Home field is focus of playoff picture Packers, 49ers lead battle in NFC, but in the AFC, it's advantage, Broncos

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It may be a strong indicator of success, but home-field advantage through the playoffs is no guarantee of reaching the Super Bowl. Just ask Carl Peterson, president of the Kansas City Chiefs, who still anguishes over his missed opportunity of a year ago.

That's when the Chiefs earned home-field through the AFC playoffs with an NFL-best record of 13-3. Then, after a first-round bye, they blew the advantage with a 10-7 loss to the wild-card Indianapolis Colts.

"The experience last year was excruciatingly disappointing," Peterson said this week. "We had put ourselves in position like Denver to clinch early and get home-field. Then we weren't able to capitalize on it."

This year, the 9-4 Chiefs are chasing the 12-1 Denver Broncos like everyone else in the AFC. With a victory over Seattle and surprising losses by Buffalo and Pittsburgh last week, the Broncos locked up all the important stuff with three weeks to go: AFC West title, first-round bye and home-field advantage through the playoffs.

How important is home-field advantage to the Broncos? They had it twice since 1987 and went to the Super Bowl both times. Quarterback John Elway says this is a better Denver team than the three he took to the Super Bowl in the '80s.

"It's definitely a better offensive team," he said. "There's a lot more balance, and the passing offense is a lot better than the other teams. Overall, talent-wise, I think it's a little better."

Said Peterson of the Broncos: "They're finding ways to win games when most people find ways to lose. The big key is the way their defense has been."

If all facets working in Denver, the Chiefs made a significant concession last week when they benched quarterback Steve Bono and replaced him with the more mobile Rich Gannon. Bono took much of the blame for last year's playoff loss.

"It wasn't so much we felt Steve Bono was having such a bad year," Peterson said. "It was that we weren't generating points, and that Rich Gannon would give us a change of pace because of his ability to run the ball. It was a calculated risk."

It paid dividends in the Chiefs' 28-24 Thanksgiving Day win over Detroit. Whether it's enough to produce a victory at Denver's Mile High Stadium is another story.

The Broncos now must play three meaningless games in December without losing momentum, starting Sunday in Green Bay. Coach Mike Shanahan has suggested he'll hold Elway out to rest a tender hamstring. But there is an inherent danger in the three-game odyssey.

"We've got to keep the idea going that we've got to win these games," Elway said. "We can't lose the edge we've got. Guys realize we can't turn it off for a month and turn it back on."

Here is a look at games that could haunt the contenders at season's end, and the big games down the stretch.

AFC

BRONCOS. Ugly loss: 17-14 verdict at Kansas City is all that separates the Broncos from a so-far perfect season. No harm there.

Big test: Sunday at Green Bay, only in the sense they still have to prove they can beat the best from the NFC. And if he plays, Elway will want to prove it.

PATRIOTS. Ugly loss: 34-8 disaster at home against the Broncos three weeks ago when Bill Parcells attempted a fake punt from in his own territory on the first series.

Big test: At Dallas in Week 16. They are 0-6 lifetime against the Cowboys. They need to win the last three to gain a first-round bye, and get the Jets and Giants in the other two.

STEELERS. Ugly loss: Rain- drenched 31-17 loss to the Ravens that tentatively knocked them out of a bye week and exposed Mike Tomczak as a poor bad-weather quarterback.

Big test: Against the 49ers at home in Week 16. They clinch at least a wild-card spot by beating the Chargers on Sunday.

BILLS. Ugly loss: 21-7 to the Dolphins in Buffalo when Jim Kelly faced a crisis of confidence. On the verge of tying the game, Kelly threw his third interception to end it.

Big test: The Bills and Chiefs will be jockeying for playoff position when they meet in Week 17 in Buffalo.

CHIEFS. Ugly loss: 28-14 to the reeling Chargers two weeks ago. San Diego had lost to the Bucs the week before, and by 38 points to the Patriots last week.

Big test: At Oakland this Monday night. This is one of the NFL's most intense rivalries, dating to another era (1960) and another league (AFL).

CHARGERS. Ugly loss: 45-7 to the Patriots or 25-17 to the Bucs, both at home, both with Stan Humphries throwing three interceptions.

Big test: At Pittsburgh on Sunday, without the injured Humphries. They are 3-3 on the road (and have lost three of the last four at home).

OILERS. Ugly loss: 23-16 stunner against the Seahawks. The Oilers' attempt at a game-winning field goal was blocked and returned for a game-winning Seattle touchdown.

Big test: Against the Jaguars on Sunday. The lame-duck Oilers are only 2-4 in the Astrodome.

COLTS. Ugly loss: 26-19 to the Chargers when Jim Harbaugh threw four interceptions.

Big test: At Kansas City in Week 16.

RAIDERS. Ugly loss: 20-17 in overtime at Tampa Bay in the middle of a three-game losing streak.

Big test: Against the Chiefs on Monday night. The Raiders need a lot of help to make the playoffs.

DOLPHINS. Ugly loss: 29-10 loss to the Cowboys at home exposed the young Dolphins as pretenders.

Big test: At Buffalo on Monday night in Week 16.

JAGUARS. Ugly loss: 17-14 loss to St. Louis ended a five-game losing streak for the woeful Rams.

Big test: At Houston on Sunday. The Jaguars are only 1-6 on the road.

NFC

PACKERS. Ugly loss: A 21-6 loss in Dallas could've played havoc with their bid for home-field advantage.

Big test: Against Denver on Sunday. The Packers are putting their offense back together after a run of injuries.

49ERS. Ugly loss: 20-17 overtime loss in Green Bay cost them the head-to-head tie-breaker against the Packers and underscored how poor officiating is this season.

Big test: Against Carolina on Sunday. Having already lost in Carolina, 23-7, the 49ers would drop to second in the division and a wild-card spot if they lose again.

COWBOYS. Ugly loss: 20-6 loss to the Giants effectively ended any chance they had at getting home-field advantage.

Big test: At Washington in Week 17. The Cowboys win the division with three straight wins.

PANTHERS. Ugly loss: Their only defeat in the NFC West was a 20-17 loss to lowly Atlanta.

Big test: The second-year Panthers could come of age Sunday in San Francisco. Right now, they are positioned for a wild-card game at home, where they are 6-0.

EAGLES. Ugly loss: 36-30 loss in Arizona, when the Eagles had the lead in the final minute, kept them from controlling the division.

Big test: They get a chance for revenge in Week 17 against the Cardinals at home.

REDSKINS. Ugly loss: 37-34 overtime loss to the Cardinals at home was a defensive coach's nightmare.

Big test: Their Week 17 encounter with the Cowboys at RFK Stadium. Norv Turner's Redskins swept the season series with the Cowboys a year ago.

VIKINGS. Ugly loss: 24-13 to the then-winless Bucs in Week 7, the start of a four-game losing streak.

Big test: At Green Bay in Week 17. Three wins put the Vikings in as a wild-card team.

#

The playoff race

AFC

Team (seed now), Denver (1)

Div., West

Over. rec., 12-1

Conf. rec., 9-1

Remaining games, at Green Bay, Oakland, at San Diego

Skinny, Too many weapons to go with home-field advantage

Team (seed now), New England (2)

Div., East

Over. rec., 9-4

Conf. rec., 8-3

Remaining games, N.Y. Jets, at Dallas, at N.Y. Giants

Skinny, They were drubbed at home by the Broncos

Team (seed now), Pittsburgh (3)

Div., Cent.

Over. rec., 9-4

Conf. rec., 7-4

Remaining games, San Diego, San Francisco, at Carolina

Skinny, Mike Tomczak will need a ticket for the Super Bowl

Team (seed now), Buffalo (4)

Div., East

Over. rec., 9-4

Conf. rec., 5-4

Remaining games, at Seattle, at Miami, Kansas City

Skinny, A savvy team that knows how to handle the playoffs

Team (seed now), Kansas City (5)

Div., West

Over. rec., 9-4

Conf. rec., 5-4

Remaining games, at Oakland, Indianapolis, at Buffalo

Skinny, Rich Gannon's the new QB, but RB Greg Hill is the key

Team (seed now), San Diego (6)

Div., West

Over. rec., 7-6

Conf. rec., 6-4

Remaining games, at Pittsburgh, at Chicago, Denver

Skinny, They're in a 3-5 spiral since starting the year 4-1

Team (seed now), Houston

Div., Cent.

Over. rec., 7-6

Conf. rec., 5-4

Remaining games, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, at Baltimore

Skinny, They're contenders thanks to a lightweight schedule

Team (seed now), Indianapolis*

Div., East

Over. rec., 7-6

Conf. rec., 5-5

Remaining games, at Kansas City, at Cincinnati

Skinny, Injuries took the luster out of their season

Team (seed now), Oakland

Div., West

Over. rec., 6-7

Conf. rec., 5-4

Remaining games, Kansas City, at Denver, Seattle

Skinny, Theirs is now a commitment to mediocrity

Team (seed now), Miami

Div., East

Over. rec., 6-7

Conf. rec., 5-5

Remaining games, N.Y. Giants, Buffalo, at N.Y. Jets

Skinny, Time is running out quickly on Dan Marino

Team (seed now), Jacksonville

Div., Cent.

Over. rec., 6-7

Conf. rec., 5-5

Remaining games, at Houston, Seattle, Atlanta

Skinny, Not prime-time material yet, but perhaps soon

NFC

Team, Green Bay (1)

Div., Cent.

Over. rec., 10-3

Conf. rec., 8-2

Remaining games, Denver, at Detroit, Minnesota

Skinny, They must bring the playoffs to Lambeau Field

Team, San Francisco (2)

Div., West

Over. rec., 10-3

Conf. rec., 7-3

Remaining games, Carolina, at Pittsburgh, Detroit

Skinny, Dangerous sign: starting to jell for the stretch run

Team, Carolina (4)

Div., West

Over. rec., 9-4

Conf. rec., 8-3

Remaining games, at San Francisco, Baltimore, Pittsburgh

Skinny, They will go as far as their vintage defense takes them

Team, Dallas (3)

Div., East

Over. rec., 8-5

Conf. rec., 7-3

Remaining games, at Arizona, New England, at Washington

Skinny, Lame offense, loss of Leon Lett will dethrone champs

@Team, Washington (5)

Div., East

Over. rec., 8-5

Conf. rec., 5-4

Remaining games, at Tampa Bay, at Arizona, Dallas

Skinny, Too many holes in the defense to make a serious run

Team, Philadelphia (6)

Div., East

Over. rec., 8-6

Conf. rec., 7-4

Remaining games, at N.Y. Jets, Arizona

Skinny, Loss last night damages division title hopes

Team, Minnesota

Div., Cent.

Over. rec., 7-6

Conf. rec., 6-3

Remaining games, at Detroit, Tampa Bay, at Green Bay

Skinny, Dennis Green brought them back from verge of collapse

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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