A BAD DEAL FOR AFC WILD CARDS
WITH FOUR WEEKS left in the regular season there's little suspense over which teams will finish atop the conferences, thanks to three 11--1 clubs. The Patriots and the Steelers, in either order, will be one-two in the AFC, and the Eagles are the NFC's steamroller. At 9--3 the Falcons have a two-game lead for the NFC's other first-round playoff bye.
Absurd but true: The 5--7 Panthers would have a better chance to make noise in the postseason than the 9--3 Jets. That's because this year the NFL's power base is clearly established in the AFC, which also has a pair of 9--3 division leaders in the Chargers and the Colts. So even if the Jets finish with 11 or 12 victories (no easy task with four playoff contenders--the Steelers, Seahawks, Pats and Rams--on their schedule), they still won't be better than a wild card and the fifth seed unless AFC East--rival New England collapses (not likely, considering the Pats' remaining opponents have a combined 18--30 record). What's more, since the league instituted the 12-team playoff system in 1990, no fifth or sixth seed has ever advanced to the Super Bowl. And this season the AFC's No. 5 team might have to go through Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh on successive weekends to get to Jacksonville for Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6. That, folks, is the impossible dream.
As injury plagued as they have been, the Panthers, who won their fourth straight game on Sunday, 32--21, at New Orleans (page 107), might have the best chance of the NFC wild-card contenders to reach the title game. "The beauty of football is you can make up for the loss of talent by playing as a team and having heart," coach John Fox said on Monday. "Winning four in a row sends a message about the importance of team football. It's not just ability." Should Carolina make the playoffs, it would have a vastly easier schedule (at Minnesota, at Atlanta and at Philadelphia, perhaps) than any AFC wild card will have. And the Panthers are surging at the right time. "We're already in our playoff season," Fox says.
As invincible as the Eagles appear--this is clearly the best team in Andy Reid's six-year reign--Carolina just might be the NFC club that would give them the toughest test in January. In Week 6 the Panthers lost 30--8 at Philadelphia; Jake Delhomme's four interceptions sealed Carolina's fate, but the Panthers held the Eagles to 10 first downs and rushed for 158 yards.
"Mark my words: An 8--8 team will make the playoffs in the NFC," Fox says. And given the mediocrity in the NFC this year, don't be surprised if that team is playing for the conference title at Philadelphia on Jan. 23.
As far as game-time weather is concerned, the Colts have been the most fortunate team in the NFL over the past two seasons. For instance, last year they caught a sunny 70° break on the Sunday before Thanksgiving; this year it was 30° with 23-mph winds in Detroit on Nov. 25, but Peyton Manning was indoors at Ford Field for a six-touchdown shellacking of the Lions. From the start of last year through the end of this regular season, 24 of Indy's 35 games will have been played inside, under retractable roofs or in Florida.
Colts president Bill Polian wisely built a speed-and-precision team for his home venue, the RCA Dome. But that style of football doesn't always cut it in the Northeast in January. A team such as the Colts might have to win back-to-back playoff games at New England and Pittsburgh to reach the Super Bowl. Since the start of the 2003 season Indianapolis is 0--3 in mist, rain or snow and 23--5 in all other games.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
These unheralded players will help determine how far their teams go in the playoffs.
JAMAL WILLIAMS, NT, CHARGERS Good running teams--such as the Broncos, Chiefs and Saints--have been stopped cold by the NFL's second-best run defense, which is anchored by the 348-pound Williams. He routinely occupies two blockers so linebackers such as Donnie Edwards (20 tackles against Denver on Sunday) can feast on ballcarriers.
ALGE CRUMPLER, TE, FALCONS When Michael Vick doesn't get him the ball (one catch in a 27--0 loss in Tampa on Sunday), the offense sputters. Vick must take what the defense gives him, and Crumpler, averaging 16.2 yards a catch, should always get a look.
JONATHAN VILMA, MLB, JETS The 223pound rookie is calling every defensive signal (his Week 4 audible in Miami set up an interception that was returned for the decisive touchdown) and becoming the kind of force that--dare we say?--Ray Lewis has been for the Ravens. --Peter King
When It's Cold, They're Hot
The NFL's best teams after Dec. 1, since 2000, including postseason games.