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NFC's Wild-Card Shuffle

Teams With Unimpressive Records May Find a Way to Slip Into Postseason

By Mark Maske and Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page D01

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson didn't think much of his team's playoff chances after Sunday's loss at Philadelphia dropped it to 5-9.

"I would assume after this game that we should be canceled out," Johnson said. "I do not think we could go into the playoffs at 7-9."



_____Daydream Believers . ._____

Scenario 1 (The Face-Saving Scenario): The Seahawks at least split their remaining games and win the NFC West with a record no worse than 8-8, and one of the 6-8 teams manages to sweep its final two games to get into the playoffs at 8-8. Then, things are no worse than the 1999 NFC playoffs, when the Cowboys and Lions both got in at 8-8. The Panthers' schedule seems most favorable to a 2-0 finish, followed by that of the Saints. The Rams would have to beat two teams that are a combined 23-5.

Scenario 2 (Chaos): The Seahawks and Rams each lose their remaining games and Arizona loses one of its remaining games, giving Seattle the NFC West title at 7-9. No 6-8 team wins out, leaving the tiebreaker system to determine which 7-9 club gets the final wild-card spot. Teams with losing records reach the playoffs in a non-strike season for the first time in NFL history.

If two teams finish tied for the final wild-card spot at 7-9, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, followed by conference record. The Rams are 6-5 in conference play, followed by the Panthers and Redskins at 5-5. The Giants and Lions have the worst conference records among the contenders, at 4-7.

If three or more teams are tied for the wild card, ties are first broken among teams in the same division based on the divisional tiebreaking formula of head-to-head play, followed by division record, common opponents and conference record. The teams that emerge from the divisional tiebreaker then follow the tiebreaking procedure beginning with head-to-head competition, then conference record, then common opponents, etc. The 12th tiebreaker (right after No. 11: best net touchdowns in all games) is a coin toss.

Scenario 3 (Ridiculous): The Cardinals win their final two games, and the Seahawks and Rams lose their final two games. That means the Cardinals will have swept the season series against the Seahawks and end up a game ahead of the Rams, thus giving Arizona the NFC West title with a 7-9 record.

_____  Week 15 Results _____
Saturday
Washington 26, San Fran. 16
Pittsburgh 33, N.Y. Giants 30
Atlanta 34, Carolina 31 (OT)

Sunday
Indianapolis 20, Baltimore 10
Phila. 12, Dallas 7
N.Y. Jets 37, Seattle 14
San Diego 21, Cleveland 0
Minnesota 28, Detroit 27
Buffalo 33, Cincinnati 17
Houston 24, Chicago 5
Kansas City 45, Denver 17
Arizona 31, St. Louis 7
N.O. 21, Tampa Bay 17
Jacksonville 28, G.B. 25
Oakland 40, Tennessee 35

Monday
Miami 29, New England 28

Two-Minute Drill
Stats and stars of Week 15

_____ NFL's Strongest Safeties _____
Who is the NFL's best young safety?
Troy Polamalu - Steelers
Ed Reed - Ravens
Sean Taylor - Redskins
Roy Williams - Cowboys

   View results
Note: This is an unscientific survey of washingtonpost.com readers.

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But Johnson was thinking about a normal season in a respectable conference, not about this crazy season in the pitiable NFC. There is a reasonable chance a team with a 7-9 record will reach the playoffs, and the Cowboys still are in the chase.

Three NFC teams -- the Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers -- have clinched playoff berths. The Seattle Seahawks, at 7-7, lead the NFC West by a game over the St. Louis Rams. The Minnesota Vikings lead the wild-card race at 8-6.

Three teams (the Rams, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints) are tied for the other wild-card spot at 6-8, and seven (the Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals) are a game back at 5-9.

Only the San Francisco 49ers (2-12) are without playoff hopes in the NFC. It is a conference in which a team that started 1-7 (the Panthers) is in the wild-card catbird seat and a club on a seven-game losing streak (the Giants) remains in the thick of the race.

The Packers suffered a discouraging 28-25 defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Lambeau Field in which quarterback Brett Favre threw three interceptions and lost Green Bay's final regular season home game for the first time in his career. Yet the Packers still clinched a playoff berth because the Cowboys, Bears, Panthers and Giants all lost during the weekend.

"For some reason, we're still in the playoffs," Favre said. "I don't know if that says a lot about us or it doesn't say a lot about the other teams. But it is an opportunity. As disappointing as I hope we feel and as down as I feel, it's hard to crack a smile and say, 'Well, we're in the playoffs.' "

The Panthers seem to have the best chance of the NFC's 6-8 teams to win out and finish 8-8. Their remaining games are at Tampa Bay and home against New Orleans. The Saints host the Falcons before finishing the regular season at Carolina. The Rams play both of their remaining games at home, but they're against the Eagles and New York Jets.

The key could be the game Sunday between Carolina and Tampa Bay. If the Panthers win the road game, the NFC could save some dignity with an 8-8 team getting the second wild-card berth. But if Carolina loses, the conference could be well on its way to having a 7-9 club in the playoffs.

A team with a losing record never has reached the playoffs in a non-strike season. It happened only in the strike-shortened season of 1982, when two 4-5 clubs reached the postseason. There have been five 8-8 teams in the playoffs, most recently the Cowboys and Lions in 1999.

The Seahawks could be an 8-8 or even a 7-9 division champion, with remaining games at home against the Cardinals and Falcons.

There aren't likely to be any apologies from a team if it reaches the playoffs with a losing record. Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said last week he wouldn't be embarrassed if his club finds a way to sneak in.

"That's the way it goes," Gruden said. "I've been on teams where 9-7 isn't nearly good enough. Things go in cycles. Some of these guys who cut albums for a living go three, four, five years without having a good one, then all of a sudden they put something out that's really exciting. We haven't been heard from here in the last year and a half. Hopefully we can end with a bang and get a little good fortune."

The NFC playoffs became a more wide-open affair yesterday, when the top-seeded Eagles learned they'd lost wide receiver Terrell Owens until at least the Super Bowl because of the injury to his right ankle that he suffered during Sunday's 12-7 win over the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field. If a low-seeded team enters the postseason playing well, it perhaps could be a threat to go deep into the playoffs. The problem for NFC clubs has been finding ways to play decent football over any sort of sustained stretch.

"Even though we're in the playoffs, we need to be playing well now,'' said Packers tackle Mark Tauscher, whose team plays at Minnesota on Friday, with the winner clinching the NFC North title. "And we're not doing that."

Things are just as competitive in the AFC, but with far better teams. Jacksonville put itself in good position in the AFC wild-card chase with its 28-25 win Sunday at Green Bay. The Jaguars are tied with Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver for the second wild-card spot, with records of 8-6.

But the Jaguars have the easiest remaining schedule, with remaining games at home against Houston and then at Oakland. The Bills play at San Francisco but then end the regular season at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens play at Pittsburgh before closing at home against the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos play at Tennessee but close at home against the Indianapolis Colts.

Shapiro contributed to this report from Green Bay, Wis.


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