Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All kinds of crazy stuff could still happen in wacky NFL

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With only one week remaining in this most unusual of NFL seasons, it should come as no surprise that the playoff picture remains a blur. Only seven of the 12 teams that will compete for the Lombardi Trophy have been decided, and just four of those clubs have their seedings locked up.

The Giants and Titans will play at home as long they stay alive (or reach the Super Bowl). The Steelers will get next week off before hosting a second-round matchup. Meanwhile, the Colts, as the AFC's fifth seed, will travel to either San Diego or Denver to play a team that could have as many as four fewer wins.

And that's just the beginning of the wackiness that could transpire by Sunday night. Here are a few more things to keep an eye on as the 2008 season comes to a close:

"ö If Miami and Baltimore both win on Sunday, they will face each other in a wild-card game. Last year, the Dolphins' only win came against the Ravens, marking a low-point in Baltimore's 5-11 season. Talk about things coming full circle.

"ö Without a Miami or Baltimore loss, the Patriots could beat Buffalo, finish 11-5, and miss the playoffs. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule 30 years ago, only the 1985 Broncos missed the playoffs at 11-5.

"ö The Panthers were a missed field goal away from clinching the NFC's No. 1 seed last Sunday night at the Meadowlands. Now, if they lose at New Orleans and Atlanta beats St. Louis, the Panthers would slide all the way to the fifth seed and need to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl.

"ö To avoid the NFL's first 0-16 season, the Lions will need to win in Green Bay for the first time since 1991.

"ö Despite their dreadful performances since clinching the NFC West about a month ago, the 8-7 Cardinals' playoff berth has not been revoked by the league. But another no-show against the Seahawks might be enough for commissioner Roger Goodell to reconsider.

All told, 10 of Sunday's games have playoff implications, including:


"ö New York Giants

at Minnesota (Sunday, noon)

Many coaches would choose to rest their starters if they were in the Giants' (12-3) position with first place wrapped up. But who can forget the memorable Week 17 game last year, when Tom Coughlin's G-Men gave the perfection-seeking Patriots all they could handle despite having nothing to gain in the standings?

That effort paid some hefty dividends when the two teams met again five weeks later in the Super Bowl. Expect the Giants to play to win on Sunday, which is bad news for the Pat Williams-less Vikings' (9-6) run defence.


"ö Chicago at Houston (Sunday, noon)

A Bears (9-6) win and a Vikings loss would give Chicago the NFC North title. The Bears showed some heart in their come-from-behind overtime win over the Packers on Monday night, but their offence was in hibernation for most of the game.

The Texans (7-8) had won four straight games before losing at Oakland last week, and can match their franchise record with an eighth win.


"ö Miami at New York Jets

(Sunday, 3:15 p.m.)

Miami (10-5) clinches the AFC East with a win. Even if the Jets (9-6) beat their former quarterback, Chad Pennington, they will still need New England or Baltimore to lose in order to sneak into the playoffs.

After the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers-Pennington quarterback carousel finally came to rest in the off-season, who could have predicted it would be Pennington's Dolphins that would be in the best shape after 15 games? The Dolphins are playing solid football week after week, while the Jets appear to be in a tailspin.

And, of course, it's once again that time of year when we must ask: Will this be Favre's final game?


"ö Dallas at Philadelphia

(Sunday, 3:15 p.m.)

For the Cowboys (9-6) it's simple: Win and they're in. For the Eagles (8-6-1) to make the playoffs, about 13 things need to happen, including Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech playing to a tie in the Independence Bowl.

The Cowboys' abysmal defensive showing last week against Baltimore could have crippled their playoff chances, but Tampa Bay and Philadelphia losses gave them another chance to play their way in.

If Dallas can't take advantage, Jerry Jones might want to think again about keeping his nucleus intact for next season.


"ö Denver at San Diego

(Sunday, 7:15 p.m.)

The season's final game couldn't have bigger stakes. The winner takes the AFC West crown, while the loser is left answering for a disastrous season. If the Broncos (8-7) blow what was a three-game lead with three to play, Mike Shanahan's seat could be hotter that it's ever been in his 14-year tenure in Denver.

If the Chargers (7-8) win, they will carry a four-game winning streak into a home playoff game with the Colts -- a matchup that has produced three terrific games in the last two seasons.


"ö Online picks: 3-2 last week; 45-27 season



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2008 C11

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