As races heat up, some will be left in the cold

December 06, 2004|By KEN MURRAY

THE NFL'S HOMESTRETCH arrived yesterday with December's chill winds and another blast of arctic offense.

New England 42, Cleveland 15.

Philadelphia 47, Green Bay 17.

Indianapolis 51, Tennessee 24.

OK, so Indianapolis played indoors, but Peyton Manning's passing game absolutely turned the Titans to ice.

The chasm between the NFL's haves and have-nots rarely has been bigger than in Week 13, when the Patriots, Eagles and Colts all presented their best playoff faces and dared the Browns, Packers and Titans to do anything about it.

The Patriots have played with a wide receiver at cornerback, a linebacker at safety, and an uncommon locker room chemistry that makes them the team to beat in the AFC, Pittsburgh's terrific season notwithstanding.

The Colts are averaging 45.5 points a game over their past four outings. They don't have to play defense if the offense can put up that kind of production in the crucible of the playoffs.

As for the Eagles, their domination of the NFC is so complete and yesterday's results so revealing, that there is little doubt Philadelphia finally will get over its championship game hurdle. What the Eagles do in the Super Bowl is another story, but at least they should get there.

That said, the AFC playoffs look as tantalizingly unpredictable as the NFC looks ploddingly dull. Here's a drive-through of the teams with Super Bowl aspirations and what might stop them.

AFC

New England Patriots

Why they can win: They have the best coach in Bill Belichick, the best big-game quarterback in Tom Brady and the most resourceful defense.

Why they might not: Only an injury to Brady, or a perfect game from the Colts' Manning can stop them. The one-dimensional Steelers do not seem to pose the biggest threat at this point.

Indianapolis Colts

Why they can win: No team can totally shut down Manning's quicksilver corps of receivers. And if the Patriots, say, do hold Manning under control, how do they handle running back Edgerrin James, who has given them fits in the past?

Why they might not: Manning had his worst game against the Patriots a year ago, throwing four interceptions and getting sacked four times. He could get nervous again.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Why they can win: Because coach Bill Cowher has restored their trademark style of play - fierce defense, punishing running game. The double barrel of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis requires eight defenders at the line of scrimmage and even then will be tough to stop.

Why they might not: Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has cooled a lot since his awesome start. The Steelers cannot afford to fall behind because they have had increasing trouble protecting the quarterback.

San Diego Chargers

Why they can win: They are following the Carolina Panthers' blueprint, rising from the ashes. Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson give them offensive balance, and the defense is physically tough.

Why they might not: As nice as this success story has been, the Chargers look like a team that could be taken apart in a big-game atmosphere. Brees had his two worst games against the Chargers' top division rival, the Denver Broncos.

New York Jets

Why they can win: If they can survive their finishing schedule - which includes a trip to Pittsburgh and a home date with New England - and still take the top wild-card spot, they are up for anything.

Why they might not: Some day, running back Curtis Martin might play like his age (31) or quarterback Chad Pennington might get hurt again.

Others

The Broncos can't win big games with quarterback Jake Plummer - he made some brutally bad decisions in a 20-17 loss at San Diego - and the Ravens can't win strictly on defense any longer. Baltimore's fourth-quarter collapse against Cincinnati was scary for its implications.

NFC

Philadelphia Eagles

Why they can win: Because in the NFC, there are no serious challengers. In nine games against conference teams this season, the Eagles have outscored them, 288-113. That works out to almost a 20-point victory margin per game. Since 2000, the Eagles are 46-12 against NFC teams.

Why they might not: Only if they have to convert fourth-and-26 against the Packers again are they in trouble.

Atlanta Falcons

Why they can win: Quarterback Michael Vick could get hot, and then this is an interesting team.

Why they might not: They've only played two teams with a winning record. Although they've beaten both the Chargers and Broncos, losses to Kansas City (56-10) and Tampa Bay (27-0) should be cause for alarm. Or surrender.

Green Bay Packers

Why they can win: They still have Brett Favre at quarterback.

Why they might not: Did you see yesterday's game in Philadelphia?

Others

The Seattle Seahawks aren't tough enough, the Minnesota Vikings couldn't beat Chicago quarterback Chad Hutchinson in his first start for the Bears, and the St. Louis Rams might have to have 39-year-old Chris Chandler throwing passes. Scratch those teams.

It would be an incredible long-shot for them just to make the playoffs, but the 5-7 Carolina Panthers, with a four-game winning streak, might be playing better than anyone in the NFC except the Eagles.

It's a frightful thought.

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