After missing out on history, the rest of the season will taste like mouthwash to the 13-1 Denver Broncos.
Stripped of their "perfect" motivation, the Broncos, who already own home-field advantage in the AFC, are reduced to playing out the string in the final two weeks with little on the line.
If it sounds a little familiar to the Broncos, it should. Hauntingly so.
Two years ago, the Broncos locked up home-field advantage with a dominating 12-1 run through the AFC. Coach Mike Shanahan decided to rest his walking wounded at that point, among them quarterback John Elway. The team lost two of its final three regular-season games, then was ambushed by the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional playoffs, 30-27.
That memory became a rallying cry in Denver's 1997 Super Bowl season. But what does it sound like now? Deja vu?
Sunday's shocking 20-16 loss to the New York Giants left the Broncos pondering their plight. Were their struggles this month the result of carrying an increasingly heavy "unbeaten" burden? Or were they indications that something else is amiss? Have they instead simply lost their edge?
In Week 13, Elway overcame three interceptions with four touchdown passes to beat San Diego, 31-16. In Week 14, Elway had to rally the Broncos from a 31-21 fourth-quarter deficit to win, 35-31.
In the past three weeks, the Broncos have nine take-aways and (( eight giveaways; they have produced two of their three lowest total-yardage games; they allowed a 100-yard rusher for only the second time all season; and they had just one sack in two of the three games.
Bill Romanowski, Denver's ubiquitous linebacker, sounded the note of alarm Sunday.
"There wasn't a sense of urgency in this game, and that bothered me," he said. "There's got to be concern. Forget the streak. This is the time of the year you have to be playing your best, and we're not doing that."
Suggesting it was a wake-up call, Shanahan will take steps not to relive his 1996 nightmare, which the Broncos slept through. A different kind of history is staring him in the face now.
If the season ended today, the Arizona Cardinals (7-7) would beat out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) for the NFC's final wild-card berth by virtue of a better conference record (7-4 to 6-5). But the race is far from over.
Arizona finishes with home games against New Orleans and San Diego. Tampa Bay closes on the road against Washington and Cincinnati. The Cardinals have been shaky down the stretch, though, losing three of their past five. The Bucs, meanwhile, recovered from myriad problems to win their past three.
The advantage appears to be with Tampa Bay, even with the Giants and the Saints lurking in the background at 6-8.
The AFC would feature no fewer than four Eastern Division teams if the playoffs started now. The New York Jets hold the No. 2 seed with a better conference record over Jacksonville (8-2 to 7-4). Buffalo, Miami and New England would fill the wild-card slots. The Patriots would get the last spot ahead of Tennessee on the strength of their 27-16 win over the Oilers in Week 3.
Miami appears the most vulnerable with a 6-5 conference record and Denver still on the schedule, followed by Atlanta. Buffalo (9-5) can make its play for the division title Saturday when it plays host to the Jets (10-4). The Bills lost to the Jets in Week 10.
There is this piece of recent history for Ravens fans hoping for a quick turnaround next year. Of the nine head coaches hired after the 1996 season, four took their teams to the playoffs in 1997 -- Pete Carroll in New England, Steve Mariucci in San Francisco, Bobby Ross in Detroit and Jim Fassel with the Giants.
But the biggest turnarounds were achieved by Bill Parcells with the Jets and Dan Reeves with the Atlanta Falcons. In two years, Parcells has elevated the Jets from 1-15 losers to first place in the AFC East and a playoff berth. Reeves fueled the Falcons' rise from the dregs of 3-13 in 1996 to first place in the NFC West with a 12-2 playoff run.
Only two of the nine coaches made no appreciable gains. San Diego fired Kevin Gilbride (6-16) six games into the 1998 season, and Dick Vermeil is only 9-21 with the St. Louis Rams.
Take that, coach
Despite front-office assurances that coach Dom Capers will survive the Carolina Panthers' disastrous 2-12 season, there is reason to wonder.
Two weeks after running back Fred Lane was suspended for a vulgar celebratory act in the end zone at the Meadowlands, veteran linebacker Kevin Greene had to be pulled off of assistant coach Kevin Steele on Sunday.
Although the Panthers have lost nine games by seven or fewer points, there is an appearance Capers has lost the team. A comment from special teamer Michael Bates reinforced that notion Sunday.
Asked to respond to Capers' assessment that the Panthers are not a disciplined team, Bates said: "Well, where does that start at? That's my comment."