Winning look eludes playoff contenders

Broncos, Seahawks suffer costly losses

Panthers lacking in passing game

November 25, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The harder you look at Week 12, the more warning signs you find for potential playoff teams. Those flares range from the obvious (Carolina can't pass) to the subtle (Kansas City is too dependent on turnovers).

On a day when four teams wiped out double-digit deficits to win, the NFL continued to weed out pretenders.

Count the Seattle Seahawks, after another bad road loss, and the Denver Broncos, with an equally dreadful loss at home, among them.

For all the notice they've gained for turning around the franchise, the Cincinnati Bengals showed they haven't arrived just yet - barely holding off the San Diego Chargers, a team left for dead.

And the Miami Dolphins needed fourth-quarter heroics from quarterback Jay Fiedler to defeat the Washington Redskins. The underachieving Dolphins haven't beaten a good team convincingly yet this year.

Just before the stretch run, here are some teams that either could be vulnerable or are in trouble now.

AFC

Kansas City clearly is the class of the league at 10-1, but even the Chiefs have demonstrated vulnerability. They steamrollered teams in their 9-0 run to start the season, collecting 29 turnovers along the way.

In the past two weeks, when they didn't get any turnovers, they lost in Cincinnati and struggled to put away Oakland. They averaged 31.9 points for those first nine games, and a not-so-imposing 23 points the past two games.

Will it make a difference? In the playoffs, it might.

The Broncos' season took a turn for the worse last week, when one of their high-priced defensive players was suspended and went off on coach Mike Shanahan on the radio. Denver followed up defensive tackle Daryl Gardener's ranting with a 19-10 loss to the lowly Chicago Bears.

That drops the Broncos into the gray area with five weeks left. At 6-5, the Broncos have to play the Chiefs again and finish the regular season on the road in Indianapolis and Green Bay. If they can't beat the Bears at home, what are their chances on the road against good teams?

Gardener was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team last week, and didn't accept his punishment very well. He promises to be yet another free-agent bust for the Broncos.

Given that Tennessee or Indianapolis will claim one of the AFC's two wild-card spots, the Broncos are scrambling with the Dolphins and Ravens or Bengals for the last berth.

Of those teams, the Ravens have the softest remaining schedule (one winning team, two road games) and the Dolphins the hardest (three winning teams, three road trips). The Bengals have tough trips to Pittsburgh and Baltimore the next two weeks.

NFC

Dallas' 24-20 win over the Carolina Panthers moved the Cowboys into position for the top seed in the conference, but they've got a hot Philadelphia team breathing down their necks.

The Cowboys have a very win-able Thanksgiving matchup with Miami, then travel to Philadelphia in Week 14 to face the Eagles. That should decide the NFC East, with the loser getting a wild-card berth.

The Panthers, meanwhile, struggled again when they put the game in quarterback Jake Delhomme's hands. Delhomme completed only nine of 24 passes with one interception.

Although the Panthers should win the NFC South, they'll need a viable passing game to reach the Super Bowl.

Seattle's crushing overtime loss to the Ravens cost them the NFC West lead. The Seahawks are 1-4 away from home and have three road games remaining, including Minnesota and St .Louis.

Blowing a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes resulted in a loss that could, and probably will, come back to haunt them.

St. Louis is a Jekyll-Hyde team. The Rams are ferocious at home, but out of their dome, they're a lukewarm 3-3. On Sunday, they struggled to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the desert. Worse, the performance of quarterback Marc Bulger has fallen off sharply. Kurt Warner may yet be called upon to save the season.

Minnesota is trying to outlast Green Bay in the NFC North. The Packers have the softer schedule but an injured quarterback. Their passing game has gone on the rocks since Brett Favre suffered a hairline fracture of his right thumb.

Should Favre hold up, the Packers very well could pass the Vikings.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 12:

Biggest upset: Bears over Broncos. If you're a playoff-caliber team, you don't lose to the Bears at home. Or away.

Biggest collapse: Seahawks. Leading the Ravens by 17 points with seven minutes left, the Seahawks sputtered to an overtime loss.

Best individual comeback: WR Marcus Robinson, Ravens. He had three touchdowns all last season, none this year, and scored four against Seattle.

Worst fit of ego: PR Phillip Buchanon, Raiders. His 27-yard punt return seemed to set up the Raiders for a go-ahead touchdown against the Chiefs. But his 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for yanking off his helmet pushed them back to field-goal range in what became a loss.

Best momentum changer: Ed Reed, Ravens. His fourth career blocked punt - and third TD - triggered his team's fourth-quarter comeback. Can anyone stop him?

Worst overcoaching: Mike Shanahan, Broncos. His best runner, Clinton Portis, gouged the Bears for 165 yards, but Shanahan gave him only 14 carries in brutally cold Colorado weather and called 38 passes.

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