After waving bye to bye, Patriots aim to regroup

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Drew Bledsoe fell into a trap last week, and now the New England Patriots have to try to climb out of a hole.

The Patriots had a third-and-seven at midfield on Saturday, holding an eight-point lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers with 2: 10 left in the fourth quarter.

All the Patriots had to do was hold the lead and they would have been playing the Miami Dolphins for a first-round bye in the playoffs Monday night.

But Bledsoe didn't see Steelers lineman Kevin Henry and lofted a pass toward David Meggett that wound up in Henry's hands.

"I thought it was a safe play," Bledsoe said. "I just didn't see the nose tackle. I fell into a trap. It was a well-conceived play by their defensive staff and it worked."

Of course, the Steelers are noted for fooling quarterbacks with their defensive schemes, but $42 million quarterbacks get paid not to get fooled.

The result is that the Steelers stormed back to win in overtime, and they will get the first-round bye as long as they don't lose to the Tennessee Oilers on Sunday by 65 points or more.

That means the Patriots' game against the Dolphins is for the AFC East title and the right to be host to a wild-card game. If the New York Jets beat Detroit on Sunday, Monday's loser is out of the playoffs. If the Jets lose, Monday's loser will still get a wild-card berth.

But a wild-card spot or division title would be small consolation for the Patriots. They know how important the first-round bye is.

Since the 16-game schedule was started in 1978, 100 teams have played in the first round. Only three made it to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots of 1985 were one of those three, along with the 1980 Oakland Raiders and the 1992 Buffalo Bills.

The Patriots will try to regroup after their emotional loss to the Steelers, and they admit there was much finger-pointing in the locker room after the game.

"It was an emotional thing and the guys reacted to it and that's to be expected," Bledsoe said. "If anything, what this will do is produce a little anger and added emotion [against the Dolphins]."

If New England loses, Bledsoe will have to deal with all the talk that the Patriots are not the same team without Bill Parcells as coach.

But Bledsoe insists he's not intimidated. He likes the challenge.

"That's why I play the position I play," he said. "I enjoy the responsibility. You see guys that are affected by that stuff and start checking the papers and reading their clippings. I've seen guys like that have short careers."

Meanwhile, the Dolphins have to do a bit of regrouping of their own after a 41-0 loss at Indianapolis.

Last week, Miami coach Jimmy Johnson was rooting for the Patriots to beat the Steelers because if the Dolphins then beat the Colts, their game with the Patriots would have been for a first-round bye.

He was even telling his team that it was "easy" to make the Super Bowl once you got a bye because you had to win only two games.

But all that blew up in his face after both the Patriots and the Dolphins were beaten. There was much talk that Johnson had looked past the Colts.

"We did not overlook the Colts," he said. "More than anything, we just got beat."

It means that the Dolphins are as desperate as the Patriots going into the season finale.

Best of the rest

Jets at Lions: This 4 p.m. game will be shown on Channel 11 and could be the best of the Sunday games. There are a lot of subplots. Barry Sanders is trying to become the third player to reach the 2,000-yard mark in rushing. Bill Parcells is attempting to become the second coach (joining Chuck Knox) to reach the playoffs with three different teams. He also can break Ted Marchibroda's eight-game improvement record by taking the 1-15 Jets to 10-6.

Although the spotlight will be on Sanders, the key for the Lions may be how well quarterback Scott Mitchell plays. He'll duel Neil O'Donnell, although O'Donnell may get the hook for Glenn Foley if he falters. The Lions could be in the playoffs by game time if the Redskins lose their 1 p.m. game. The Jets get in if they win.

Eagles at Redskins: It's hard to believe that the 7-7-1 Redskins, who lost to the Ravens and Rams, still can make the playoffs if they win this one and either the Lions or Vikings lose. But $H Washington fans aren't fooled and don't view the Redskins as real contenders. There may be so many no-shows at their new stadium that the crowd could fit at RFK Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were knocked out of the playoff picture last week, and it will be interesting to see if Ray Rhodes can motivate Philadelphia for the first meaningless game in his three-year tenure as coach. The Eagles are 9-1 in their past 10 games with the Redskins, but most have been close.

Colts at Vikings: The Vikings, losers of five straight, can clinch a -- playoff berth with a victory. But they could make it at 8-8 and with six straight losses if the Redskins lose. The Vikings haven't been the same since quarterback Brad Johnson was sidelined, and now there's much speculation that Dennis Green could wind up as the Raiders' next coach. The Colts are 15-8 in December since 1992, but the late surge may not save coach Lindy Infante.

Worth a look

Steelers at Oilers: The Steelers' 37-0 rout of the Ravens is coming in handy. It's one of the reasons Pittsburgh will get a first-round playoff bye as long as it doesn't lose by 65 points on Sunday.

Bills at Packers: This will be the first game in a rather unattractive Saturday TV doubleheader, but it could be interesting to see if the Packers finish on an upbeat note in a meaningless game before they begin their bid to become the second team to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice.

Bears at Bucs: It figures that Tampa Bay finally earned a wild-card spot last week despite a 31-0 loss to the Jets. The Bucs need a victory or losses by both the Lions and Vikings to be host to a first-round playoff game. It would be their first home playoff game since 1980. They lost to the Bears, 13-7, last month, but the bid for a home playoff game will give the Bucs something to play for.

Saints at Chiefs: The Chiefs have clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for the second time in three years. But this game has some importance because quarterback Elvis Grbac will return to the Kansas City starting lineup and hopes to tune up for the playoffs.

Filling out the schedule

Ravens at Bengals: How much difference has Boomer Esiason made to the Bengals? They're 6 1/2 -point favorites, even though they lost their first meeting with the Ravens, 23-10, with Jeff Blake at quarterback. Eric Zeier will try to finish with a 3-0 mark as the Ravens' starting quarterback.

Jaguars at Raiders: This is likely to be a meaningless game by the kickoff because the Jaguars already are a wild-card team and have little hope of winning the AFC Central title. It could be the last game for Joe Bugel on the Raiders' sideline.

Giants at Cowboys: This will be the last game as Dallas coach for Barry Switzer. Owner Jerry Jones likely will find him a meaningless front-office job. The Giants would like to become the first team to go undefeated in the NFC East. But New York figures to rest Danny Kanell after a few series and go with Dave Brown, which explains why the Cowboys are favored.

Falcons at Cardinals: Atlanta has taken advantage of a soft second-half schedule to beat five straight losing teams. If the Falcons can make it six straight -- or if Indianapolis loses -- the Cardinals will clinch the first pick in the draft and probably will be willing to trade it because they're convinced that Jake Plummer is their quarterback of the future.

Chargers at Broncos: Denver, which may wind up playing host to Jacksonville in the playoffs for the second straight year, winds up the regular season against a disappointing San Diego team that has lost seven straight.

Rams at Panthers: Putting this game on national TV on Saturday was a gamble for the NFL and it backfired. It means nothing, and the stadium figures to be half-empty because even Green Bay didn't draw a big crowd last week.

49ers at Seahawks: The 49ers wrapped up home-field advantage last week. They weren't planning on playing Jerry Rice in this game even before he got hurt. This is likely to be Dennis nTC Erickson's last game as coach in Seattle.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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