Let jockeying begin NFL playoffs: The Packers will finish the regular season with a big dose of the road, but they're not the only team checking the schedule.

November 30, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

By now, the outrage -- if not the indignation -- has worn off for the Green Bay Packers. The 1997 schedule says they must play the first three weeks of December on the road, and they will. Reluctantly, perhaps, but they will.

It's no secret they'd prefer to play at cold-as-a-meat-locker Lambeau Field, where they have an imposing home-field advantage and a stifling, 25-game winning streak.

But when the schedule came out last spring, the NFL ensured the defending champions would take their act on the road once the stretch run arrived. Now it's here, and coach Mike Holmgren still doesn't like the itinerary.

"I don't like how that came out," he said last week. "It's unusual that you'd have three away games in December.

"For a cold-weather team, you count on games in December. I thought it was an unusual set of circumstances. I'm sure the computer just spit it out that way, so we have to make do. Screwy things happen, like playing a team seven times in a row at their place."

Holmgren's disdain for the latest computer glitch rests barely beneath the surface. He doesn't care for three road games in December any more than he did playing seven times in a row in Dallas. Not long ago, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Holmgren the computer just spit out that oddity, too.

None of the other NFC playoff contenders has to play three times on the road in December. In the AFC, the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers both play three road games in the final four.

Holmgren's road show starts tomorrow night with a prime-time date at the Metrodome, where Green Bay has lost five straight to the Minnesota Vikings. Then in successive weeks, the Packers travel to Tampa Bay and Carolina. Those three games likely will determine whether the Packers repeat as Central Division champs and snare a first-round bye.

The Packers (9-3) are two games behind the San Francisco 49ers (11-1) in the NFC race for home-field advantage, so their wintry Lambeau appearances could be curtailed even more.

"What the team has to understand is we're going to play eight road games," Holmgren said, reaching for perspective. "It doesn't matter if they're early or late. We've got to focus on what's important."

And this is what's important heading into the last four weeks of the regular season.

NFC

The 49ers have played only six road playoff games in the past 16 years -- and lost five of them. That's why home field is so important. San Francisco has gone to the Super Bowl four of the seven times it held home-field advantage through the playoffs (and once when it didn't).

But getting home field won't be easy. The 49ers have road games at Kansas City (today) and Seattle, and home games against the Vikings and Broncos remaining. They lead the league in total defense and rush defense, and are second in pass defense. Those rankings, however, are tempered by the 49ers' weak competition in the West Division.

Even with the division title locked up, the 49ers are concerned about how they play in the stretch run.

"The most important issues are ahead of us, not behind us," said quarterback Steve Young. "Home field is not the end-all. But it's very important, so we're working for that. You also want to have momentum going at the end of the season."

It doesn't hurt that the 49ers have a legitimate running game in Garrison Hearst for the first time since they won the Super Bowl in 1995 with Ricky Watters. Hearst is fourth in the NFC with 934 rushing yards and could loom large in a playoff rematch with the Packers.

Because of the Vikings' inadequate defense (next-to-last in total yards), the New York Giants' soft fifth-place schedule and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inconsistency, the Packers should be the biggest threat to the resurgent 49ers. They're not without their problems, though.

Where Green Bay's bid to repeat could come unhinged is the defensive line. Aging All-Pro end Reggie White is nursing a chronic back condition that flared again in recent weeks, and nose tackle Gilbert Brown has endured knee and ankle ailments.

Those injuries have had an impact. Only four teams rushed for more than 100 yards against the Packers in 1996. Already this season, eight teams have broken the 100-yard barrier -- and four went over 150.

Depending on how the Giants finish, there figure to be five teams (Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and the fading Cowboys) competing for the sixth and final wild-card spot. The Redskins have the most favorable schedule to survive that quagmire.

The Giants are no certainty in the East; they get the Bucs today, and sandwich road games at Philadelphia and Dallas around a home game with the Redskins. New York could lose any or all of those.

AFC

The Broncos, Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars look like locks. That leaves five teams shooting for the final two playoff berths, including the New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Oilers and Seattle Seahawks.

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