NFL playoff picture still fuzzy heading into final week

Posted: Friday, December 27, 2002

The AFC East race perfectly reflects this season's NFL.

Going into the final weekend, three of the four teams have a chance to win the division: Miami and New England, which meet each other in Foxboro on Sunday, and the New York Jets.

The Dolphins have the easiest method -- beat the Patriots and they're in.

But the Dolphins (9-6) are just 2-5 on the road, lost indoors in Minneapolis last week and historically have problems in nasty December weather.

The Patriots (8-7) haven't been much better lately. They looked bad in losing to Tennessee and the New York Jets. Yet if they beat the Dolphins and the Jets (8-7) lose at home to Green Bay, New England wins the division. If the Jets and Patriots win, the Jets are the champions.

''It's really a mental thing at this point,'' guard Todd Perry says of Miami's problems on the road. ''There's really no reason why we should play any different. It's just seems that when we get on the road, we let the mental things slip. Turnovers, penalties, things that we really don't do as much at home. We've got to focus on that aspect of the game.''

The key for Miami, as it has been all year, is Ricky Williams, especially in the chill of Foxboro against a team that's 27th in the NFL against the run. In the loss to Minnesota, Williams, who averaged 24 carries in his other 14 starts, rushed only 15 times for 67 yards.

For New England, Bill Belichick is counting on experience and the pride of being the defending Super Bowl champions

''For as much as we put into the season, going all the way back to the offseason program, to training camp, the practices, it comes down to one week and one game,'' coach Bill Belichick says. ''With the type of guys that we have on this team, I expect them to respond in a positive manner and meet that challenge.''

But meeting the challenge may not be enough if the Jets win, too.

And that's one of the simplest of the AFC scenarios in the final week of the regular season.

The NFC is relatively uncomplicated.

Philadelphia, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and San Francisco all have clinched their divisions and the Eagles have clinched a first-round bye.

Atlanta and the New York Giants would get the wild-card berths if they win this weekend. New Orleans can get in if it beats Carolina and one of the other two loses.

In the AFC, Oakland, Tennessee and Pittsburgh have won their divisions. Indianapolis (9-6) can get in as a wild card with a win at home over Jacksonville.

But only four of the conference's 16 teams were eliminated entering the weekend. Even Baltimore (7-8) remained alive, hoping for an improbable scenario in which seven teams would finish 8-8.

In fact, the scenario is so complicated that even after all the games are played and the major tiebreakers are figured out, it may come down to strength of victory among several conference teams.

Philadelphia (12-3)

at New York Giants (9-6), Saturday

The Eagles win NFC home-field advantage with a victory and possibly knock the Giants out of the playoffs. Philadelphia beat the Giants 17-3 in late October, but New York has improved dramatically on offense since Jim Fassel took over the play-calling after that game. New York is 6-2 since, averaging 27.6 points and 378.5 yards.

The Eagles have won six straight, including the last five with QB Donovan McNabb sidelined with a broken ankle. A.J. Feeley starts.

Kansas City (8-7) at Oakland (10-5), Saturday

The Raiders have been stressing all year the importance of earning home-field advantage for the postseason. A win and they have it, ensuring no chance of a repeat of last year's controversial AFC playoff loss in the snow at New England.

Kansas City (8-7) keeps playoff hopes alive with a victory, but needs help Sunday. The Chiefs will be without running back Priest Holmes, who had a combined 184 yards in a 20-10 win over Oakland in October.

Green Bay (12-3) at New York Jets (8-7)

New York could be out of the playoffs when it takes the field for the late afternoon game, or it could be playing for a postseason berth after starting the season 2-5. The Jets have won six of the last eight, outscoring opponents 63-9 in the fourth quarter.

Green Bay comes off a terrific defensive effort in blanking Buffalo 10-0, with Vonnie Holliday getting five sacks. A win gives Green Bay a first-round bye.

Atlanta (9-5-1) at Cleveland (8-7)

The Browns added another wild chapter to their season and kept alive postseason hopes with a dramatic 14-13 win at Baltimore. Now, they have to beat the Falcons and hope for some outside help to make the AFC playoffs for the first time since 1994.

Cleveland went 6-2 on the road this season, but has struggled at home, beating only Cincinnati and Houston.

The Falcons, who have gone to overtime four times this season, have jeopardized their playoff hopes by dropping two of their last three games.

Tennessee (10-5) at Houston (4-11)

The Titans are charging into the playoffs for the third time in four years. They have won nine of their last 10 since a 1-4 start. Their defense has shown marked improvement and the offense has prospered despite quarterback Steve McNair's injuries.

Houston's offense has been the weakest in the NFL much of the season, but in recent weeks its gotten worse. It ranks last in total offense and rookie David Carr has been sacked an NFL-record 73 times.

Baltimore (7-8) at Pittsburgh (9-5-1)

The only AFC Central team to beat the Steelers in Heinz Field last season, the Ravens have a chance to be the only AFC North team to beat them anywhere in 2002. The Steelers are 5-0 against divisional opponents. However, the road team has won the last seven games in the series, not counting Baltimore's playoff loss in Pittsburgh last season.

Pittsburgh has clinched a seventh division title in coach Bill Cowher's 11 seasons and could earn a first-round bye by beating the Ravens and getting help.

Jacksonville (6-9) at Indianapolis (9-6)

A win would give the Colts their third playoff berth in four years, the first time that's happened since making it three straight times from 1975-77. Indianapolis, which has lost three of four, could make it with a loss, but would need help.

Jacksonville already is assured its third straight losing season, and after a dismal performance against Tennessee last week, only two questions remain: whether Jacksonville shows up and whether this will be Tom Coughlin's final game as coach.

Arizona (5-10) at Denver (8-7)

The Broncos are clinging to playoff hopes after a 6-2 start, needing a win and some help to earn a wild-card berth. The Cardinals have struggled with injuries to lose eight of nine after a 4-2 start.

It also could be the last game for the starting quarterbacks. Denver's Brian Griese has been benched in favor of Steve Beuerlein, leaving his future with the Broncos in doubt. Arizona's Jake 1/4, a free agent, hasn't said if he'll be back.

Seattle (6-9) at San Diego (8-7)

The Seahawks are hitting their stride too late, having won two straight and three of five behind quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Before moving from the AFC West to the NFC West, the Seahawks beat the Chargers four straight times.

The Chargers have collapsed under coach Marty Schottenheimer, losing six of eight after their 6-1 start. San Diego isn't mathematically eliminated, but odds are much better that their playoff drought will reach seven seasons.

Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (9-6)

The Panthers look to snap a 13-game losing streak in division play. They are 0-5 this season in the new NFC South after going 0-8 last season in the NFC West.

New Orleans has lost two straight to put its playoff chances in jeopardy. After opening 6-1, the Saints must win on Sunday and get help.

Tampa Bay (11-4) at Chicago (4-11)

Despite wrapping up the NFC South, the Buccaneers could have a lot at stake. The Bucs need a loss by the Packers and their own win for a first-round bye, and they'll know before the night game whether they got it. And if that story line fizzles, there's always the weather. Tampa Bay is 0-21 in games where the temperature is below 40 degrees, and Sunday night's forecast calls for lows in the 30s.

San Francisco (10-5) at St. Louis (6-9), Monday night

With little at stake, the 49ers will rest several regulars in preparation for the playoffs. Tim Rattay should get plenty of playing time at quarterback, although Jeff Garcia will start.

The Rams conclude a very disappointing season after going 14-2 and playing in the Super Bowl last February.

Cincinnati (2-13) at Buffalo (7-8)

The Bills are intent on finishing what has been an encouraging season on a promising note. A victory would mean a five-win turnaround, matching their best improvement from one year to the next.

The ''Bungles,'' who haven't had a winning record since 1990, attempt to avoid their worst finish. A loss would also earn them the first pick in next April's draft.

Dallas (5-10) at Washington (6-9)

The Cowboys end the season in disarray. Dave Campo looks like a lame-duck coach, and Emmitt Smith also appears to have one foot out the door.

The Redskins say goodbye to retiring 20-year veteran Darrell Green. Stephen Davis (shoulder injury) has probably seen his last day in a Washington jersey.

The Redskins have a 10-game losing streak to the Cowboys -- and coach Steve Spurrier's promised to give a game ball to owner Dan Snyder when the streak ends.

Minnesota (5-10) at Detroit (3-12)

The Vikings have won two straight by a total of four points, and can surpass last year's win total by a game with another victory. Coach Mike Tice has been assured by owner Red McCombs he will be back for a second year. The Vikings have broken a franchise record set in 1965 with 2,353 yards rushing, led by Michael Bennett's 1,214 yards.

The Lions have lost seven straight. Team owner William Clay Ford Sr. has said he will decide the future of coach Marty Mornhinweg and chief executive Matt Millen after Sunday's game.



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