For Broncos, Panthers, a win means they're in


ON A WEEKEND of giddy revivals, heroic coronations and sad passings, the NFL's big winners were the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.

These two teams have control of their playoff future in the postseason shakedown that arrives next week.

Not so for the Ravens or Jacksonville Jaguars, who essentially are playoff exiles unless their AFC stars align perfectly in Week 17.

Yesterday began with the news of former great Reggie White's death at 43, saw Peyton Manning finally pass Dan Marino, and, in the end, produced only a few resolutions to the league's playoff quagmire. From the depths to the heights to darkness in one fell swoop.

Here's what we know with one game to go in Week 16:

The Pittsburgh Steelers, by virtue of their 13th straight win, have home-field advantage in the AFC. With injuries mounting - and the latest was to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - the Steelers will almost certainly need home field to reach the Super Bowl.

The Green Bay Packers, who started 1-4, have won their division, the NFC North, for the third straight year. They accomplished this by outlasting the Minnesota Vikings, 34-31, on Friday in a game absolutely devoid of defense.

The Seattle Seahawks, who had won only four of their past 11 games, are in the playoffs because they squeaked past the mighty Arizona Cardinals (5-10) at home, 24-21.

The New England Patriots, who figure to play the Steelers in Pittsburgh in four weeks for the AFC championship, clinched a first-round bye with their 23-7 mugging of the toothless New York Jets. If Jets quarterback Chad Pennington thought he got a raw deal from the New York media before that abysmal performance, he doesn't want to read today's papers.

And this is what we don't know yet, but soon should: the identities of the wild-card teams in either conference.

Although the Jets (10-5) and Vikings (8-7) are in good position in the AFC and NFC, respectively, the identity of the two second teams is vague at best.

In the AFC, four teams are scrambling for the sixth seed, including the Ravens. But if the Broncos beat Indianapolis next week in Denver, they are in. The Colts have nothing to gain but frostbite or pneumonia in the game. The question will be how far Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy pushes the issue with wild-card week to follow - perhaps against these same Broncos.

The NFC apparently has avoided inviting a losing team to the postseason tournament. Minnesota can finish no worse than 8-8, even with a bad trip to Washington next week. The Panthers and New Orleans Saints both won yesterday to improve to 7-8, and they play in Carolina in Week 17 in what is virtually a play-in game. The winner is 8-8.

The Panthers already have beaten the Saints and would advance with a sweep. The St. Louis Rams are 6-8 and on life support since they have lost to both Carolina and New Orleans. Tonight's game against the Philadelphia Eagles would simply put them out of their misery.

Finally, these are the things we're most curious about:

How will the loss of wide receiver Terrell Owens affect the Eagles' offense? Does it revert to screen passes, misdirections and Donovan McNabb scrambles? Or do the Eagles have a better answer for the passing game than Todd Pinkston dodging defenders in the secondary?

Assuming the Panthers finish their miraculous comeback from 1-7, will they have enough left to handle the rigors of playing on the road in the postseason? At the very least, quarterback Jake Delhomme has recaptured his Super Bowl magic down the stretch.

Did Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick bruise his bottom sitting on that fat wallet while his teammates slogged through a 26-13 loss in New Orleans? And did he hurt his shoulder before or after signing that huge contract?

Does Tommy Maddox have another comeback left in him if that rib injury to Roethlisberger proves more menacing than initially expected? You can't always trust the initial diagnosis when it comes to Sunday injuries. Remember last week and Owens?

Doing it right

Peyton Manning took a knee in Indianapolis last week against the Ravens and delayed his record chase because he had something better in mind. The Colts quarterback toppled Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes in circumstances more befitting the honor than some tawdry quickie he could have performed against the Ravens.

He brought the Colts back from a 31-16 deficit in the second half to beat the San Diego Chargers in overtime, 34-31. He tied Marino on a 3-yard shovel pass to James Mungro, then whipped a 21-yard strike to Brandon Stokley for the record-breaker.

Those passes were meaningful and they stood for something bigger. That's probably what Marino respected most about the occasion in the end.

Shock and grief

Of all of yesterday's developments, none was as sobering as the passing of White, who starred on one of the league's best defenses ever with the Eagles, helped the Packers win a Super Bowl, and closed out his career with the Panthers.

The heartfelt testimonials from around the NFL community told more of the man than the player, and his loss left that community reeling. Shock and grief were the common denominators.

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