As the NFL's postseason races wind down, one thing is certain: The NFC almost certainly has been spared the indignity of having a team with a losing record qualify for the playoffs.
The conference's playoff chase still isn't particularly elegant, with the possibility existing, entering the final weekend of the regular season, that the NFC could have as many as three 8-8 clubs in its six-team playoff field.
But as long as Sunday's New Orleans-Carolina game doesn't end in a tie, the conference cannot be responsible for the NFL having a team with a losing record qualify for the playoffs for the first time in a non-strike season.
"We're not even a .500 team right now, so you don't exactly have that crescendo of excitement by the public that you'd normally have for a game that might be for the playoffs,'' Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said by telephone yesterday. "It's only been lately that people have been thinking about that. But I think people around here are excited about it. It absolutely feels like a big game to us. For us -- and Carolina probably feels the same way -- every week has been like a playoff game, when you're fighting for your survival like we have been.''
The Saints and Panthers will take identical 7-8 records into Sunday's game in Charlotte. The Panthers, the defending NFC champions, have regrouped from a 1-7 start and a hard-luck string of injuries that put tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins on the injured reserve list.
"I think people are excited,'' Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said by phone yesterday. "People are pleasantly surprised that we might have a meaningful game to play, after the start we had. . . . Every season is different. Every year has its own set of gratifications. It was a very good feeling to go to the Super Bowl. You would have liked to have won the game, but it was a good season. This year, everyone feels good to have fought through what we've fought through. But New Orleans has done the same thing. We'll see how it turns out Sunday."
For a few weeks, it looked possible that the NFC would have a team qualify for this season's playoffs with a 7-9 record. It won't happen, but neither Loomis nor Hurney expressed relief about that yesterday.
"I don't think you look at it that way when you're involved in it,'' Loomis said. "It's hard to win a game, any game, in the NFL. You drive yourself crazy if you're in this game and you think about all those scenarios. You just take care of your own business as best you can. We're just excited to have an opportunity to play in a game this meaningful. Anybody that's been in the NFL for any length of time knows that you just keep plugging along. You just keep at it, and you just never know what can happen.''
The Philadelphia Eagles have clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons have clinched the No. 2 seed and the other first-round playoff bye. Green Bay has clinched the NFC North title and Seattle has clinched a playoff spot.
St. Louis stayed alive in both the NFC West race and the wild-card chase with last night's 20-7 victory over the Eagles. The Rams improved their record to 7-8 entering Sunday's regular season finale against the New York Jets. They are a game behind Seattle but would win the division title if the two teams finish tied by virtue of beating the Seahawks twice this season. Seattle will host the Falcons on Sunday.
A loss by the Rams last night would have clinched the NFC West title for Seattle and a wild-card berth for Minnesota, and would have ensured that the New Orleans-Carolina winner would have gotten the other wild-card spot. Now there is a long list of possibilities. The two wild-card teams will come from among the Seahawks, Rams, Vikings, Saints and Panthers. The Vikings can clinch a playoff berth by beating the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field.
In the AFC, the top four playoff seeds are set -- the Pittsburgh Steelers first, the New England Patriots second, the Indianapolis Colts third and the San Diego Chargers fourth. That means, if form holds, the AFC semifinals will have the Chargers playing at Pittsburgh and the Colts playing at New England in a rematch of last season's conference title game.
The Jets still can clinch the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs with a victory at St. Louis on Sunday. But they would be squeezed out of the postseason by tiebreakers if they lose to the Rams and Denver and Buffalo win next weekend to create a three-way tie for the two AFC wild-card spots at 10-6.
The Jets gave a dud of a performance this past Sunday, losing to the Patriots, 23-7, at Giants Stadium when they could have clinched a playoff berth with a win. "This is the worst we performed all year,'' Jets tailback Curtis Martin said.
The Broncos control their own destiny and get into the playoffs if they beat the Colts at home Sunday. They would win a two-way tiebreaker with the Bills by virtue of their superior record against AFC opponents. The Bills host the Steelers on Sunday, and Pittsburgh might be without unbeaten rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of his rib injury. The Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, both 8-7, are clinging to slim playoff hopes.