On divergent paths to history

ON THE NFL

December 10, 2007

Historic seasons stayed alive for two teams yesterday, and only a shocking upset in the next three weeks can deter the New England Patriots or Miami Dolphins from their respective destinies.

Week 14 offered the last best chance for the Patriots to be knocked off course from a 16-0 regular season. But quarterback Tom Brady lacerated the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1 defense for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a surprisingly one-sided 34-13 victory.

This also was the seeming last exit ramp for the Dolphins before they stagger home to 0-16 infamy. And if a 38-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills was any indication, the only team that previously had gone undefeated through an entire season also will become the first to go winless through 16 games.

Forget this "any given Sunday" stuff. The Patriots answered the Steelers' relentless blitzes with 46 passes and only nine rushes. There was no deception. New England came to pass, Pittsburgh came to blitz, and that was that.

The Patriots are even more one-dimensional on offense than the 2001 St. Louis Rams -- known as The Greatest Show on Turf -- who at least balanced Kurt Warner's passing with the running of Marshall Faulk.

There is no such balance in New England, just dominance. And the Patriots' defense, which looked vulnerable against the Ravens a week ago, shut out the Steelers in the second half after staking a 17-13 lead.

The road to perfection? The Patriots get the New York Jets -- won't Bill Belichick love running it up on Eric Mangini, the man who created Spygate? -- and Dolphins at home before finishing the regular season in New Jersey against the New York Giants. The only guesswork is in which game Brady, with 45 touchdown throws, will break Peyton Manning's 2004 single-season record of 49.

Looking to Week 17, might the Patriots pull their regulars with home-field clinched? Not a chance, not with history at their fingertips.

Miami will march to history with home games against the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals around a trip to Foxborough, Mass. The Dolphins all but lay down in Buffalo yesterday, falling behind 31-7 in the second quarter. They will not beat anyone with that kind of effort.

Around the league

The Seattle Seahawks have been flying below the radar all season in the torpid NFC West. But they clinched the division title with a convincing 42-21 drubbing of the Arizona Cardinals when Matt Hasselbeck threw for four touchdowns. That's their ticket to a meaningful playoff run. If Hasselbeck gets hot, the Seahawks might have the ammunition to beat the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers in the NFC. If Shaun Alexander ever shows up, so much the better.

The Cowboys and Packers also earned division-clinching wins in Week 14. Dallas was less than impressive in struggling to beat the fading Detroit Lions, 28-27. Most disconcerting for the Cowboys was that their rushing defense gave up 152 yards to the Lions, who have great disdain for the run. The Packers toyed with the Oakland Raiders in a 38-7 romp in which Ryan Grant rushed for 156 yards.

If the playoffs started today, there would be three new teams in each conference in the tournament that weren't there last season. The Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings would be the new entries in the NFC. The Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns would be the three new teams in the AFC.

One of the toughest setbacks for any team yesterday was Tennessee's 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers after leading 17-3 late at home. LaDainian Tomlinson (146 rushing yards, game-winning 16-yard touchdown run) bailed out the Chargers, who played poorly most of the day. The Titans battered San Diego (Antonio Gates, Shawne Merriman, Philip Rivers and Lorenzo Neal had to leave the game at least temporarily) but couldn't run out the clock when they needed to. Tennessee, which started 6-2, has dropped four of its past five to lose its grip on a wild-card spot. The Titans have a hard road now.

Cincinnati's 19-10 win over first-time starter Brock Berlin and the St. Louis Rams gives coach Marvin Lewis a shot at his fourth 8-8 season in five years with the Bengals. At 5-8, they have a reasonable chance to do that. Their last three games are against San Francisco, Cleveland and Miami. Lewis is 40-38, including the postseason, with one playoff appearance. In Cincinnati, mediocrity is pretty good.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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