Home field is focus of playoff picture Packers, 49ers lead battle in NFC, but in the AFC, it's advantage, Broncos

December 06, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

It may be a strong indicator of success, but home-field advantage through the playoffs is no guarantee of reaching the Super Bowl. Just ask Carl Peterson, president of the Kansas City Chiefs, who still anguishes over his missed opportunity of a year ago.

That's when the Chiefs earned home-field through the AFC playoffs with an NFL-best record of 13-3. Then, after a first-round bye, they blew the advantage with a 10-7 loss to the wild-card Indianapolis Colts.

"The experience last year was excruciatingly disappointing," Peterson said this week. "We had put ourselves in position like Denver to clinch early and get home-field. Then we weren't able to capitalize on it."

This year, the 9-4 Chiefs are chasing the 12-1 Denver Broncos like everyone else in the AFC. With a victory over Seattle and surprising losses by Buffalo and Pittsburgh last week, the Broncos locked up all the important stuff with three weeks to go: AFC West title, first-round bye and home-field advantage through the playoffs.

How important is home-field advantage to the Broncos? They had it twice since 1987 and went to the Super Bowl both times. Quarterback John Elway says this is a better Denver team than the three he took to the Super Bowl in the '80s.

"It's definitely a better offensive team," he said. "There's a lot more balance, and the passing offense is a lot better than the other teams. Overall, talent-wise, I think it's a little better."

Said Peterson of the Broncos: "They're finding ways to win games when most people find ways to lose. The big key is the way their defense has been."

If all facets working in Denver, the Chiefs made a significant concession last week when they benched quarterback Steve Bono and replaced him with the more mobile Rich Gannon. Bono took much of the blame for last year's playoff loss.

"It wasn't so much we felt Steve Bono was having such a bad year," Peterson said. "It was that we weren't generating points, and that Rich Gannon would give us a change of pace because of his ability to run the ball. It was a calculated risk."

It paid dividends in the Chiefs' 28-24 Thanksgiving Day win over Detroit. Whether it's enough to produce a victory at Denver's Mile High Stadium is another story.

The Broncos now must play three meaningless games in December without losing momentum, starting Sunday in Green Bay. Coach Mike Shanahan has suggested he'll hold Elway out to rest a tender hamstring. But there is an inherent danger in the three-game odyssey.

"We've got to keep the idea going that we've got to win these games," Elway said. "We can't lose the edge we've got. Guys realize we can't turn it off for a month and turn it back on."

Here is a look at games that could haunt the contenders at season's end, and the big games down the stretch.

AFC

BRONCOS. Ugly loss: 17-14 verdict at Kansas City is all that separates the Broncos from a so-far perfect season. No harm there.

Big test: Sunday at Green Bay, only in the sense they still have to prove they can beat the best from the NFC. And if he plays, Elway will want to prove it.

PATRIOTS. Ugly loss: 34-8 disaster at home against the Broncos three weeks ago when Bill Parcells attempted a fake punt from in his own territory on the first series.

Big test: At Dallas in Week 16. They are 0-6 lifetime against the Cowboys. They need to win the last three to gain a first-round bye, and get the Jets and Giants in the other two.

STEELERS. Ugly loss: Rain- drenched 31-17 loss to the Ravens that tentatively knocked them out of a bye week and exposed Mike Tomczak as a poor bad-weather quarterback.

Big test: Against the 49ers at home in Week 16. They clinch at least a wild-card spot by beating the Chargers on Sunday.

BILLS. Ugly loss: 21-7 to the Dolphins in Buffalo when Jim Kelly faced a crisis of confidence. On the verge of tying the game, Kelly threw his third interception to end it.

Big test: The Bills and Chiefs will be jockeying for playoff position when they meet in Week 17 in Buffalo.

CHIEFS. Ugly loss: 28-14 to the reeling Chargers two weeks ago. San Diego had lost to the Bucs the week before, and by 38 points to the Patriots last week.

Big test: At Oakland this Monday night. This is one of the NFL's most intense rivalries, dating to another era (1960) and another league (AFL).

CHARGERS. Ugly loss: 45-7 to the Patriots or 25-17 to the Bucs, both at home, both with Stan Humphries throwing three interceptions.

Big test: At Pittsburgh on Sunday, without the injured Humphries. They are 3-3 on the road (and have lost three of the last four at home).

OILERS. Ugly loss: 23-16 stunner against the Seahawks. The Oilers' attempt at a game-winning field goal was blocked and returned for a game-winning Seattle touchdown.

Big test: Against the Jaguars on Sunday. The lame-duck Oilers are only 2-4 in the Astrodome.

COLTS. Ugly loss: 26-19 to the Chargers when Jim Harbaugh threw four interceptions.

Big test: At Kansas City in Week 16.

RAIDERS. Ugly loss: 20-17 in overtime at Tampa Bay in the middle of a three-game losing streak.

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