NFL playoff picture falls half into focus

Rams lead NFC seeds

Seahawks, Jets win, leave AFC a bit fuzzy

January 07, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears secured the NFC's top two seeds in a predictable regular-season finish yesterday, while drama and suspense dominated the AFC seedings.

Victories by the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks forced the Ravens into the position of having to beat the Minnesota Vikings tonight to fill the final playoff vacancy in the AFC.

Most issues, however, were resolved yesterday.

Home-field advantage in the NFC went to St. Louis with a 31-13 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.

The AFC East title went to the New England Patriots with a 38-6 demolition of Carolina, and the NFC Central title went to the Bears with their 33-13 win over Jacksonville. Both victors earned first-round byes in the process.

Perhaps the most attractive game of next week's wild-card round will send the NFC's fifth-seeded San Francisco 49ers to Green Bay to play the No. 4 Packers in a matchup of 12-4 teams on Sunday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will visit the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday in the other NFC wild-card offering.

The only certainty in the AFC wild-card round is that the Miami Dolphins will be host to one of the games. With a 34-7 win over Buffalo, the Dolphins earned the No. 4 seed, which has produced three of the past four conference champions.

If the Ravens (9-6) win tonight, they eliminate the Seahawks (9-7) and will travel to Miami as the AFC's No. 5 seed. In that scenario, the sixth-seeded Jets (10-6) would return to Oakland for the second straight week to play the Raiders.

If the Ravens lose, however, the Jets get the fifth seed and travel to Miami, and the Seahawks visit Oakland as the sixth seed.

The Jets' 24-22 upset of the Raiders knocked Oakland (10-6) out of a badly needed bye and into the wild-card round. The Raiders have lost three straight games for the first time since 1998, and are 2-4 in their past six games. They appear to be the most vulnerable team in the playoffs.

The Rams and the Patriots (11-5) enter the playoffs with the most momentum and matching six-game winning streaks. After Chicago's victory over Jacksonville, St. Louis had to beat Atlanta to gain the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage with a league-best record of 14-2.

The Patriots won their first division title since 1997 with a strong second-half performance in Carolina that sent the Panthers to their 15th consecutive loss this season, a league record.

Chicago's division title was its first since 1990, and its playoff appearance is its first since 1994.

Last-place teams a year ago, the Bears and Patriots both followed a recent trend of worst-to-first. The 2000 New Orleans Saints and the 1999 Rams and Indianapolis Colts all followed that formula, but only the Rams reached the Super Bowl, which they also won.

Among individual highlights yesterday, former Ravens running back Priest Holmes of the Kansas City Chiefs won the league's rushing title (1,555 yards) and Rams quarterback Kurt Warner finished the regular season with 4,830 passing yards. Warner's total is the second highest in NFL history to Dan Marino's 5,084 in 1984.

Then there was the continuing saga of Seattle's Trent Dilfer. Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens to last season's Super Bowl victory, won his 15th consecutive start, leading the Seahawks past the Chiefs, 21-18. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

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