Good news for last year's losers sitting at 2-0


THE REVOLVING door that spits out new playoff teams every year in the NFL already is cranking toward some 2004 surprises.

Six teams emerged yesterday's action with 2-0 records. Either the Minnesota Vikings or Philadelphia Eagles will join them tonight as a seventh team.

Why does something seemingly so insignificant matter now? History tells us that this fits nicely in a recent trend.

Last season, five of the eight teams that started 2-0 made the playoffs, and Carolina went all the way to the Super Bowl.

Here's why this might be worth remembering: Four teams sitting at 2-0 today had losing records last season. The Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons all went 5-11 a year ago. The New York Jets went 6-10.

More than likely, at least one team - and maybe more - in that group is headed to the postseason. Based on early returns and strength of their divisions, this is our ranking of which teams have the best shot to break into the postseason.

1. Atlanta: The Falcons are in one of the toughest divisions, the NFC South, with defending NFC champion Carolina. But the Panthers have a very difficult schedule and already are taking on key injuries to players like Steve Smith, Stephen Davis and Kris Jenkins. That opens the door for at least a wild-card run because New Orleans looks disinterested and Tampa Bay looks incapable of mounting a serious run this year.

2. Detroit: The Lions' chances rest with passing the Vikings or the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. As good as the Packers looked in the first Monday night, they looked that bad losing to Chicago at home. The Vikings are predictably inconsistent, having folded down the stretch last year. The addition of wide receiver Roy Williams gives the Lions a legitimate offensive threat they've lacked.

3. New York: If the Jets can tighten up their defense - a very big "if" - they could slide into a wild-card spot in the AFC. It's unlikely they can beat out the New England Patriots in the AFC East, but neither the AFC West nor AFC North appears strong enough to produce a wild-card contender.

4. Jacksonville: The opportunistic Jaguars have gotten the most out of very little offense the first two weeks. They'll find out how realistic the postseason is in the next two weeks when they travel to Tennessee and face Indianapolis at home.

Colts hang tough

The Seattle Seahawks will play six of their first nine games this season on the road, but the hardest opening schedule in the NFL belongs to Indianapolis.

The Colts came out of back-to-back road trips to New England and Tennessee with a 1-1 record. Had it not been for red zone turnovers a week ago, they might easily have been 2-0 after dispatching the Titans, 31-17, yesterday.

Next week they get the Packers in their home opener. Then the Colts hit the road again with a trip to Jacksonville.

If the Colts can come away from Jacksonville with a 3-1 record, they are in position to challenge for home-field advantage in the AFC. They're chasing the Patriots right now.

Despite their often-vulnerable run defense and a suspect secondary, the Colts remain one of the toughest teams in the league. Under coach Tony Dungy, they have gone 26 games without consecutive losses.

Of course, they also have their wonderfully diverse offense. What makes them so dangerous is the running of Edgerrin James, now fully recovered from knee surgery. Minus his opening-night fumbles, James pounded the Titans for 124 rushing yards. It was his 34th 100-yard rushing effort in 67 career games.

That makes quarterback Peyton Manning's play-action fakes so much more effective that defenses can't overload any area against the Colts. And that's trouble.

It's Simms' time

Tampa Bay's 10-6 loss to the Seahawks was noteworthy for two reasons.

First, Bucs coach Jon Gruden had a quick hook on veteran quarterback Brad Johnson. Gruden replaced him after seven passes with a 10-0 deficit in the second quarter.

Chris Simms, who was the Bucs' third quarterback a week ago, finished the game and played reasonably well (21-for-32 for 175 yards).

That development lends credence to speculation that Gruden wanted to replace Johnson in the offseason, possibly with Oakland's Rich Gannon had he been released. It would not be surprising if the Bucs, in a rebuilding mode, turn to Simms next week.

The second point of interest in Tampa was the Bucs' two-minute drive. It was aided by a hands-to-the-face penalty against Seattle's Chike Okeafor, a pass interference call against Grant Wistrom and a roughing-the-passer flag against Okeafor that wiped out a drive-killing interception.

Somehow, the Seahawks escaped when Simms, tripped by Wistrom, threw another interception as he was falling. The replay official checked to see if Simms' knee was down before the pass got off, but the tape was inconclusive.

A year ago, Seattle would have imploded in that situation and lost.

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