Bears are bullish on NFC, but rest of lot looks sheepish

ON THE NFL

Monday Morning Qb

Gameday

December 18, 2006|By KEN MURRAY

Week 15 delivered more upheaval to an NFC playoff picture that already was as muddled a race as the NFL has seen in years.

Can't anyone over there play winning football?

OK, the Chicago Bears are bullies, at least in their own division, the meek NFC North. And now they have home-field advantage for the postseason after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 34-31. But if their defense is so good, how could they give up all those points to backup quarterback Tim Rattay? And why did they need most of overtime to finally subdue the 3-11 Bucs at home?

The rest of the NFC contenders got whiplash yesterday as traffic backed up behind the Bears. The New Orleans Saints won the NFC South despite losing at home to the Washington Redskins, just a week after they throttled the Dallas Cowboys. The Saints, who looked like a tired team in the 16-10 loss, still hold the No. 2 seed in the conference.

The Cowboys moved into the third-seed position with a frenetic 38-28 victory in Atlanta on Saturday night, but they are playing under a dark cloud called defense. In its past three games, Dallas has allowed an average of 436 total yards. In the past two games, its secondary has been torched for nine touchdown passes, four by the Falcons' Michael Vick. The Cowboys clinched a playoff berth, but they can't get to the Super Bowl playing defense like that.

The Seattle Seahawks are defending NFC champs, although this year they bear no resemblance to last year. In the past two weeks, they've lost to the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. At 8-6, the Seahawks will win the bleak NFC West by default and get the No. 4 seed. Scarily -- for coach Mike Holmgren, anyway -- it could all come down to a Week 17 game against the Bucs.

Wild cards? The New York Giants' free fall continued unabated with an ugly 36-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants have lost five of their past six in a season where they once were viewed as a potential No. 1 seed. Right now, they are hanging onto the sixth seed by virtue of a Week 6 win over the Falcons.

That leaves the Eagles at No. 5, and they might be an intriguing team playing in Chicago in January. Jeff Garcia has won all three of his starts since replacing the injured Donovan McNabb. He threw his first interception of that stretch against the Giants, was flagged for taunting and still wouldn't be beaten. The Eagles take their three-game winning streak next week to Dallas, where Garcia will stare down his old nemesis, Terrell Owens.

If the Eagles win there and against Atlanta in Week 17, they'll win the NFC East. In a year when nothing makes sense in the NFC, it's perfect.

Backup plans

Backup quarterbacks were on notice and in favor yesterday. Kyle Boller pulled out a 27-17 win for the Ravens over the Cleveland Browns, and he wasn't the only backup who performed admirably in relief.

Rattay nearly pulled off a giant upset when he rallied the Bucs from a 24-3 deficit in the third quarter to get a 31-31 tie in regulation. Replacing rookie Bruce Gradkowski, Rattay threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. That's enough to earn him a start next week.

Minnesota coach Brad Childress benched Brad Johnson in a 26-13 loss to the New York Jets, and launched the Tavaris Jackson era. The second-round pick threw for 177 yards and was the only bright spot in an otherwise desultory loss.

Other backups who saw significant playing time yesterday were the Carolina Panthers' Brett Basanez, who replaced Chris Weinke; the Miami Dolphins' Cleo Lemon, who subbed for struggling Joey Harrington; and the Oakland Raiders' Andrew Walter, who replaced Aaron Brooks. Boller was the only backup who won, however.

Winning without offense

Vince Young won his fifth straight game for the Tennessee Titans, but this time there were no last-minute heroics. In fact, there was little offense worth mentioning for the Titans in a 24-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Titans gained just 98 total yards, but got three long defensive touchdowns to continue their improbable climb to 7-7. They had a 92-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Cortland Finnegan, and interception returns of 83 yards (Adam Jones) and 61 yards (Chris Hope) to stun the Jaguars.

Young threw just 15 passes for 85 yards, and it was his fourth-down incompletion that gave the ball to the Jaguars with 61 seconds left. Throwing, instead of running the clock down, in that situation will be a talking point for Young this week.

Jacksonville had 396 total yards and had almost a 30-minute advantage in time of possession. The Jaguars ran off 82 offensive plays to the Titans' 34. If the Jaguars miss the playoffs, this is the game they'll blame it on.

Advantage, AFC

The AFC continued its rampage in a lopsided interconference series, winning three of four games in Week 15. Only the Raiders lost to an NFC team (St. Louis Rams). That gives the AFC a 38-22 advantage this year.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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