Missed opportunities produce unexpected wild-card matchups

ON THE NFL

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Monday Morning Qb

January 01, 2007|By KEN MURRAY

There is no tomorrow for the Denver Broncos or Cincinnati Bengals. There will be another payday for the New York Giants and Jets, though. As for the Indianapolis Colts, the price of a late-season swoon is a first-round date with Larry Johnson.

Ouch.

Playoff dreams piled up like cars on Denver's frozen interstate yesterday. What started as a ho-hum Week 17 turned out to be Heartbreak City for three teams - including the Tennessee Titans - and wasn't so good for the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys, either.

When Joe Nedney delivered a game-winning, dream-snuffing, 36-yard field goal for the San Francisco 49ers, he banished the Broncos to the offseason with a 26-23 overtime loss. What the kick meant for the Bengals and Titans, however, was missed opportunity.

Had the Bengals beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers (they didn't), they would've owned the fifth playoff seed in the AFC. Had the Titans toppled the New England Patriots (they didn't), they could've sneaked into the postseason dance on Vince Young's coattails. That's how Week 17 went.

In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers sewed up home-field advantage, and the Ravens earned a first-round bye. The Jets jumped from hopeful to fifth seed, and the Kansas City Chiefs went from long shot to Indianapolis.

In the NFC, the fifth-seeded Cowboys were throttled by the Detroit Lions - the Lions?!?! - and the sixth-seeded Giants wobbled into the postseason as the eighth 8-8 team in playoff history.

There are seven new teams in the 2006 playoff field, including three that went from worst to first: the Ravens, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles.

Expect anything now, starting with the wild-card round. Here's a look ahead.

AFC wild-card games

No. 6 Chiefs (9-7) at No. 3 Colts (12-4), Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

The worst rush defense in the league - the Colts' - will have to tackle the Chiefs' Johnson, who bashed the Jacksonville Jaguars' No. 3 run defense for 138 yards and three touchdowns yesterday. It may not be pretty.

The Colts faltered down the stretch, losing three of their last five and struggled to beat first-time Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Cleo Lemon at home. Had Denver not lost, the Colts would've gotten the Jets at home, and the Jets don't have Larry Johnson.

No. 5 Jets (10-6) at No. 4 Patriots (12-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.

The cold war between first-year Jets coach Eric Mangini and veteran Patriots coach Bill Belichick will drop a few more frigid degrees this week. Mangini left Belichick's staff last offseason to take over the Jets - against Belichick's advice. The mentor hasn't forgotten, especially after the pupil pulled out a 17-14 upset win in Week 10 in Foxborough.

Who knows Belichick's system better than his former lieutenant? Mangini did a magnificent job resurrecting the Jets from a 4-12 disaster to 10-6 threat. Chad Pennington won't outplay the Patriots' Tom Brady, but Mangini may have a few ideas to balance things out.

NFC wild-card games

No. 6 Giants (8-8) at No. 3 Eagles (10-6), Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

It will be hard to top the two regular season meetings between these teams. The Giants won in overtime in Philadelphia in Week 2, coming back from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit. The Eagles won in New Jersey in Week 15 scoring two touchdowns 10 seconds apart with four lead changes in the fourth quarter.

Those two games produced 48 fourth-quarter points, 1,595 total yards and a pair of comeback victories. Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed 71.1 percent of his passes against the Eagles for 653 yards. Eagles running back Brian Westbrook rushed for 165 yards.

The teams are headed in opposite directions, however. Unless Tiki Barber can do better than the 2.7-yard average rush he had against the Eagles, the Giants are in trouble. Manning can't carry a team at this stage of his career and doesn't respond well to pressure defense. The Eagles' Jeff Garcia, on the other hand, is energized by the opportunity to quarterback a good team.

No. 5 Cowboys (9-7) at No. 4 Seahawks (9-7), Saturday, 8 p.m.

Both teams staggered to the finish, losing three of their last four games. The Seahawks might be able to make a run, but Dallas' defensive flaws are probably fatal. The Cowboys have given up an average of 33 points and 425 yards a game the last four weeks and appear incapable of defending the pass. That's bad against a West Coast team like the Seahawks.

To make matters worse, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has thrown eight interceptions in his last five starts. He had three turnovers in a grisly 39-31 loss to the woeful Lions.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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