Winning slows down for NFC's fast starters as stretch run looms

Hot early, 4 teams hit wall, now chase Eagles, Rams

NFL Week 14 in review

December 09, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFC playoff race looks like a demolition derby this year. Except for the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams, the wheels are coming off several contenders.

The Carolina Panthers, who once held the No. 1 seed in the conference, have lost three games in a row. The Dallas Cowboys have lost three of four. The Seattle Seahawks can't win on the road, where they've lost five of six.

And the Minnesota Vikings, the last team to lose a game in the NFC, are 2-5 since starting 6-0.

If the playoffs started today, all four of those reeling teams would be in the postseason, chasing the Eagles and Rams.

This isn't a race, it's a runaway.

Week 14 showed how shallow the NFC field really is. On Sunday, the Eagles beat the Cowboys by 26 points, the Vikings beat the Seahawks by 27, and the bedraggled Atlanta Falcons beat the Panthers in overtime.

If the implosion continues, either the Green Bay Packers (7-6) or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) still might make the postseason.

Even after his Cowboys were thumped in Philadelphia, 36-10, coach Bill Parcells wasn't ready to call the Eagles the team to beat in the conference.

"I don't know that," he said. "I haven't seen them all. I think they're good. I think they're a solid club, I really do."

If the Eagles are solid, the Cowboys must be liquid. At least their game plan appeared to be.

Parcells made a major concession going in that the only way the Cowboys could stay with the Eagles was by running the ball. Never mind that the Cowboys haven't run the ball very well this season, or that they possibly have the best trio of wide receivers in the league.

Parcells later said this strategy had nothing to do with quarterback Quincy Carter, who has thrown nine interceptions in his past four games. On the first of his two interceptions Sunday, Carter tried to force a sideline pass in to Terry Glenn, but couldn't get it past cornerback Sheldon Brown.

"I should have thrown the ball away," he said.

The Eagles blanked Dallas' trio of Glenn, Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant. In one of the most curious aspects of the game, it was hard to decide who contributed more to that circumstance - Parcells or the Eagles.

Meanwhile, the Eagles raked the NFL's then-No. 1 defense for 403 total yards and 10 plays of 20 or more yards. It didn't say much for the Cowboys' ranking or their imminent playoff future.

Carolina (8-5) still holds a two-game lead in the NFC South with three to play, despite its loss. It would need a colossal collapse for the Panthers to miss out, considering their final three opponents are a combined 11-28. But then the Falcons were 2-10 coming into Sunday's game.

The trouble signs are a sluggish running game, an impotent passing attack and a vulnerability to mobile quarterbacks. After pounding for six 100-yard rushing games in the first half of the season, Stephen Davis has produced just one in his past five games. He's the player who got the Panthers to 5-1 to start with.

Carolina is probably a year away from being a legitimate contender.

In Minnesota, Seattle's secondary was torched by quarterback Daunte Culpepper and wide receiver Randy Moss in the Vikings' 34-7 romp. Moss had 133 yards on eight receptions, including touchdowns of 47 and 45 yards.

Two weeks after the Seahawks blew a 17-point lead with seven minutes left in Baltimore, they couldn't even stay with the struggling Vikings.

That doesn't bode well for the Seahawks if they do sneak into the playoffs. In the new four-division format, wild-card teams have been devalued because unlike past years, no wild-card team gets a home game. And none of the four wild-card teams got past the second round last year.

In the NFC this year, wild cards are a moot point, anyway.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 14:

Best case of "what if": Falcons. With QB Michael Vick, this is an entirely different team, as it demonstrated in an overtime win against Carolina. Had Vick been healthy all year, Atlanta would have playoff fever and Dan Reeves would be secure as the coach.

Worst no-show: Seahawks. That Seattle, with a reasonably good offense, can be held to one touchdown by the sieve-like Minnesota defense is shocking and not worthy of a playoff berth.

Best statement game: Eagles. After losing to Dallas in Week 6, the Eagles showed convincingly that it was a fluke by drilling the Cowboys and taking control of the NFC East.

Worst statement game: Dolphins. They can still make the playoffs, but nothing's really changed for Miami this year, and that's bad news for Dave Wannstedt.

Best crowd: Philadelphia. Some 69,773 fans showed up at Lincoln Financial Field in sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds to watch the Eagles dismantle their most hated enemy.

Worst crowd: New York. Giants Stadium was little more than a wind tunnel for the Giants-Redskins game, with the wind whistling through the empty seats.

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