinch the AFC North if they win at Tampa Bay on Monday night, a difficult task. Only if Cleveland and Baltimore tie on Sunday will they not have to worry about winning that game.

Assuming there's a winner in Baltimore, then the Steelers must win or the race goes down to the final week.

That Baltimore is 7-7 and alive for the playoffs is one of the year's biggest surprises. It reflects the AFC's parity, where only Cincinnati and Houston have been mathematically eliminated and no one has clinched a playoff berth. It's the first time that has happened in either conference since the league went from 10 to 12 playoff qualifiers in 1990.

After winning the Super Bowl two years ago and spending big bucks attempting to win another last season, the Ravens shed many key players, starting the season with just 16 from the 2000 team. And middle linebacker Ray Lewis, their best player, has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.

The success surprises even the coaches, who expected this to be a rebuilding year.

''My first goal is to be a part of what we're trying to accomplish here,'' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says. ''Based on this year, it could happen sooner than we think.''

Since their rebirth as an expansion team in 1999, the Browns have been striving to be worthy rivals of the Ravens, who were the original Cleveland Browns before Art Modell moved the franchise in 1996.

Cleveland's status as a contender at 7-7 has included two games with strange endings. One was the opener, when the Browns had the Chiefs beaten until Dwayne Rudd was penalized 15 yards for flinging his helmet in celebration during what would have been the final play. Kansas City got one more chance and Morten Andersen kicked a field goal that beat the Browns.

Cleveland evened the score somewhat by beating Jacksonville 21-20 two weeks ago on a Tim Couch to Quincy Morgan desperation pass on the final play. But the Browns blew a 16-0 lead at home against Indianapolis last week and lost 28-23.

''We do need to grow up in those situations,'' Couch said. ''Those are the games that kind of turn a corner for your franchise and it's got to happen one day. Hopefully, it'll be this week.''

Pittsburgh (8-5-1) at Tampa Bay (11-3), Monday night

The Buccaneers have been waiting for another shot at the Steelers ever since Pittsburgh beat them last season and safety Lee Flowers dubbed Tampa Bay ''paper champions'' who talk a better game than they play.

Both teams can clinch division titles by winning. The Steelers have allowed just 179 yards the past two games, but split those games.

Denver (8-6) at Oakland (9-5)

Star cornerback Charles Woodson says he will play through the pain of a cracked bone in his right leg. Woodson sat out the past two Sundays, but has been cleared by doctors and coaches to play.

Oakland dominated Denver on Monday night last month to break its four-game losing streak and start a five-game winning streak. And the Broncos spiraled after that defeat, losing three of their next four.

San Diego (8-6) at Kansas City (7-7)

In Marty Schottenheimer's 10 years coaching Kansas City, he never had a team as battered and beaten up as the one his Chargers will face in an AFC West elimination game. The Chiefs will be without running back Priest Holmes, the NFL rushing leader, out with a hip injury. Also missing will be placekicker Morten Andersen and fullback Tony Richardson.

The Chargers beat the Chiefs 35-31 in October, erasing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. After a 6-1 start, the Chargers have floundered. But LaDainian Tomlinson is challenging for the NFL rushing title.

Buffalo (7-7) at Green Bay (11-3)

The Bills need an upset to remain in the playoff picture. This is only their third trip to Green Bay, losing 27-18 in 1997 and winning 27-7 in 1974. Buffalo's defense will have its hands full with RB Ahman Green, but last week held down LaDainian Tomlinson.

The Packers are the only team undefeated at home, but need Philadelphia or Tampa Bay to lose once more to secure more than a first-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.

New Orleans (9-5) at Cincinnati (1-13)

The Saints can clinch a playoff spot if they win and the Giants lose. Everything about this matchup favors the Saints, who have scored the second-most points in the NFL, 413. The Bengals have given up the most, 416.

New Orleans has the second-best road record in the NFL over the past three seasons (16-7); the Bengals have yet to win a game at home.

A loss would give the Bengals their first winless home season and set a team record for most losses in a season. It also would clinch the top pick in next year's draft.

Detroit (3-11) at Atlanta (8-5-1)

The Falcons have lost two straight, but can still guarantee a playoff spot by winning their final two. Michael Vick struggled last week with two interceptions and a fumble Seattle returned for a touchdown, but rallied by throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-e8 in the final seconds of regulation.

With an irregular heartbeat sidelining Joey Harrington, backup QB Mike McMahon will make his first start since Week 2. The Lions rank near the bottom of most offensive categories, has lost six straight overall and hasn't won on the road since Dec. 17, 2000, a 15-game stretch.

New York Giants (8-6) at Indianapolis (9-5)

The Giants have yet to beat a team with a winning record and a loss would likely end their playoff hopes.

The Colts, meanwhile, have been mediocre at home, going 7-7 the last two years. They're battling for one of the AFC's top two seeds -- or they could miss the playoffs altogether.

Tennessee (9-5) at Jacksonville (6-8)

The Titans clinch a playoff berth with a victory and can win the AFC South with a victory and an Indianapolis loss.

Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin is fighting to save his job. His team is 2-0 vs. Tennessee at home since Titans coach Jeff Fisher famously proclaimed before the 2000 Super Bowl that Alltel Stadium was like another home field for the Titans.

New York Jets (7-7) at New England (8-6)

Both teams ended hot streaks with costly road losses last weekend, the Jets to Chicago and the Patriots to Tennessee.

Curtis Martin needs 95 yards rushing to join Barry Sanders as the only players with at least 1,000 in each of his first eight seasons. New York lost to the Patriots 44-7 in Week 2, but that was before Chad Pennington replaced Vinny Testaverde at quarterback and put the Jets in contention.

Coming off their worst game of the season, the Patriots can win the AFC East by beating the Jets and Miami at home in their last two games. The loss of LB Tedy Bruschi (knee) has hurt.

Houston (4-10) at Washington (5-9)

The Texans can become only the second first-year team to win at least five games. There's another milestone they want to avoid: David Carr will set an NFL record for getting sacked if he goes down three more times.

The Redskins don't want the embarrassment of getting caught in the win column by an expansion team whose GM, Charley Casserly, once worked for them.

Rams (6-8) at Seahawks (5-9)

Marc Bulger can become the fourth NFL quarterback since 1970 to win his first seven games. Rams coach Mike Martz expects Marshall Faulk to play despite a high ankle sprain.

After an inconsistent season, the Seattle offense has taken off in the past month. Matt Hasselbeck is averaging 327.5 yards passing and Shaun Alexander is averaging 117.3 yards rushing over the past four games.

Chicago (4-10) at Carolina (5-9)

The Bears try to break a six-game road losing streak, while the Panthers look to even their home record at 4-4 a year after going winless in Charlotte.

Chicago receiver Marty Booker is 12 catches shy of his second straight 100-catch season. Carolina quarterback Rodney Peete needs 79 yards passing to break his season-high mark of 2,326 yards.

SATURDAY

Miami (9-5) at Minnesota (4-10)

Cris Carter returns to the Metrodome, looking to help the AFC East-leading Dolphins clinch a playoff spot. QB Jay Fiedler, also a former Minnesota player, threw for 237 yards and a touchdown last week in a victory over Oakland.

The Vikings come off their first road win in two years. QB Daunte Culpepper, whose turnovers were one of Minnesota's biggest problems the first half of the season, went 26-for-36 for 312 yards, two TD passes and two TDs rushing against New Orleans.

San Francisco (9-5) at Arizona (5-9)

The 49ers already are locked into a first-round playoff game against a wild-card team, so coach Steve Mariucci plans to rest players with nagging injuries. That could mean little or no playing time for Terrell Owens, among others.

This could be the final home game for Jake Plummer as a Cardinal. Plummer's contract expires at the end of the season, and he says he wants to come back, but the organization has been noncommittal.

The last time the 49ers played at Arizona, in 1999, Steve Young was knocked out with a concussion and never played another NFL game.

Philadelphia (11-3) at Dallas (5-9)

With QB Koy Detmer needing another week to recover from a dislocated left elbow, A.J. Feeley will get his fourth straight start. He's 3-0 and the Eagles (11-3) have won five straight, clinching a second straight NFC East title. Two more wins guarantee home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Dallas (5-9) has been outscored 51-7 since taking a 10-point lead over San Francisco midway through the fourth quarter two weeks ago, jeopardizing coach Dave Campo's job. Emmitt Smith's 13-year tenure with the Cowboys could be coming to an end, too. If so, this would be his last home game; the team is encouraging fans to wear No. 22 jerseys in his honor.



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