Here's the latest news from the ravaged NFC, where a desperate struggle is under way to see who will be the first team with a losing record to make the playoffs in a nonstrike year.
The Panthers, entering the weekend 6--7 and in good shape to hold off a mob of 5--8 teams, gave up 10 late points to the Falcons and blew their hard-earned lead last Saturday night.
That opened the door for the 5--8 Buccaneers, with home games against the 5--8 Saints and then the Panthers, to make a move for the last wild-card spot. So Tampa Bay blew a 10point lead to New Orleans in the last four minutes on Sunday and let the Saints sneak back into the race.
Meanwhile, things were heating up in the battle for first place in the NFC West. The 7--6 Seahawks, holding grimly to a one-game lead over the Rams, got run over by the Jets in an early game on Sunday. Euphoric over Seattle's defeat, St. Louis took the field later in the day and got slaughtered by Arizona 31--7. Now the Cardinals, at 5--9, have a shot at the division title--and if they win it, there would be the phenomenon of a losing team's not only getting into the playoffs but also hosting a first-round game.
December 27, 2004
So let's try to wade through this swamp and handicap what's coming up in the NFC, which is down to four teams with winning records. The two clubs with the best records, Philadelphia (13--1) and Atlanta (11--3), are the ones everybody wants to play because the Eagles and the Falcons have accomplished all that they can in the regular season. They will be the Nos. 1 and 2 playoff seeds, respectively, no matter what happens the last two weeks of the season, and both teams will be resting people.
Therefore, I'll pick the woebegone Rams, who are as far in the dumps as a team can get, to beat the Eagles' junior varsity on Monday night. Using the same logic, I'll take the Saints over whatever reserves the Falcons choose to send out on Sunday. I've heard all the propaganda--how teams have to play their regulars to keep from getting rusty, etc.--but the regulars on the field will be looking toward the sideline to see just how long their tour of duty will last.
Here's a big upset: theCardinals to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. I sense a fire in the Arizona players that seems to have gone out of Seattle's. Plus, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck left the game against the Jets with what looked to be an injury to his throwing elbow.
Green Bay has clinched a playoff spot, but the NFC North title is still at stake. Which makes Packers-Vikings on Christmas Eve a crucial game of sorts. This is a hard one to call. The last game between the teams was a shootout, with 65 points and 858 yards of offense. I can see the same thing happening again, and I kind of favor the Vikings in that sort of action.
Carolina remains my favorite in the losers' bracket, so I'll take the Panthers in an upset at Tampa Bay.
In the AFC, where nine teams have winning records, the No. 1 seed is still up for grabs. But once a team has won its division, I don't think the jockeying for position is as big a spur for the players as it is for the guys who write about them. Therefore, I'll take the Ravens, battling mightily for a playoff berth, to upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh. And just as that one is ending, the Patriots, delirious over their good fortune, will take the field in New Jersey against a determined Jets team and--can I really pick all three elite teams to lose? I can and I will--suffer an upset. The Jets will win it. Finally, there's the battle for the AFC's third seed between a pair of 11--3 teams, San Diego and Indianapolis. The game's in the RCA Dome. The Colts win it. --Paul Zimmerman
Last week: 5--2 Season: 78--48
Look for Dr. Z's Week 17 picks at SI.com/football.