Three playoff teams you won't see in Miami on Jan. 31 are the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Two are former dynasty teams, the third a wannabe dynasty. They have 30 wins among them this season.
And all three are reeling down the homestretch, trying to patch critical holes that will prevent them from reaching Super Bowl XXXIII. Here's why they can't make it.
Dallas: The NFC East champs' offense vanished after a 513-yard outing against Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys are averaging just 225.7 total yards and 11 points in three games since that loss. The problem is so severe they needed a touchdown off a fake field-goal attempt Sunday to beat the hapless Philadelphia Eagles, who defended the play with 10 men.
Age and the blitz have finally caught up with the Cowboys. Against relentless pressure, quarterback Troy Aikman has completed just 48.9 percent of his throws the past three weeks, 170.3 passing yards a game. Running back Emmitt Smith is averaging 2.8 yards a carry in the past four games, and wide receiver Michael Irvin has caught one touchdown all season.
The Cowboys are likely to get the Arizona Cardinals in the first round at Texas Stadium, a team they've beaten twice this season. But at this point, the Cardinals are due and they're the better team.
San Francisco: The 49ers' deficiencies are many. They can't protect quarterback Steve Young. They can't stop the run since Bryant Young broke his leg. And their secondary can't cover anyone.
The offensive line has given up 49 sacks, five on Sunday in New England, when Steve Young left with a sprained ligament in his left knee. At 37, Young can't take this beating any longer. On defense, the 49ers are giving up 4.7 yards a rush since losing Bryant Young three weeks ago.
If that's not enough, San Francisco will open against the Green Bay Packers, who have ended the previous three 49ers seasons. Make that four.
Jacksonville: The Jaguars' season of great expectation has turned into a theater of the absurd. They not only have 12 players on injured reserve, but in consecutive weeks -- for the second straight season -- they have had quarterbacks make career first starts. Unlike last year, when Rob Johnson and Steve Matthews won their debuts, Jamie Martin and Jonathan Quinn lost this year.
That was necessitated when Mark Brunell suffered a high-ankle sprain two weeks ago. That's also why the Jaguars needed the first-round bye, to let Brunell heal. Ready or not, he may get them to the second round, but not beyond.
Still the worst
As bad as the defenses at Carolina, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have been this season, none threatens the remarkable record for futility set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, who went 2-14. Here's how the worst three defenses in the league measure up to those inept Colts with one week left in the regular season:
Indianapolis and Cincinnati each has given up a league-high 417 points (27.8 per game). The 1981 Colts were shredded for a league record 533 (33.3 per game).
Carolina ranks 30th in total yards allowed with 5,563, or 370.9 per game. Those Colts set the all-time standard with 6,793 yards, or 424.6 a game.
Indianapolis has given up a league-high 324 first downs. Baltimore's Colts gave up a league-record 406.
Indianapolis has surrendered a league-high 49 touchdowns. The old Colts gave up a league-record 68.
Bottom line: Baltimore's 1981 defense is still far and away the worst in history.
Antonio Freeman's two long touchdown receptions in Week 16 give the Packers' Pro Bowl-bound receiver six touchdowns of more than 50 yards this season. That ties him with the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis for most in the NFL.
Freeman, a Poly grad, averaged 69.7 yards on those six scores. Lewis, who hasn't had a 50-yard-plus touchdown since Week 11, has averaged 67.8 yards per touchdown.
By the numbers
With 392 carries, Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson needs 16 rushes against Miami to break the NFL single-season record of 407, set by James Wilder in 1984.
Packers running back Dorsey Levens is rounding into playoff shape. He's had eight, 15 and 26 carries in three games since returning from a broken leg, and he's averaging 4.4 yards.
After Indianapolis blew its fourth double-digit lead of the season in a 27-23 loss to Seattle, Colts coach Jim Mora could hold it in no longer. In a pointed dissertation that stopped short of his venomous tirade with New Orleans in 1996, Mora laid blame on the coaching staff and players, and said his defense stinks.
"This is our 15th game," he said. "We're not young anymore. You can be making progress between now and the end of time, but if you don't win, what difference does it make?
"You can go back with 'what if' and 'if only.' That's a bunch of baloney. That's what losers say."
Best and worst
Best body language: Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak. The way the former Maryland star reacted after a perfect 61-yard touchdown strike to Shawn Jefferson -- palms raised while looking to the crowd -- you'd have thought he'd been there before.
Worst holiday cheer: Chiefs wide receiver Andre Rison. In a contentious locker room scene, Rison had to be restrained from going after two Kansas City writers. "Bad Moon" is back.
Most fitting farewell: Packers defensive end Reggie White. In what figures to be his final game at Lambeau Field, the retiring White had it all -- falling snow, a big win, and a sign that read, "Reggie, This is God. Keep Playing."
Most awkward clinching: Jaguars. They lost by 40 to the Vikings, but backed into their first division title with losses by Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
Best clutch performance: Cardinals. With the playoffs on the line,
quarterback Jake Plummer drove the Cardinals 73 yards in six plays to the winning field goal against the Saints.
Worst tank job: Ravens. Who loses to the Bears by three touchdowns?
Most exciting team: Cardinals. Six of their eight wins are by three points or fewer.
Most overrated team: 49ers. They are 2-4 against winning teams this year.
Biggest goat: Colts running back Marshall Faulk. He missed a team meeting, sat out the first quarter, rushed for 19 yards and coughed up the fumble that put Seattle ahead.
Best reprieve: Cardinals receiver Frank Sanders. He cost the Cardinals 10 points with a false start and a fumble, but came back to make two critical catches for 53 yards in the last 1: 16 to set up the winning kick.
Pub Date: 12/22/98