Playoff pretenders have short January shelf life


December 20, 2004|By KEN MURRAY

THE MEEK MAY inherit the earth one day, but the weak will never dominate the NFL playoffs. To wit:

Does anybody outside of Denver really want to see the Broncos in the postseason tournament after they lost by four touchdowns in Kansas City?

Can anyone take even another hour of Mike Holmgren's terminally soft Seattle Seahawks, who showed they have no heart for the playoffs in a 37-14 loss to the New York Jets at the Meadowlands?

Why would anyone believe the Minnesota Vikings could actually beat a good team in a game that counts? They escaped Detroit yesterday with a 28-27 win when the Lions botched a point-after-touchdown kick in the final eight seconds.

The Vikings have beaten only one team with a winning record this season and still have a good shot at winning the NFC North with a win on Friday against the Green Bay Packers.

If this were a reality TV series, the Broncos, Seahawks and Vikings all would be voted off the playoff island immediately. Unfortunately - in this case - it's not, so they stay for now.

Just as December reveals all weaknesses, Week 15's exotic twists - there was snow, bitter cold, scary injuries and three more clinchings - shed new light on who will play in January and who shouldn't.

The San Diego Chargers are in as AFC West champions after a throwback 21-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns in an Ohio snowstorm. Last year's doormats at 4-12, the Chargers played Marty (Schottenheimer) Ball in the snow, throwing only six times.

It is the Chargers' first playoff berth since 1995, their first division title since 1994 and their first shutout since 1993.

The Packers are in, despite their 28-25 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in sub-freezing temperatures at Lambeau Field. Losses by the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears made the Packers the ninth team to reach the postseason after starting 1-4.

The Philadelphia Eagles, meanwhile, clinched home-field advantage - as if that helped them the past two seasons - with an afterthought 12-7 triumph over the Dallas Cowboys.

Afterthought because once wide receiver Terrell Owens clutched at his right leg in pain early in the second half, the Eagles' perspective on the impending playoffs changed drastically. The bottom line is that Owens sprained his right ankle when he was dragged down by Cowboys safety Roy Williams after a catch, his leg folding underneath him.

It was only last year that a torn triceps robbed the Eagles of another playmaker, running back Brian Westbrook, and undermined their postseason run. Will history repeat? Probably not. The NFC is so weak, the Eagles still should cruise to the Super Bowl even without Owens. Early indications are that the injury is not serious. But it bears watching.

The day's worst injury came later, though. When Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius clotheslined Robert Ferguson, the Packers receiver had to be carried off the field on a gurney with head and neck injuries.

Darius was ejected. He almost certainly will be fined and should be suspended.

The Packers-Jaguars game was brimming with the bizarre. Quarterbacks Brett Favre and Byron Leftwich both injured their left (non-throwing) wrists within minutes of each other. Both gritted it out in the bitter cold.

Unlike the Broncos, the Jaguars are deserving of an AFC playoff berth, Darius' cheap shot notwithstanding. Leftwich threw for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Fred Taylor pounded out 165 yards to help the Jaguars overcome the most bizarre play of the day.

That was a 15-yard touchdown return of a fumble by Green Bay's Darren Sharper. A blindside hit in the pocket caused Leftwich to propel the ball forward in what at first appeared to be an incomplete pass. But when Jaguars guard Vince Manuwai retrieved the errant ball, Sharper knocked it from his grasp and ran to the end zone.

Ruled a fumble and a touchdown, the call withstood a replay challenge from the Jaguars. The Packers had a curious touchdown.

The most bizarre development of the weekend, however, took 24 hours to unfold. With their 34-31 loss in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night, the Carolina Panthers seemed to have exhausted their playoff opportunity. At 6-8, it looked like lights out for last year's NFC champions.

Then came Sunday. And losses by the Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And just like that, the Panthers were sitting snugly in the NFC's sixth seed, with a chance to become the first team ever to come back from a 1-7 start and reach the postseason.

That's the kind of season this has become.

Jets' reprieve

The Jets didn't clinch anything with yesterday's win over Seattle, but they answered the bigger question: Can quarterback Chad Pennington throw well enough to get them to the postseason? Yes.

Pennington injured his right rotator cuff in a Week 9 loss at Buffalo and missed three games. His three-interception performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week raised the issue of arm strength. It's been reported he will need surgery at the end of the season.

But against the Seahawks, at least, Pennington looked fine. He completed 18 of 24 throws for 253 yards and three touchdowns. If the Jets are going to do anything in the postseason as a wild-card entry, they need a healthy Pennington.

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