Status quo sidelined in playoff hunt

Week 8 In Review

November 02, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Who could have envisioned this eight weeks ago?

The Detroit Lions in first place without Barry Sanders.

The St. Louis Rams in first place without Trent Green.

The Kansas City Chiefs in first place without Marty Schottenheimer.

The Washington Redskins in first place with Norv Turner.

Anything goes this year. In one of the NFL's strangest seasons, only the AFC East and AFC Central have held relative form through the first two months.

And that is stretching it because the New York Jets were expected to contend for the Super Bowl out of the East before they lost Vinny Testaverde and collapsed.

Here is a look at the playoff picture as the season nears the midway point:

AFC EAST: The Miami Dolphins (6-1) and New England Patriots (6-2) moved to the top of the division because they are running the ball with success. The surprising Indianapolis Colts (5-2) are one controversial officiating call (in a loss to Miami) away from first place. The Buffalo Bills are borderline because their offense has hit the skids.

AFC CENTRAL: The Tennessee Titans (6-1), with a major contribution from fill-in quarterback Neil O'Donnell, are pushing the favored Jacksonville Jaguars (6-1). The big question is whether reinstated Steve McNair can match O'Donnell's passing game with the Titans. The Pittsburgh Steelers could make the playoffs but are no threat.

AFC WEST: Kansas City (5-2) is playing smash-mouth football again behind new coach Gunther Cunningham. The Chiefs aren't pretty, but they are efficient with their defense and running game. The Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders are flawed, but no more than Kansas City. Forget the San Diego Chargers.

NFC EAST: Quarterback Brad Johnson has made a huge difference in Washington (5-2) in a trade that looks better all the time. The Redskins can win this weak division even without defense. The New York Giants, with a quarterback crisis, and the Dallas Cowboys, with injuries, are borderline.

NFC CENTRAL: After a rough start and a change of quarterbacks, the Minnesota Vikings (4-4) appear to be the best team in the division and still could win this watered-down conference. The Lions (5-2) have gotten a masterful coaching job from Bobby Ross, playing without Sanders and wide receiver Herman Moore. The Green Bay Packers still have Brett Favre but are more vulnerable after a major roster turnover. If Tampa Bay had a quarterback to go with that defense, the Buccaneers could take it all.

NFC WEST: After St. Louis (6-1), who is there? And if quarterback Kurt Warner takes the Rams to the Super Bowl, does Green get his starting job back next year?

Road wimps

If the Cowboys are going to remain in the NFC playoff hunt, they're going to have to change a recent trend. Counting Sunday's loss in Indianapolis and going back to the 1997 season opener at Pittsburgh, they have lost eight straight games to nondivision opponents on the road.

Coach Chan Gailey has yet to beat a nondivision team on the road in his two seasons, and the Cowboys are 6-11 outside the division -- home or away -- since 1997.

They have three road games against nondivision teams left on the schedule.

Down but not out

Comebacks are the rage in the NFL this season. There were four more reversals of double-digit deficits in Week 8. The Giants and the Colts came from 14 points down in the first half to beat the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas, respectively.

The Vikings trailed the Denver Broncos 12-0 in the first quarter, then rallied for a 23-20 win. And the Bills spotted the Ravens 10 points before pulling out a 13-10 victory.

In each instance Sunday, the better team won. But what is fueling the run of big rallies is inferior quarterback play, key injuries and the inability of the running game and/or defense to protect leads. This year, no lead is safe.

Bungling Bengals

Then, of course, there are the Cincinnati Bengals, the exception to the comeback rule. The 1-7 Bengals are one loss away from assuring their ninth consecutive nonwinning season. They will almost certainly get it at Seattle on Sunday.

They need four more losses to eclipse the Buccaneers' record for futility in a decade -- 106 losses in the 1980s. Cincinnati is 49-103 this decade.

How bad are the Bengals? Six times in eight games, their offense has failed to score more than 10 points. Five times, their defense has allowed more than 30.

By the numbers

The Colts lead the AFC in scoring with 198 points and are third overall behind the Redskins (242) and Rams (238). The AFC won four of five games against the NFC on Sunday. Quarterbacks who ran the ball five or more times went 4-1, led by the Titans' McNair, who gained 36 yards on 12 carries. Buffalo's Doug Flutie was the top ground-gainer with 50 yards on eight carries. Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell's record of 21-8 in the AFC Central is the best division record of any active quarterback. The New Orleans Saints have been outscored 58-11 in the fourth quarter, and since their 3-0 start in 1998, have lost 16 of 20 games.

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