Seventeen teams looking to crash NFL parity party

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After the Denver Broncos lost their seventh game Sunday, a 23-13 decision to the Los Angeles Raiders, coach Wade Phillips counted his team out of the NFL playoff chase.

"I don't believe we have any playoff chances left," Phillips said.

Not so fast, Wade.

It hasn't been that easy to get eliminated from the NFL's playoff hunt this season.

With two weeks left in the regular season, only six teams -- the Houston Oilers, Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- have been eliminated.

That leaves 22 clubs mathematically alive. Five have clinched, leaving 17 scrambling for the remaining seven postseason berths.

To qualify, nine wins looks like the magic number. Seven teams are 7-7, so any one of them has a good shot by sweeping its last two games.

This makes the quality of a team's final two opponents critical. Phillips, for example, probably was looking ahead to his schedule. His team plays host to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, the closest thing to a guaranteed loss in the NFL.

Once again, the 49ers (12-2) and Dallas Cowboys (11-3) appear to be the class of the field and are likely to meet in the NFC title game Jan. 15. They have met there the past two seasons, Dallas winning both times en route to Super Bowl victories.

The Cowboys and 49ers are trying not to look ahead.

"That game is not on our schedule yet," said Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who returned last Saturday from a two-game layoff because of a knee injury, but was rusty in an upset loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We might not even see San Francisco again this year."

Assuming they do, the winner will be expected to beat the AFC representative in the Super Bowl for an 11th consecutive year.

The difference this season is that the AFC Super Bowl fodder may not be the Buffalo Bills. After losing the Super Bowl the past four years, the Bills are 7-7 and have lost their quarterback, Jim Kelly, to a knee injury.

But Frank Reich is a proven backup, and the Bills' schedule -- at home against the surprising New England Patriots and at Indianapolis -- isn't that difficult.

The Bills-Patriots game matches an old, fading team against a young, up-and-coming one. The future belongs to the Patriots and their young quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, but the resilient Bills still could prevail.

Even if the Bills make it, they'll have to go the difficult wild-card route, and the odds are against them in their "Drive for Five."

The most intriguing team to succeed the Bills would be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the AFC's best record at 11-3.

The Steelers can clinch a division title and wrap up home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs with a victory over Cleveland on Sunday.

The Steelers and Browns are virtual mirror images. Both have a tenacious defense and struggling offense piloted by a quarterback who's getting flak for inconsistency -- Neil O'Donnell of Pittsburgh and Vinny Testaverde of Cleveland.

For Pittsburgh and Cleveland, home-field advantage could be critical because three warm-weather teams -- the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Raiders -- have a good shot at making it in the AFC. Those teams aren't noted for playing well in the cold weather in January.

The Chargers (9-5) can win a division title by beating the New York Jets on Sunday, and the Raiders (8-6) can earn a playoff berth by beating the Seattle Seahawks. The Dolphins (9-5), who clinched a spot Monday night, can win a division title by beating Indianapolis.

If the Chargers and Raiders join the Steelers, Browns and Dolphins in the playoffs, that would leave just one berth open in the AFC.

In the NFC, four Central teams -- the Minnesota Vikings (9-5), Detroit Lions (8-6), Chicago Bears (8-6) and Green Bay Packers (7-7) -- could join the Cowboys and 49ers.

Arizona (7-7), which closes with two losing teams (the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons), could sneak in if one of the NFC Central teams falters.

But the strangest development is that the New York Giants, who lost seven straight at one point, and Philadelphia Eagles, on a five-game losing streak, play Sunday with the winner going into the final weekend of the season at 8-7 and shooting for a playoff slot.

The fact that teams can stay alive despite seven- and five-game skids is a sign of parity -- or mediocrity.

The league likes the idea of having so many teams still alive, and the NFL Players Association is taking credit for it. Doug Allen, the NFLPA's assistant director, said that free agency and the salary cap has led to more balance.

"I think one of the best things about this system is that it's one of the reasons so many teams are still in the hunt," Allen said. "It keeps fans interested and keeps the ratings up. We predicted it would lead to a distribution of talent around the league."

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