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Games With Playoff Implications

The [Playoff] Rundown

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page E07

New Orleans (+7) at Carolina, 1 p.m.

The Panthers, who ended the Saints' playoff chances in the 2002 regular season finale, can do so again today. They also can become the first team to make the playoffs after 1-7 start. Carolina is averaging more than 30 points over its past seven games. Quarterback Jake Delhomme, one of the few Panthers to stay healthy the entire season, is having a better year than he did in 2003. He has improved upon his touchdowns and passer rating and has one fewer interception than last year. He'll be going up against a Saints defense that ranks 27th against the pass.

New York Jets (-3 1/2) at St. Louis, 1 p.m.

Another offensive coordinator taking flak is the Jets' Paul Hackett, who barely held onto his job after last season, when New York averaged 17.7 points per game. In the Jets' five losses this season, they've scored 10.8 points per game. It's also put-up-or-shut-up time for quarterback Chad Pennington, and he's been historically solid indoors, throwing seven touchdowns and one interception in two dome wins. Meanwhile, don't expect the Rams to continue their running ways against the Jets, who rank seventh in the league against the run but still may be without sack leader John Abraham.

Jets quarterback Chad Pennington looks to continue his success in dome stadiums. (Kathy Willens -- AP)

_____Extra Points_____

Is the league becoming more top-heavy, thus threatening its precious parity? The six teams with 11 or more wins are a combined 74-16 (.822 winning percentage), the best record for the top six teams through 15 games since the 16-game schedule was instituted in 1978. Like last season, there could be a league-record six 12-win teams this season. . . .

The single-season record for league-wide touchdowns (1,199, set in 2002) will fall today with the ninth touchdown (assuming, of course, that everyone doesn't pull an Andy Reid and play only second-stringers, NFL Europe hand-me-downs and the lucky fan sitting in Section 148, Row 5, Seat 12). . . .

Ratings for "Monday Night Football" hit an all-time low this season with an 11.0 (a single ratings point equals 1,096,000 households). The previous low, 11.4, was set in 2002. Last year, "Monday Night Football" pulled down an 11.5. The league will try to alleviate its continuing Monday night slump starting in 2006, when it will institute a flexible "MNF" schedule over the final seven weeks of the season. . . .

The Hall of Fame won't be waiving its five-year eligibility rule for Reggie White, who died last Sunday. White, who retired after the 2000 season, will not be able to be inducted posthumously until the 2006 ceremonies (which will honor players selected from the 2005 ballot).

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_____Mark Maske's NFL Insider_____
Manning the Only Choice for MVP (washingtonpost.com, Dec 31, 2004)
Carolina's Comeback Could Make History (washingtonpost.com, Dec 30, 2004)
Cowher's Steelers Won't Lay Down Sunday (washingtonpost.com, Dec 29, 2004)
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Miami (+11) at Baltimore, 1 p.m. (WJZ-13)

The Ravens' 31st-ranked offense has offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh on the hot seat. Baltimore has three touchdowns on offense in its last four losses, and its 22 offensive touchdowns total this season are better than only the Redskins and the Bears. But it's not like the Ravens ever have been strong offensively under Coach Brian Billick: Their highest total offense ranking during his tenure was 14th in 2001.

Pittsburgh (+9) at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

With the top seed in the AFC clinched, Pittsburgh will rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his bruised rib cartilage and start Tommy Maddox. Running back Jerome Bettis will sit with an ankle injury, meaning Duce Staley, who has missed six of the team's last eight games, will get some snaps. Buffalo has outscored opponents 228-89 since starting the season 3-6. In his first six games, quarterback Drew Bledsoe had six touchdowns and seven interceptions; in his last four, he has seven touchdowns and one interception.

Atlanta (+6) at Seattle, 4 p.m. (WBFF-45)

Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick sat out last week's lackluster loss to the Saints with a sore shoulder, but Coach Jim Mora Jr. said this week that Vick will play today, despite the fact that Atlanta has sewn up the second seed in the NFC. He may even play the whole game, though not if it turns into a blowout. The Falcons are 24-12-1 when Vick has started and 3-11 when he hasn't since he became the team's full-time starter in 2002. More worrisome for Atlanta is the status of tight end Alge Crumpler, the team's leading receiver, who hasn't practiced since slightly tearing a knee ligament Dec. 18.

Indianapolis (+8 1/2) at Denver, 4:15 p.m. (WUSA-9, WJZ-13)

They key to stopping the Colts may not be stopping Peyton Manning, but rather stopping the run. In its loss against Jacksonville on Oct. 24, Indianapolis rushed for just 87 yards. The next week in a loss to the Chiefs, the Colts rushed for only 33 yards. Denver ranks sixth in the league against the run, allowing 98.5 yards per game. The Jaguars and Chiefs were also quite successful running the ball against Indianapolis, rushing for a combined 331 yards in those two games. The Broncos have the league's fifth-best rushing attack at 141.3 yards per game.

Jacksonville (-1) at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

The last thing the Jaguars needed this week was questions about their coach, but that's exactly what they got after published reports cited Jack Del Rio as one of the candidates for the Louisiana State vacancy. Del Rio, who played for the Saints in the '80s and met his wife in New Orleans, hasn't helped matters by ducking questions about his interest in the LSU job. Despite suffering a concussion early in last week's loss to the Texans, quarterback Byron Leftwich played the entire game. The Jaguars are hoping he can play today, but if Buffalo wins its 1 p.m. game, it may not matter because the Jaguars will be eliminated.

Green Bay (+3) at Chicago, 1 p.m.

All signs point to Packers quarterback Brett Favre continuing his consecutive starts streak, but Coach Mike Sherman sounds as if he'll won't hesitate to pull Favre should things get out of hand. However, there are a bunch of Green Bay players who could stand to get a day off. Both backup running back Najeh Davenport and wide receiver Donald Driver suffered strained right shoulders against Minnesota last week, and Ahman Green has been playing with fractured ribs the past four games.

San Francisco (+13 1/2) at New England, 1 p.m.

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick hasn't said much, as usual, but don't expect the Patriots' starters to play more than a few quarters (except for their secondary, which is too banged up to rest anyone). But does it really matter against a 49ers team that is looking to avoid a bunch of embarrassing team milestones? Its on pace for the second-fewest points in a 16-game season in team history, two sacks allowed shy of the team record, fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season in team history and most punts in team history.

Cincinnati (-3 1/2) at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

The game may mean nothing, but that doesn't concern Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who has missed the last two games. "It matters to me," Palmer said. "It's a game. I want to play regardless whether it's the first game, the last game, a playoff game." Meanwhile, Eagles running back Dorsey Levens may have parlayed his garbage-time minutes into a more significant role in the team's offense when the games again count in two weeks. Levens had 67 of the Eagles' 155 total yards in Monday's junior varsity scrimmage against the Rams.

Kansas City (-3 1/2) at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer probably will play his starters for a bit, but because the Chargers can't do anything to affect their playoff position, we may be getting our first look at quarterback Philip Rivers. And, in a sure sign that the team isn't letting up, the players showed up on their day off this week to go over the mistakes made in last week's loss to the Colts.

Detroit (-2 1/2) at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

Lions running back Kevin Jones joined some illustrious company last week when he became the third Detroit rookie running back to top 1,000-yard rushing mark. Billy Sims and Barry Sanders are the others.

Cleveland (+9) at Houston, 1 p.m.

The Texans recorded the first shutout in team history last week against Jacksonville and haven't allowed a touchdown in 11 quarters.

Tampa Bay (+3) at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

Because of Brian Griese's sore right hip, Chris Simms may get the start at quarterback today for the Bucs. Simms hasn't played since Oct. 10, when he hurt his shoulder against the Saints.

Dallas (+3) at New York Giants, 8:30 p.m.

Running back Tiki Barber will become the Giants' career rushing leader with 66 yards today. Barber needs 94 rushing yards to top Joe Morris's team single-season mark of 1,516 yards.

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