Home-field advantage eases road to Super Bowl

ON THE NFL

Gameday

December 26, 2005|By KEN MURRAY

This much we think we know after 16 weeks:

Home-field advantage in Indianapolis and Seattle will be crucial for the precision offense of the Colts and the West Coast reality of the Seahawks.

The NFC is an absolute mess. The top two seeds are the Seahawks and Chicago Bears and they don't scare anyone.

The AFC teams are set. If Kansas City has to rely on the Detroit Lions upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh to get in, the Chiefs have as much chance as the Houston Texans.

The San Francisco 49ers really don't want Reggie Bush as much as he wants them because they had no business beating the St. Louis Rams on Saturday.

Brett Favre ought to quarterback somewhere in the NFL next season, but definitely not in regrouping Green Bay.

Then we have this advisory: If you're a wild-card team, cash out now. You're not going anywhere. How do we know this? History tells us.

In the three years since the NFL adopted the four-division format (four division champions, two wild cards enter the playoffs), no wild-card team has won two playoff games, let alone the three it would take to reach the Super Bowl.

In this format, wild-card teams now must win three straight games on the road to get to the big game. Isn't going to happen.

Whereas the Ravens of 2000, the Tennessee Titans of 1999 and the Denver Broncos of 1997 all got to the Super Bowl as wild cards in a four-year period, they all played one game at home. That makes a huge difference.

What's more, in the three years under this format, five of the six teams that did reach the Super Bowl were first or second seeds. Only the Carolina Panthers, as a No. 3 in 2003, came from a lower seed. And it took a gag job by the Philadelphia Eagles - losing at home in the championship game - to accomplish it that year.

So what does all this imply?

Well, the top-seeded Colts or the No. 2-seeded Denver Broncos are in excellent position to dethrone the New England Patriots in the rock-solid AFC playoffs.

And the first-seeded Seahawks are going to have to trip over their egos, or get upset by a streaking Washington Redskins team, to fall short in the comically flawed NFC.

As it stands now, the meaningless wild-card round of the playoffs would feature the rubber match in three division rivalries.

The only non-division matchup of the four first-week games would send the fifth-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars to the fourth-seeded Patriots.

Elsewhere, it would be the Steelers (No. 6) at the Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3) from the AFC North, the Panthers (No. 5) at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 4) from the NFC South, and the Redskins (No. 6) at the New York Giants (No. 3) from the NFC East. In each case, the two teams split their regular-season series.

The AFC seedings could be shuffled with a Cincinnati loss and a New England win on Sunday.

The seedings for the Redskins and Giants - as well as the location - could be reversed if the Giants somehow lose in Oakland to the crumbling Raiders while Washington finishes off the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Then again, the Panthers could collapse for the second straight week, lose in Atlanta and drop totally out of the playoffs when they controlled their division most of the year. The seeding combinations in the NFC are open-ended at this point, but the bottom line is, it's Seattle's conference championship to lose.

Jumping way ahead of the game, then, what chance do the Seahawks have against, say, the Colts, whom they just beat in Week 16?

Based on their struggle to beat a grief-stricken B team in a game they needed for home-field advantage, nil. Running back Shaun Alexander is having a terrific season, but he won't mean much if the Seahawks are down 21-3 in the second quarter.

Hot reads

Colts coach Tony Dungy might be the most decent man in the NFL, if such a thing could be determined. Certainly he is in a select group of most respected. As difficult as it is to lose a son and have to lead a team at the most critical time of the season, Dungy will get through it with his uncommon dignity and unique perspective intact.

It would appear as many as three teams might win 10 games this season and not make the playoffs. Candidates include the San Diego Chargers, Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys. Since 1970, 18 teams have won 10 games and failed to qualify for the postseason, the last being the Miami Dolphins in 2003. Only one team - the 1985 Denver Broncos - won 11 and didn't reach the postseason in that time.

Steve Smith's ejection in the third quarter for placing his arm around the waist of line judge Mark Steinkerchner - while shouting in the official's face - may go down as one of the biggest bungles in NFL history.

Not only did it cost the Panthers a playoff-clinching win against the Cowboys because they lost their No. 1 (and only) receiving threat, it puts them in position to blow it all on Sunday in Atlanta. Although the Panthers beat the Falcons in Week 13, 24-6, Atlanta has won 12 of the past 15 games against Carolina.

Favre can still be a winning quarterback in the league - turnovers and all - with a better supporting cast than he has with the injured-ravaged Packers. It's time for them to move on, and him as well. The Ravens could do a lot worse, and probably will.

The 49ers are right. They need more than Bush, Southern California's Heisman Trophy winner. But they can only maximize their draft position if they have the rights to the No. 1 pick and they blew that when they beat the Rams.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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