Road now tougher for Colts, Eagles in playoffs

Dismal Sunday losses costly in home-field race

Pro Football

NFL Week 16 in review

December 23, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

If they were fighting to play at home in January, the Philadelphia Eagles were unconvincing.

If they hungered for a first-round bye, the Indianapolis Colts looked a little too content with a mere playoff berth.

Poised for a big step forward, the Eagles and Colts took a giant step back this weekend. Philadelphia dropped an ugly 31-28 overtime decision at home to the San Francisco 49ers and ceded the NFC's No. 1 seed to the St. Louis Rams.

Indianapolis couldn't hang with a Denver Broncos team minus its best player, and the 31-17 loss cost the Colts any chance of a week off when the playoffs start Jan. 3-4.

So went Week 16, when the NFL's playoff deck was shuffled and reshuffled. The Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans are officially in. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins are officially out.

The prospective Super Bowl between New England and Philadelphia now looks more like a rematch between the Patriots and Rams, who delivered one of the league's most dramatic finishes two years ago.

But in another unpredictable season, almost anything still could happen.

Home-field advantage in either conference won't be decided until Week 17. The Patriots can claim the honor in the AFC by beating the bedraggled Buffalo Bills on Saturday in Foxboro, Mass.

The Eagles will try to keep their home-field hopes alive in the NFC on Saturday night in Landover against the befuddled Redskins. But the NFC issue probably won't be decided until St. Louis plays in Detroit the next day. A Rams victory over the Lions assures them of playing in the Edward Jones Dome for as long as they last in the postseason.

Home field is big in New England, where the Patriots are 7-0 this season, and St. Louis, where the Rams are 8-0. The Kansas City Chiefs (7-0) and the Seattle Seahawks (8-0) - are also unbeaten at home.

If there's a team that could survive a trip into St. Louis, though, it might be the Eagles, who have played better on the road (6-1) than in plush, new Lincoln Financial Field (5-3). They narrowly lost in St. Louis in the NFC's 2001 championship game, 29-24.

Having reached the championship game each of the past two seasons, the Eagles were undone by Donovan McNabb interceptions both times.

A festering problem - run defense - finally caught up with the Eagles on Sunday against the 49ers. Kevan Barlow became the seventh running back to rush for 100 yards (154) against the Eagles this year, and the 49ers exploited the obvious weakness with 41 carries.

Worse yet for the Eagles, they lost linebacker Carlos Emmons, perhaps their most consistent defender, to a fractured fibula that requires surgery. Coach Andy Reid said special teams ace Ike Reese will replace Emmons, but clearly a weak run defense is now more vulnerable.

Likewise, the Broncos exposed a weakness in Indianapolis when they ran 54 times against the Colts and controlled the clock for an incredible 44:58. That demonstrated the best way yet to stop Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who got off only 23 passes.

It also put the Broncos in the postseason and on track for a return to Indianapolis for the wild-card round.

The losses by the Eagles and Colts left the door open for the Cowboys and Titans in the race for the NFC East and AFC South Division titles. The Cowboys win the division if they finish in a tie with the Eagles. The Titans (11-4), swept by the Colts (11-4), would have to finish with a better record.

Two other races will be decided next week as well. The Ravens clinch the AFC North by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Minnesota Vikings can wrap up the NFC North by beating the Arizona Cardinals.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 16:

Best enterprise: Saints. A wild, three-lateral, 75-yard pass play that started with Donte' Stallworth and ended with Jerome Pathon diving into the end zone was worthy of being a game-winning play against the Jaguars. It wasn't, however, because ...

Worst finish: Saints. John Carney's wide right push on the extra point left New Orleans one point shy.

Best timing: GM Rich McKay, Falcons. Leaving Tampa for Atlanta last week, McKay watched his new team eliminate his old team from the playoffs with a 30-28 win. Not only that, but McKay suggested a deep pass on the right side of the Bucs defense; the play went for 49 yards to Peerless Price.

Worst pass: Joe Namath. The retired Hall of Fame Jets quarterback was lecherous in his rambling sideline comments to ESPN's Suzy Kolber, telling her twice he wanted to kiss her.

Biggest flops: Colts and Chiefs. With a shot at a first-round bye, the Colts were dominated by the Broncos at home. The Chiefs, also playing for that first-round bye, were equally helpless in Minnesota.

Biggest purchase: Jamal Lewis, Ravens. Punching out 500 rushing yards in two games against the Browns, Lewis now owns Cleveland.-

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