Where 8-8 means playoffs, Cowboys are Exhibit No. 1

Week 16 In Review

December 28, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In any tiebreaking scenario the Dallas Cowboys face next week, this list ought to be incorporated into the equation: Doug Pederson, Kent Graham, Dave Brown, Ray Lucas, Jake Delhomme.

That modest collection of journeyman/backup quarterbacks accounted for five of Dallas' eight losses this season. Hard as the Cowboys have tried, they're not able to shake the 1999 playoffs.

Coming off a frightful 31-24 loss to Delhomme's New Orleans Saints and despite a 7-8 record, the Cowboys remain the front-runner for the NFC's final playoff berth into Week 17.

Also contending are the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, all 7-8.

To advance, the Cowboys have only to beat the Giants -- and erratic quarterback Kerry Collins -- at Texas Stadium, where they're 6-1 this year. Dallas owns tiebreakers over the Packers (head-to-head) and Panthers (conference record).

Whichever team emerges will be the NFL's first 8-8 playoff team since the 1991 New York Jets. Only three 8-8 teams have made the playoffs since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

The Saints also did it in 1990, and the Cleveland Browns won the AFC Central with an 8-8 mark in 1985. All three 8-8 teams were beaten in their first game. Here's how this year's race to 8-8 stacks up: Giants: They're in if they beat Dallas and Green Bay loses at home to the Arizona Cardinals. They win the tiebreaker over Carolina for record against common opponents.

Packers: They go if they beat Arizona and the Giants knock off Dallas. They edge the Giants on net conference points.

Panthers: In addition to beating New Orleans, they need an unlikely tie between Dallas and New York. Carolina has a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Packers.

The Cowboys are only 4-8 since Oct. 3, and they're no lock against the Giants. They have lost three times to Collins.

Quarterback carousel

If Mike Ditka retains his job as coach of the Saints, the first thing he has to find is a quarterback. Delhomme last week became the seventh quarterback to start for the Saints in Ditka's three seasons in New Orleans. The others are Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver, Danny Wuerffel, Collins, Heath Shuler and Doug Nussmeier.

In 37 regular-season games, Ditka has changed quarterbacks 13 times, either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

Target practice

With a franchise-record 495 points, the St. Louis Rams only need a touchdown in Philadelphia on Sunday to become the sixth team in NFL history to score 500 points in a season. It would take a 62-point binge, however, to topple the league's single-season scoring mark of 556 points set by the Minnesota Vikings a year ago.

Running to darkness

The NFL is becoming more of a passing league all the time, as Week 16 showed. A total of seven teams through 14 games, excluding Monday night's game, averaged less than 3 yards a carry. The Packers averaged 1.0 on 12 yards in a loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs, and the Oakland Raiders averaged 1.9 in a loss to the San Diego Chargers.

The Saints (2.1), Seattle Seahawks (2.1), Chargers (2.3), Detroit Lions (2.7) and Giants (2.8) also failed to crack the 3-yard barrier. It's to the point that teams don't bother trying to run. The Packers and Lions ran the ball only 12 times each.

Patchwork performance

Then there were the Browns. Cleveland had to replace three injured starters in the offensive line, moved a fourth to a new position and ran for a season-high 141 yards and three touchdowns against the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts. The Browns' patchwork line did not allow a sack for the first time all season, after allowing 22 in the previous four games.

Crushing the NFC

When the Denver Broncos upset the Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers clipped Carolina last week, it raised the AFC's interconference lead over the NFC to 37-21 this year. The NFC's only interconference victory the past two weeks -- out of nine games -- was the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 15 upset of the New England Patriots.

An all-purpose receiver

One of the better wide receivers in this year's free-agent market figures to be unheralded Bobby Engram, whose 85 catches lead the Chicago Bears. He had 13 on Sunday, tying Ditka for the second-best receiving day in Bears history. Engram's 13 receptions were good for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He also made two tackles after interceptions and forced a fumble.

Engram has largely been overlooked because of the spectacular play of wide-out Marcus Robinson.

Scattershooting

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