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Mr. Laz
12-05-2005, 06:43 PM
Most wonderful time of year

Talking playoffs: Who's in? And who'll be left in cold?

Posted: Monday December 5, 2005 9:34AM; Updated: Monday December 5, 2005 12:22PM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's beginning to look a lot like the playoffs. I know. I had to shovel three inches of snow off my driveway before heading to Giants Stadium on Sunday morning.

Don't you love this time of the season? It's what's fun about the NFL. Do or die. The stretch run might end up being the most predictable in NFL history this season. Why? No upsets. Over the last couple of weeks barely any underdogs have won. Fifteen games were played this weekend. The favorites won 13. I'd hardly call the other two games upsets. Pittsburgh was favored over Cincinnati, but it's becoming obvious the Steelers really aren't the Steelers right now. And Denver was favored over Kansas City by a whisker, which might be the funniest line of the year since Kansas City has won 16 consecutive home games in December.

If form holds (it usually doesn't, but this looks like a chalk year), then we ought to make some late-season judgments. Let's see where we stand with three quarters in the books, heading into the last four games.

This morning's headlines:

Pittsburgh's in big, big trouble. Not to win the AFC North. To make the playoffs.

Atlanta's in big, big trouble. Not to win the NFC South. To make the playoffs.

Jacksonville is going to knock a very good team out of the postseason.

Kansas City will have to go 3-1 against four contenders to make the playoffs.

The Vikings, great story that they are, likely have to finish with a nine-game winning streak to make it. You know what? They can.

Let's flesh out those stories and more.

AFC
Buckle up. It's going to get bumpy.

East: The Patriots aren't the three-peaters we've come to admire, but there will have to be a collapse of Gene Mauchian proportions for this team to not host a wild-card game on Jan. 7. New England (7-5) would have to go 1-3 down the stretch against teams with a combined 19-29 record and Miami (5-7) would have to win out, including a KO of the Patriots in Foxboro on New Year's Day. Not happening. New England is pretty much locked in as the AFC's No. 4 seed.

North: The scary thing about the Bengals right now is they're 5-1 on the road. They might be a tough out for Denver or Indy in mid-January. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Cincinnati (9-3) has a 2 1/2-game lead on Pittsburgh (7-5) because the Steelers are behind in the tiebreakers, with their 3-2 division record and 6-5 conference mark. With Jacksonville all but locked in as one wild-card team, the Steelers need to go 4-0 down the stretch and hope for Kansas City and go 2-2 or worse and San Diego to go 3-1 or worse. Dan Rooney once told me you walk through downtown Pittsburgh on any fall Monday and you can tell immediately whether the Steelers won or lost the previous day. Well, today I'm guessing you'd have to walk about a tenth of a block. Gloom City.

South: Tony Dungy's going to have to make the call on perfection. Now Indy's got a three-game lead for AFC home-field advantage through the playoffs. They clinch it with a win at Jacksonville next week. The Jags (9-3), as I've been saying for about a month, are in superb shape, even if they suffer their third AFC loss to the Colts on Sunday. Their final three foes (and I use the words "foes'' lightly) are a combined 6-30. San Francisco at home, at Houston and Tennessee at home. Gimme, gimme, gimme. Jacksonville's going 12-4 and traveling to New England the first weekend of the playoffs.


West: Here's where all the fun is.

Christmas Eve at Arrowhead: San Diego at Kansas City. New Year's Eve at Qualcomm: Denver at San Diego. New Year's Day at Arrowhead: Cincinnati at Kansas City. Denver (9-3) has a one-game edge over San Diego (8-4) and Kansas City (8-4). The schedule down the stretch favors Denver. The Broncos' four remaining foes are a combined 20-28. San Diego, 34-14. Kansas City, 32-16. So let's assume Denver, with a winnable trifecta coming up (Baltimore, at Buffalo on a short week, Oakland) takes the division. Now let's go to the wild card. How can you not like Kansas City right now? I think if you combined the '65 Packers, '85 Bears and '00 Ravens, Larry Johnson still would run for a buck-twenty on them. But the Chiefs, as you heard 6,000 times from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on Sunday, have a ridiculous foursome coming up, beginning with games at Dallas and at the Giants on a short week. The edge may be determined this weekend: San Diego hosts Miami. The Chargers, by the way, have one fewer division loss and one fewer conference loss than Kansas City right now. Huge.

The seeds:

1. Indianapolis.

2. Denver.

3. Cincinnati.

4. New England.

5. Jacksonville.

6. San Diego.

NFC
Can the Vikings complete the greatest comeback in their history?

North: Why do I have the feeling that every national NFL writer will be cursing his/her luck on New Year's Eve when he/she lands in Minneapolis, it's 10-below zero and he/she's got to ring in the New Year with a Leinenkugel's at the hotel bar? The Chicago-Minnesota game could be pretty darn attractive. Brad Johnson's rock-solid right now, the defense is getting turnovers, and here's what the Vikings have in the next three weeks: St. Louis, Pittsburgh, at Baltimore. No locks. All eminently winnable. Even if the Bears win this division -- which, with a two-game lead, four to play and riding an eight-game winning streak with every tiebreaker in their favor -- the new Monsters of the Midway could be playing for home-field through the playoffs in the Metrodome Jan. 1.

East: You keep looking at the Giants and wondering if their defense and special teams can carry them, the way they did on their 1990 magic-carpet Super Bowl ride. Their win over Dallas probably gives them the division now that the tiebreakers go their way, but you never know, because the Giants have three of their last four on the road, where they're 1-3 this year. Dallas is in trouble. "Are you a mathematician?'' a testy Bill Parcells asked a scribe who wondered if the Cowboys had it in them to run the table. No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and for Dallas to still be in the wild-card chase would require the 'Boys to go 3-1 against a pretty tough schedule -- Kansas City, at Washington, at Carolina on a short week, St. Louis.

South: I heard Beautiful Day by U2 in the background as Carolina walked off the field after beating the Falcons for the first time since the Civil War. For the Panthers, yes. For Atlanta, no. Carolina (9-3) is a game up on Tampa Bay (8-4) and two on Atlanta (7-5). Carolina plays three of its last four in the division, closing at Atlanta. Tough sledding. Tampa Bay plays three of its last four in the division, with a game at New England the X-factor in its playoff drive. Atlanta, too, finishes with three of four in the division. But everything about Atlanta's road looks tough. They play two straight very tough road games, both on short weeks -- at Chicago on Sunday, Dec. 18, following a Monday-nighter, then at Tampa on Saturday, Dec. 24. The Falcons trail Carolina in both important tiebreakers: division record, conference record. What Atlanta has to hope for is help the way Pittsburgh needs help. Atlanta needs to go 3-1 with Dallas and Minnesota both going 2-2 or worse.

West: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The seeds:

1. Seattle.

2. Chicago.

3. Carolina.

4. New York Giants.

5. Tampa Bay.

6. Dallas.

Fine Fifteen

This week's top 15 teams in the NFL:

I can't believe it. The Steelers are 14th. Nothing I can do. They just don't deserve to be ahead of any other team.

1. Indianapolis (12-0).

2. Denver (9-3). Sorry. I'm not crucifying a Denver team that became Kansas City's 16th straight December victim at Arrowhead. By four points.

3. San Diego (8-4). Do you see the verve Shawne Merriman plays with? Not only does he have a rookie-high seven sacks, but he also plays with a Junior Seau-type edginess.

4. Chicago (9-3). Another game, another Nathan Vasher touchdown. Are you kidding me? Does this man have football magnets in his gloves?

5. New York Giants (8-4). Someone very wise said to me Sunday night: Doesn't the way Eli Manning's playing right now remind you of the way Ben Roethlisberger performed in the playoffs last year? I had to say yes. Great win for the G-Men, but some of those careless throws Manning makes ... they scare me.

6. Seattle (9-2). Big night for proving something, Seahawks.

7. Cincinnati (9-3). Last Bengals winning season: 1990.

8. Carolina (9-3). "They've still got to come to our place,'' Michael Vick said after the Panthers win over Atlanta, the first-ever loss in the series for Vick. True, Mike. And I will pick Carolina that day, too.

9. Kansas City (8-4). I'm not even sure the Chiefs will make the playoffs, but they sure are a tough out right now. Denver entered this game allowing 79 rushing yards per game. Kansas City rushed for 168.

10. Tampa Bay (8-4). If you haven't seen the first pick by Ronde Barber in the 10-3 win over the Saints, you're missing what might be, oh, I don't know, maybe one of the top 10 interceptions of all time.

11. Jacksonville (9-3). Perfect on their three-game JV road trip -- at Tennessee, Arizona and Cleveland.

12. Dallas (7-5). I don't trust the Cowboys' offense at all.

13. Atlanta (7-5). Total yards: 259. Sacks of Vick allowed: five .Touchdowns: zero. Something missing on this team, folks.

14. Pittsburgh (7-5). Lost to Baltimore. Lost to Indy. Lost to Cincinnati. Not playing well. Not running well. Not defending well. I can't believe it, but no team has as much of a must-win next week as the Steelers. They play host to the rugged Bears, who last lost when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

15. Minnesota (7-5). Brad Johnson, nattily crew-cutted, is 5-0 in relief of Daunte Culpepper. That's about the best relief job since El Duque at Fenway Park in the series-clinching win for the ChiSox over the BoSox.

The Award Section

Chris Chambers tormented the Bills all afternoon on Sunday, totaling 238 receiving yards and one touchdown.
AP


Offensive Player of the Week

(tie) Miami WR Chris Chambers. Incredible day, obviously. And clutch, at the end. Fifteen catches, 238 yards, the winning touchdown, on a four-yard pass from Sage Rosenfels with four seconds remaining. Miami 24, Buffalo 23.

Buffalo WR Lee Evans, for one of the best quarters a receiver has had in years. In the first 14 minutes of the loss at Miami, Evans, the first of two Buffalo first-round picks last year, caught touchdown passes of 46, 56 and four yards from rallying second-year quarterback J.P. Losman. With 1:14 left in the first quarter, Buffalo had a stunning 21-0 lead. Weird game. Buffalo won the first quarter 21-0. Miami won the fourth quarter 21-0.

Defensive Player of the Week

(tie) Dallas CB Aaron Glenn. You're not going to see a more clutch game from a cornerback, in victory or defeat. This 12-year vet could not have had many -- or any -- better games in his Jets, Texans and Cowboys career. With the Giants up 7-0 midway through the second quarter, Manning threw an inside fade to Plaxico Burress, but Glenn stepped in front of him and, three yards deep in the end, made the pick to stop the drive. In the third quarter, with the Giants backed up near their goal line, Glenn made the kind of interception corners dream of, diving fully parallel to the ground, right in front of Burress, and catching it before flopping on the ground. "We had a pretty good battle out there,'' Burress told me later. "I got him, he got me. Great football.'' You can say that again. Great football.

Tampa Bay CB Ronde Barber, for his three interceptions in the 10-3 win over New Orleans in Baton Rouge. Did you see the first one? A line shot from Aaron Brooks and Barber snatched it out of the sky one-handed!

Special Teams Player of the Week

(tie) New York Giants P Jeff Feagles, who dropped the first of his six punts on the day on the Dallas 2-yard line, and his last one on the Dallas 4, after it hit at the three and bounced sideways. Both punts were downed by David Tyree. The way Feagles hit those punts, you'd think he'd been playing this game for a while or something.

New England S James Sanders, for one of the best open-field kickoff tackles of the year. Adam Vinatieri booted a waffler that landed in the arms of Jets cornerback Justin Miller, at the New York 13. Miller took four strides and boom! Sanders laid into him after only a 7-yard gain. Perfect form, perfect chase.

Coach of the Week

New England coach Bill Belichick. For a little thing, because the little things are what make Belichick pretty good at his job. The situation: 1:11 to play, third quarter, Jets-Pats slugfest. From the Jets' 49, Tom Brady had just thrown an apparent completion to Kevin Faulk. But Faulk had the ball fly out of his grip one step into his run as he was being tackled by a Jet. The ball rolled toward the sideline, and Faulk pounced on it. It was ruled a catch on the field, a 6-yard gain to the Jet 43. But Belichick could see it was, let's just say, a dubious ruling, and he yelled something that looked like, "Go! Go! Go!'' Brady ran to the line, got the five offensive linemen set quickly, took the snap against a totally unprepared Jets defense and rambled over right guard for six yards. Two more seconds and the Jets would have known enough to throw the red flag for the replay. But they got to keep the 6-yard gain and got six more yards on top of that.

Goat of the Week

Buffalo Bills. Well, maybe all but London Fletcher and Lee Evans. There is something seriously wrong with a team that blows a 23-3 lead in the last 12 minutes of a game to a team with a 4-7 record.

Quote of the Week

"I'm happy. I'm as happy as I've been for a long time.''

-- Miami coach Nick Saban, after the Dolphins scored three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes to erase a 23-3 lead and win, 24-23.

Son of Quote of the Week

"I'm no Shakespeare. I can't describe it.''

Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman, on the loss to Miami.

Factoid That May Interest Only Me
I am so glad Sean Landeta is back in football. He'll punt in his 21st consecutive NFL season when he takes the field for the Eagles tonight. He was a rookie when I was a rookie Giants beat writer for Newsday in '85, and I have quite a few good stories about Landeta. But my favorite is that after Donna Rice had her few minutes of fame with Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, causing him to drop out of the '88 presidential race, Landeta dated the comely Ms. Rice.

A witness to history. Landeta would love to be known that way.

Aggravating/Enjoyable Travel Note of the Week
I did not travel on Sunday. I had my first home game of the year, driving nine miles east to the Meadowlands. But I did live vicariously through Jason Cohen, my HBO compatriot and Inside the NFL production manager, who is a hopelessly addicted Browns fans. He travels to Blondies, a bar in Manhattan which is home to Browns games every Sunday, and there, with a Cleveland-loving crew, looked on in horror as first-round pick Braylon Edwards went down with what looked to be a serious knee injury. The Browns, as you know, have been snakebitten with injuries to stud receivers (see Kellen Winslow Jr.).

"Braylon goes down,'' Cohen reported, "and the following exchange goes down with two guys next to me.''

First fan: "Welcome to Cleveland, Braylon.''

Second fan: "Just hope he can run by next September.''

First fan: "Now Kellen has a bunkmate.''

I know this: Thousands of similar sentiments were spat out at bars across this great land of ours when Edwards went down. Guarantee.

Stat of the Week
Jay Feely field goals missed in the last eight days: four.

Jay Feely field goals missed in the previous 344 days: three



Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 13:

a. Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman may have made my all-pro team yesterday. Seven tackles, one sack, one interception (returned for 95 yards), three passes defensed, one forced fumble.

b. "They're not the Bengals of old,'' said Alan Faneca of the Steelers, and he's right.

c. Koren Robinson swore to Mike Tice he wouldn't be making a mistake if he signed him after he screwed up so badly in Seattle. Robinson's 148-yard receiving day against Detroit showed what a great signing this was.

d. I'm just hoping Dom Capers didn't jump over Nashville on the way home from that debacle in Baltimore. Can a team lose more painfully than Houston?

e. Nice run defense, Baltimore -- 155 yards to Domanick Davis? Sheesh.

f. An Indy-Chicago Super Bowl. Peyton Manning-Kyle Orton. That is the strangest thought of all time.

g. Trick Play of the Year: Bradlee Van Pelt runs in at quarterback for Denver with the ball at the Kansas City 7. Jake Plummer splits wide left as a wide receiver. Van Pelt takes the snap from Tom Nalen, and with the Chiefs looking around and saying, "What the ?'' Van Pelt, on his first touch of his NFL career, runs it in for a touchdown. Tie game, 21-21.

2. I think the Bengals will not be denied. I say they win their wild-card game the first week of the playoffs, no matter the opponent, no matter the site, although that will likely be Cincinnati.

3. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:

a. Loved Hines Ward imitating the Ickey Shuffle.

b. Reggie Bush.

c. The USC offense, which must be the best offense in the history of college football. Game-by-game points this year: 63, 70, 45, 38, 42, 34, 51, 55, 51, 35, 50, 66. Imagine going through a season scoring between 34 and 70 points in every game.

d. And Reggie Bush.

e. Tiki Barber might not be Reggie Bush, but he still gashed Dallas 30 times for 115 much-needed yards.

f. Carson Palmer redeemed himself in a big way. Zero picks. Put the ball on the money consistently, and, unlike the previous big losses to Pittsburgh and Indy, didn't throw it to the other team in the second half.

g. DeShaun Foster. You don't have to say it, John Fox. After his last two weeks -- 46 carries, 205 yards -- Foster's the featured back on this team. It's a change that's needed. If Foster can hold up, he's just better than Stephen Davis right now.

h. Thomas Jones is a really good football player.

i. David Garrard: 55 percent passing, 26 rushing yards, two touchdowns, one pick. Good enough.

j. Did you catch the time of the Bucs-Saints? 2:36. That's Mark Buehrle time. Only 115 offensive snaps.

4. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 13:

a. Officials are doing a horrible job of calling the horse-collar tackle. Perfect example in the Giants-Cowboys game: Mr. Horse Collar himself, Roy Williams, grabbed Barber from behind late in the first quarter and tugged him down, backward, exactly like he did to Terrell Owens. No call. What, pray tell, are you waiting for, Zebras?

b. The attitude of Willis McGahee. After the horrible loss to Miami, he said, "I'm over 1,000 yards. That's my highlight of the day. It's out of my hands. If I called the plays, I'd have 60 carries.'' Attaway to be a team guy, Willis.

c. I don't believe a thing from the Giants about their support for kicker Jay Feely. They can say whatever they want, but you know they're all thinking the same thing: Is this guy taking the apple at the crucial time of the season.

d. Four Pittsburgh fumbles. Three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions. A bad Big Ben thumb. How are these guys going to salvage this season?

e. Can the Dallas tackles please hold their ground? Torrin Tucker, Rob Pettiti, you've got to do better than that.

f. Watching the Jets, they are to be pitied almost.

g. The luck of the Browns. Now Braylon Edwards?

h. Happy with that summer holdout now, Cedric Benson?

i. The Bills might not want to read the paper or listen to the radio today

5. I think I'm not trying to pick on Steve McNair, because he's been one terrific pro. But watching him play now is sad. Does a game go by where he doesn't get hurt? He's the Billy Kilmer of our time, the gutsy guy who's never healthy.

6. I think I can't wait to hear the superlatives roll out of the ESPN booth on Sunday night. Detroit at Green Bay. Sunday night football. Catch the fever, baby.

7. I think I have the most incredible, shocking, stunning, agita-producing note of the year: Oakland was not penalized on Sunday night.

8. I think maybe Mike Pereira's right. The officiating czar told me a month ago, "Teams will get used to the enforcement of the penalties. The number will go down as the year goes on.'' Well, either that or officials will swallow their whistles on things like defensive illegal contact, which I still think is the case. Either way, it's interesting to note the league was averaging 15 accepted penalties a game at one point last month, and in the 15 games this weekend, only three game exceeded that.

9. I think St. Louis president John Shaw got all the evidence he needed to know he's not going to keep Joe Vitt as his full-time coach with that performance in the 24-9 loss to Washington. Someone named Rock Cartwright ran for 118 yards on the Rams. I think he's Little Joe's brother, if I'm not mistaken. And Clinton Portis gashed the Rams for 136 too. Sharpen those resumes, all you NFL coordinators.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Jon Voight actually looks like Pope John Paul.

b. But don't let that make you think I am supporting that show, or anything from the maniacally over-promoted CBS line of programming during the Jets-Patriots game. I counted four promos in a five-minute span at one point of the second half, including some fashion show (twice) the Pope show (once) and 60 Minutes (once).

c. I keep hearing Curb Your Enthusiasm is losing its edge. I need to make time to see that and judge for myself.

d. Coffeenerdness: The Upper Montclair (N.J.) Starbucks baristas have made magic. They've invented their own blend, 572 Blend (because the store is at 572 Valley Road in Upper Montclair), and I had a pot this morning. Had to have one, or living would have been impossible. Ridiculously strong and flavorful. The aroma was to die for. Nice job, people. You've hit a home run, whatever's in it.

e. Paul LoDuca to the Mets only means they're saving enough money at the catcher position to make a run at Manny.

f. The commercialization of Christmas is already killing me and it's Dec. 5.

Who I Like Tonight, and I Don't Mean Al Michaels
Maybe I'm imagining things. But think back to October, when LaDainian Tomlinson came to town. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said: We're going to corral Tomlinson and make Drew Brees beat us. They held Tomlinson to seven yards, on 17 carries. And Brees was just OK. Threw two picks. Philly, 20-17.

So what do you think Johnson did in the last few days? Preached the gospel of stopping Shaun Alexander, that's what. And I'm just gullible enough to believe the Eagles have one more good game in them.

Philadelphia, 16-14.