Playoff drive is a yawner in Indy Berth on line tonight, but Colts fans unmoved

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Playoff fever?

They haven't exactly caught it in Indianapolis.

Even though the Colts can clinch a playoff berth tonight for the first time in a nonstrike year since moving to Indianapolis in 1984, the home matchup against the New England Patriots has hardly worked the team's fans into a frenzy.

The game, which will be nationally televised on ESPN -- it normally would be a Sunday night telecast but was moved up a day because of Christmas Eve -- isn't sold out and will be blacked out in Indianapolis. About 10,000 tickets are unsold.

The apathy -- despite the fact that the Colts are the only AFC home team in the final weekend of the season that controls its fate -- is a sign that the fans have figured out that gaining a wild-card berth with a 9-7 record isn't a cause for celebration.

Since the NFL went to its 12-team playoff format in 1990, only one wild-card team -- the 1992 Buffalo Bills -- has made the Super Bowl, and the Bills posted an 11-5 regular-season record.

The last time a 9-7 team made the Super Bowl was in 1979, when the Los Angeles Rams did it as NFC West champions.

Though the fans may not be excited, a playoff berth still would be an accomplishment for the Colts.

The last time they had a chance to clinch a playoff berth in their final game, in 1989, they fell far short in losing to the New Orleans Saints, 41-6.

Their only playoff berth in Indianapolis came in the 1987 strike season with the help of a pair of strike victories. The team then lost its first-round playoff game in Cleveland. The Colts have not won a playoff game since Bob Irsay bought the team in 1972.

If they are to pull it off, they would have to sweep the Patriots for the first time since 1983 -- their last year in Baltimore. They have lost eight of 11 games to the Patriots in Indianapolis.

But three Colts -- cornerback Ray Buchanan and wide receivers Sean Dawkins and Floyd Turner -- have guaranteed a victory.

Coach Ted Marchibroda said: "To this point, we have earned the right to compete for the playoffs. Now we have to close the deal."

A victory would give the Colts a sweep of three AFC East teams this year -- the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets. The last time they did that was in 1976.

The Colts are one of 10 teams vying for the final four playoff berths. Six clubs are going for three AFC slots, and four teams are shooting for the last NFC spot.

Eight teams have qualified for the playoffs, and the three AFC division titles have been won by Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

San Francisco is the only NFC team that has clinched a division title. Dallas and Green Bay can wrap up the other two with victories this weekend.

The Colts and San Diego Chargers, who play at the New York Giants today, can clinch the fourth and fifth AFC playoff spots with victories.

The Giants are going nowhere, but they have the home-field edge in December, when the wind is often a factor against a team such as San Diego that is accustomed to warmer conditions.

The Chargers counter that they won the AFC title game in Pittsburgh last January and quarterback Stan Humphries knows Giants Stadium from his Redskins days.

"I've played there with the Redskins late in the year. The winds can be howling, but there's too much on the line for us to worry about what the weather's going to be like," Humphries said.

If the Chargers and Colts both win today, that would leave just one AFC slot at stake tomorrow.

The Miami Dolphins can get it if they beat the St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders lose to the Denver Broncos.

That would be little consolation for a Dolphins team that started out 4-0 and was being touted as a Super Bowl contender. Miami has gone 4-7 in its past 11 games and the fans are calling for Jimmy Johnson to replace coach Don Shula.

Offensive tackle Richmond Webb said: "The attitude we're taking is win the last football game and see what happens. It ain't going to do us any good to look back."

If the Raiders, hurt by the loss of quarterback Jeff Hostetler, beat Denver and Seattle loses to Kansas City, the Raiders would get the final spot and Shula's Dolphins would miss the playoffs.

Shula's future would become even shakier if that happens, although he insists he'll be on the sidelines next year.

"I have a contract to coach next season and I intend to honor that contract," he said. "I've never said that I wasn't going to fulfill my contract."

However, owner Wayne Huizenga hasn't made it official yet and it could be difficult to bring Shula back if the Dolphins don't make the playoffs.

The four teams vying for the final NFC slot are Minnesota, Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis.

The Falcons play the 49ers, who appear to have just one obstacle in their bid for a sixth Super Bowl -- the NFC title game, when they are expected to meet Dallas.

Of the three remaining NFC contenders, Chicago has the best shot. The Bears play host to a Philadelphia team that has clinched a playoff berth. If Chicago wins that one, it makes it if the Falcons lose to the 49ers.

The Eagles, though, have some incentive. If they win, it would force Dallas to beat Arizona on Monday night to wrap up the division title. That would mean the Cowboys couldn't rest some of their key starters, including Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, who aren't in the best of shape.

Green Bay, which needs a victory to clinch the NFC Central title, plays Pittsburgh, the AFC Central champion, in the best matchup of the weekend: the team of the '60s against the team xTC of the '70s, both trying to find Super Bowl form in the '90s.

Detroit still can beat out the Packers for the NFC Central title if the Lions beat Tampa Bay today and Green Bay loses to Pittsburgh.

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