Archive for Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Playoff scenarios easily confusing

December 6, 2005

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St. Louis and Minnesota made the playoffs last season at 8-8, demonstrating that in the NFL, mediocrity sometimes can be good enough.

But not this season, when a team with 10 wins could miss out. Kansas City, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Atlanta or some combination of that group are chasing wild-card spots.

With four games left, two teams are in: Unbeaten Indianapolis, which clinched at least a wild-card spot (hah!) Sunday by beating Tennessee, and Seattle, which won the otherwise-awful NFC West when the Rams lost to the Redskins.

Beyond that, there's confusion.

"There's a month of football to go," coach Bill Parcells said after his Cowboys fell to 7-5 by losing to the New York Giants and falling a game behind in the NFC East. "To be judgmental now with just the one-game separation would be premature."

Maybe.

Here's a capsule look by conference.

AFC

The compelling question is whether the Colts, currently 12-0, will finish unbeaten.

The guess is they won't, in part because No. 1 on their agenda (as it should be) is winning the Super Bowl, and their next three opponents are winning teams with even more pressing goals.

The Colts go next week to Jacksonville (9-3), which has played them well in the past and is trying to wrap up a wild-card berth, albeit with second-string QB David Garrard in place of the injured Byron Leftwich.

Then it's back home to play host to San Diego (8-4), which is still battling for a wild-card spot, and on to Seattle (10-2). The Seahawks could well be playing for home-field advantage or a first-round bye in the NFC that week.

If the Colts get by those games, it's Arizona at home, a game they might win with Jim Sorgi at QB.

Give New England (7-5) the East by default, meaning the Patriots (who can clinch this week with a victory at Buffalo and a Miami loss at San Diego) will at least get their shot at an unprecedented three consecutive Super Bowl wins. Very unlikely, but the Patriots have done wondrous things in the past, and they'll at least have a home game in the first round.

Give Indy the South, a foregone conclusion - the Colts can clinch it in Jacksonville next week but even if they lose, it will happen.

Cincinnati (9-3) is two games ahead of Pittsburgh in the North with four to go and has an easier closing schedule than the Steelers. So the ex-Bungles are just about in.

The West is a little dicier because the Broncos (9-3) are only a game ahead of the Chargers and Chiefs, both of whom have tough closing schedules. Looking at that, Denver should win - while the Chiefs visit the likes of the Giants and Cowboys and the Chargers go to Kansas City, the Broncos have Buffalo, Baltimore and Oakland, three 4-8 teams.

Wild cards? Jacksonville should be one. But don't write off Pittsburgh, fourth in the standings at 7-5. San Diego and Kansas City easily could lose two more. But the Steelers better win out. The likely tiebreaker is conference record, and Pittsburgh (Chicago, at Minnesota, at Cleveland and Detroit) already has five conference losses.

That could leave the Chiefs and Chargers, maybe at 10-6, a game behind - with one of them out of the playoffs.

NFC

The Giants, Bears and Panthers lead their divisions, and the Seahawks already have clinched theirs thanks to the Rams, 49ers and Cardinals. Figure Seattle for home field because of schedule, especially if Indy has a loss and has clinched everything when it goes to Qwest Field on New Year's Eve. And figure Carolina (9-3) to win the South because ... well, because the Panthers are good.

The rest is up in the air.

The Giants have three road games left and they are 1-3 there - although they outplayed the Seahawks in Seattle.

But they seem on the verge of being very good because the defense is starting to look like Chicago's. The New York offense is dangerous every other week, when Eli Manning plays like his brother rather than the struggling second-year QB he was Sunday.

The Bears (9-3) have won eight straight, but are living on the edge because they depend on defense not only to stop the other guys but to generate points.

Nothing is easy from here on - at Pittsburgh, Atlanta, at Green Bay and at Minnesota.

That means the finale at the Metrodome against the Vikings, who have five straight wins, might even be for the division title. Minnesota is two games behind now, but Brad Johnson has provided stability at quarterback and Koren Robinson, who seems to have his head on straight for now, is a deep threat.

Wild cards?

Right now, it's a dogfight among Tampa Bay (8-4), the Cowboys, Vikings and Falcons (all 7-5) and perhaps even Washington (6-6) in the very unlikely event the Redskins can win out. Again, maybe somebody goes home at 10-6.

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