Unlikely Path Could Go a Long Way

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Only one of the six NFC playoff teams reported to work on Monday with a four-game winning streak: the Washington Redskins. Oh, there are plenty of hot teams in the AFC, notably the Patriots, Chargers, Colts and Titans, which points to a certain parity among the NFL's elite teams entering the playoffs. But five days from the beginning of the postseason, the NFC looks wide open, to the point that any one of the six looks capable of collapsing in a heap or reaching the Super Bowl.

Being the first team to win all 16 regular season games makes the New England Patriots the No. 1 story in the AFC and the obvious favorite.

Winning four straight games after burying a teammate and enduring a string of injuries that would disable most teams has made the Washington Redskins the No. 1 story in the NFC and, to many, a sentimental favorite. As far away as Phoenix, a headline in Monday's editions of the Arizona Republic proclaimed, "Now, here's a team to root for" in a column chronicling the Redskins' emotional journey from Sean Taylor's funeral on Dec. 3 to the inspired rally that has taken them to the playoffs.

It all led Coach Joe Gibbs to observe after Sunday's victory over the Dallas Cowboys, "When you think about what they've gone through this year, everybody would have said this is just impossible."

Yet, anything seems possible now, even winning in Seattle and, yes, in Dallas in upcoming playoff games against higher-seeded teams that have much greater postseason expectations. The Cowboys are the top seed, a 13-3 team that's perfectly happy to tell anybody how great they are. And at times this season they've looked like a championship caliber team -- but not lately.

They were physically dominated by the Eagles two weeks ago, and by the Redskins on Sunday. As great as Terrell Owens is when healthy, it's unlikely he affects the Cowboys' defense or the offensive line's sudden vulnerability. There are two teams the Cowboys positively don't want to see this postseason: their NFC East brethren Redskins and Giants. These Cowboys seem to feel more a kinship with the champion Cowboys of the early 1990s than they do the Cowboys of recent vintage, who have not won a playoff game since the 1996 season.

There's nothing that should dissuade the Redskins between now and a third meeting with the Cowboys. For two full seasons since reaching the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have been one of the most perplexing teams in the NFL. They play great at home (7-1) and poorly on the road (3-5). They're invincible one week and get stepped on the next. They pine for former MVP Shaun Alexander one week, then declare they're a passing team the next. Two things jump out about Seattle's r¿sum¿ entering the playoffs. First, they're the worst of the playoff teams, No. 15 overall, in total defense, worse than the Chiefs and Ravens. Second, they're tied for 10th in the conference in rushing touchdowns with only nine.

More than anything that reveals itself statistically, the feeling here is that the Seahawks simply don't play consistently enough with the kind of passion that has characterized the Redskins' play the last four games. All of it adds up to the Redskins beating Seattle on Saturday and making the trip the following week to Dallas.

While Tampa Bay has home-field advantage, the No. 2 overall defense in the league and the usual effective rushing attack, the Giants appeared revived in that season-finale loss to the Patriots. And there's something else the New Yorkers have -- a preference for the road. The Giants are 3-5 in East Rutherford, 7-1 away from home. Put down the Giants for an eighth road victory and a trip to Green Bay, where running back Ryan Grant and the Packers' defense (which will nullify Eli Manning) will give Brett Favre more than enough help. The Cowboys, as good as they were the middle 14 weeks of the regular season, seem more talk than walk. Even in their bravado they know the Redskins are at the very least their equal.

Packers vs. Redskins in Lambeau Field on a frosty Sunday in late January has a certain historic appeal; Gibbs vs. Favre, one inspirational story against another.

The AFC is much more cold and clinical than that. The Patriots are the best team, and have the best combination of offense, defense and coaching of any team in the playoffs. So the question is, who in the AFC can beat them in the divisional or conference championship round?

I don't see the Steelers getting past Jacksonville in the first round, even though the game is in Pittsburgh, so they won't get the chance. The Chargers have been as guilty as the recent Cowboys of not walking the walk.

This group of San Diego players has had a pair of home playoff games and been a bust so far. The Chargers have won five straight and finally will win a home playoff game by beating Tennessee, but the Chargers have neither the poise nor the defense (only the 14th best in the league) to go on the road and beat a champion with Indy's resourcefulness.

The most compelling game in the playoffs likely will be in the AFC and in the second week: Patriots vs. Jacksonville. The Jaguars aren't on any kind of streak; they rested their starters and lost their season finale to Houston. The Jaguars have a lot of Philly and Baltimore nastiness in them. Jacksonville can throw the ball without making the kinds of mistakes the Patriots thrive on, and they can run it as well as any team in the playoffs. Young bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, perhaps the least identifiable great back ever, is the tandem that could be the undoing of the Patriots' historic season.

The football public and the sports books in Las Vegas await another Patriots-Colts showdown, this decade's version of Cowboys-49ers or Steelers-Raiders. When New England pounded the Redskins back in midseason and the primary debate nationally was whether Tom Brady and the Patriots were running it up and what to do about it, little did we suspect that when the playoffs arrived, those very same Redskins could possibly wind up going further in the postseason than the almighty Patriots.

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