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Not much settled as final week looms

Posted: Monday, December 23, 2002

It's the most muddled playoff picture in NFL history.

Entering the final week, the playoff possibilities in the AFC are almost as wide open as they were in Week 1, when 32 teams started 0-0.

Even though Oakland and Tennessee won their way in Sunday, things stayed just as confusing. So much so that the NFL office worked overtime into the night, poring over computer printouts and spreadsheets while sorting through the more arcane tiebreaking formulas, such as strength of schedule and strength of victories.

It probably won't be decided by the ultimate -- a coin flip -- but at this point, who knows? After all, there are six AFC teams at 8-7 entering the final week and all are alive for the playoffs and Miami, New England and the New York Jets all can win the AFC East.

''It's going to come down to the final straws and we don't need to get sweaty palms,'' New York Giants coach Jim Fassel said. ''We need to just get ready to go out and play another football game.''

Oakland and Tennessee became the first two AFC teams to clinch playoff berths entering the final week of the regular season. Jacksonville and Buffalo lost and were eliminated.

But going into the final week, only four of the 16 teams in the AFC were mathematically out of the playoff race. The Jets ensured that with a 30-17 win over New England on Sunday night that kept them alive along with Baltimore, which at 7-8 still has a remote chance of making the playoffs.

''As crazy as this whole season has been around the league, when we were standing here 16 weeks ago probably the No. 1 thing we talked about was being in position to win the division and we have that,'' Miami coach Dave Wannstedt said.

The NFC situation was more simplified, although the final two wild-card berths will go down to the final week.

Philadelphia (12-3), Green Bay (12-3), Tampa Bay (11-3) and San Francisco (10-5) have won the four divisions with the Eagles, Buccaneers and Packers -- in that order -- in line for a first-round bye and home-field advantage.

The 49ers are locked into position -- they will be the fourth seed, playing at home the first week against one of the wild-card teams.

''There's still three teams that we have to prepare for,'' 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. ''Right now, everybody is a possibility.''

Atlanta (9-5-1) and the Giants (9-6) currently lead for the two wild-card spots with New Orleans (9-6) third.

The Giants' 44-27 victory at Indianapolis combined with New Orleans' 20-13 loss to Cincinnati (2-13) gave New York the lead over the Saints because they are 3-2 against common opponents to 2-3 for New Orleans.

In the AFC, that kind of scenario is the rule.

The known factors are the South champion Titans (10-5) and West champion Raiders (10-5). If both teams win next week, the Raiders will be the top seed in the conference and Tennessee will be seeded second because the Raiders beat the Titans 52-25 on Sept. 29.

But Tennessee has now won nine of 10, beating Jacksonville 28-10 on Sunday. The Titans are motivating themselves with the snub by Pro Bowl voters last week -- not one Tennessee player was chosen to the AFC team.

''I think we've been playing with a chip on our shoulder the whole year,'' Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. ''For this team to be one of the hottest teams in the NFL, and for no one to go to represent Tennessee in Honolulu is absurd. People are just going to have to feel the wrath.''

But who will feel the wrath?

Pittsburgh (8-5-1) can clinch the AFC North by winning at Tampa Bay on Monday night, a difficult task. If they lose, they can clinch it by beating Baltimore at home next week.

Miami's 17-14 loss to Minnesota on Saturday dropped the Dolphins to 9-6 and back in the pack in a muddled conference. The same thing happened to the Colts when they lost to the Giants.

But Indianapolis, which is home to Jacksonville next Sunday, still remains in pretty good position at 9-6. The Colts can make the playoffs with a win over the Jaguars, who were listless in their final home game.

The Colts, however, are just 7-8 in their last 15 home games despite the advantage of playing in a dome.

The Giants were supposed to have been eliminated two weeks ago.

And Cincinnati won its second game Sunday.

This year, all kinds of improbable scenarios are coming into play.



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