A day after home-field advantage in the NFC fell into their laps, the Green Bay Packers gave it right back to the Philadelphia Eagles.
A dreadful 42-17 loss to the New York Jets yesterday proved doubly painful for the Packers. It not only cost them the chance to play twice at Lambeau Field, where they have never lost a playoff game, but it also deprived them of a first-round bye.
Bumped to the No. 3 seed by Tampa Bay's 15-0 victory over Chicago last night, the Packers (12-4) will face the Atlanta Falcons (9-6-1) in wild-card weekend.
That was one of several surprises that came out of Week 17, when the NFL's ponderous list of scenarios finally reduced the playoff field to 12 hopefuls.
In: The Jets with a division title and the Cleveland Browns with a wild-card handout.
Out: The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the primed Miami Dolphins and the sagging New Orleans Saints.
The Dolphins blew a two-touchdown lead in Foxboro, Mass., but even the Patriots' 27-24 overtime victory wasn't enough to get them past the Browns. This will be Cleveland's first postseason appearance since 1994, when Art Modell still owned the club.
The Saints led the NFC in scoring, but three straight losses to Minnesota, Cincinnati and Carolina left their promise unfulfilled. Their fate was well deserved.
The Eagles (12-4) were able to reclaim home-field advantage despite their 10-7 overtime loss on Saturday to the New York Giants. The top seed in the NFC has reached the Super Bowl the past three years, seven of the past nine and eight of the past 11. No team seeded lower than second in the NFC has reached the Super Bowl since the Washington Redskins (third seed) in the 1987 strike season.
It's another story in the AFC, where the Oakland Raiders (11-5) hold home-field advantage for the second time in three seasons. There, the No. 1 seed has advanced to the Super Bowl only once in the past eight years (Denver, 1998).
Three of the four wild-card games next week will be rematches, including both NFC games. Green Bay needed overtime to beat Atlanta, 37-34, at home in Week 1, and that was before the Michael Vick phenomenon got started. The sixth-seeded Falcons lost in Cleveland yesterday, 24-16, with some curious coaching strategy at the 4-yard line, but they backed into the playoffs when the Saints lost as well.
The fifth-seeded Giants will travel to San Francisco (No. 4 seed) in a rematch of their Week 1 contest, won by the 49ers, 16-13. The Giants held Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens to four catches and 41 yards in that game.
In the AFC, the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers will try to beat the sixth-seeded Browns for the third time this season. Quarterback Tommy Maddox pulled out a 16-13 win in Week 4 for the Steelers at home in relief of Kordell Stewart. The Steelers also won in Cleveland in Week 9, 23-20.
Kelly Holcomb, a veteran backup in his seventh season, will replace injured Tim Couch (broken right leg) at quarterback for the Browns. Holcomb started the first two games of the season when Couch had an arm injury and went 1-1.
The other wild-card game sends the fifth-seeded Indianapolis Colts to the Meadowlands to play the fourth-seeded Jets, who loom as one of the more dangerous teams in this year's tourney.
Since starting the year 1-4, the Jets have gone 8-3, all of the victories with Chad Pennington at quarterback.
Another dangerous team figures to be the Tennessee Titans, seeded second in the AFC, who have won five in a row and 10 of their past 11.
In the NFC, the Giants have won four in a row and seven of nine since coach Jim Fassel assumed play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Sean Payton.
There is also uncertainty at quarterback in these playoffs. Both the Eagles and Buccaneers are hopeful of getting starters back for the Jan. 11-12 divisional round.
But Eagles coach Andy Reid reiterated yesterday that he will not put Donovan McNabb at risk in the postseason. McNabb broke his right ankle Nov. 17, and the Eagles have gone 5-1 without him.
A decision on McNabb's availability probably won't come until next week, after he's had a chance to test his ankle.
The Bucs, meanwhile, are hoping the extra week will allow Brad Johnson to return from a back injury. Rob Johnson started last night.