Playoff field gets a bit clouded

The Baltimore Sun

It may not matter once the postseason starts, but Week 15 had a curious feel of the NFL playoff field drawing tighter.

Put another way, the predestined Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys suddenly doesn't look so automatic.

The unbeaten Patriots, playing at home in their kind of elements, looked less than perfect in a 20-10 win over the lowly New York Jets. Sure, driving rain and gusting winds contributed to Tom Brady's poorest game of the season (14 completions, no touchdown passes). But the Patriots, reduced to a little-used running game, needed a late replay reversal to subdue the Jets and secure home-field advantage in the AFC. Interesting.

In the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys, who nearly gagged a week ago in Detroit, coughed up a 10-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at home. Quarterback Tony Romo was awful (13-for-36, three interceptions) and his presumably injured right thumb will go under the microscope this week in Dallas.

The loss left the NFC's top seed in question. The Cowboys, at 12-2, are tied with Green Bay but own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers with two games to play. Dallas has road trips to Carolina and Washington to straighten things out, while the Packers play at Chicago and then host Detroit.

Unless the Cowboys play better, the No. 1 seed will be a moot point.

The AFC seedings underwent one change yesterday. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have yet to wrap up the AFC North, were beaten at home in horrid conditions by the warm-weather Jacksonville Jaguars, 29-22.

Combined with San Diego's 51-14 laugher over the Lions, the Chargers climbed over Pittsburgh for the third seed.

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Without expressly committing to play his regulars the next two weeks as the Patriots pursue the NFL's second perfect season, coach Bill Belichick said as much. "We'll do what we always do," he said in his postgame news conference. Keep in mind, the Patriots play the Miami Dolphins at home. Asked if his playing time might be reduced, Brady said, "I hope I play every snap."

The Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns, in position for the AFC's two wild-card berths, leaned heavily on well-traveled running backs. Fred Taylor gashed the Steelers for 147 rushing yards in Jacksonville's win. The Browns rode Jamal Lewis (163 rushing yards) to an 8-0 victory that hurt the Buffalo Bills' playoff chances in a Cleveland blizzard. Lewis was a huge pickup for the Browns.

One of the strangest plays of Week 15 came in Dallas, when Eagles running back Brian Westbrook fell on the ball at the Cowboys' 1-yard line with just over two minutes left and a 10-6 lead. Westbrook could've walked in for a touchdown and 17-6 lead, but opted to let the Eagles run out the clock, which they did. As heady as it was, it held an element of risk in event of a bizarre fumble when Donovan McNabb downed the ball twice.

After their shockingly easy win over the Ravens last week, the Indianapolis Colts nailed down the AFC's No. 2 seed, but needed to come from behind to beat the Oakland Raiders, 21-14.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed another worst-to-first story, winning the NFC South title with a 37-3 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons. The Bucs still trail the Seattle Seahawks - both teams are 9-5 - in the NFC seedings because of a Week 1 loss in Seattle.

Now that the Dolphins are off the 0-16 grind, the Ravens own the NFL's longest losing streak at eight, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs (seven) and Lions (six).

In a concession to the weather and perhaps the impending playoffs, the Patriots ran the ball 35 times for 131 yards, and Brady threw only 27 passes. They will need the running game if they get another bad-weather game like that.

Carolina's improbable 13-10 win over the Seahawks probably saved coach John Fox's job. In a season that was spiraling out of control, the 6-8 Panthers beat a division champion with a rookie quarterback (Matt Moore). Moore is the fourth quarterback to start for the Panthers.

Last week's sudden and shocking departure of Falcons coach Bobby Petrino is merely the latest in an alarming list of college coaches who couldn't hack it in the NFL and retraced their steps. Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis and Nick Saban all struggled with life in the NFL and scrambled back to college.

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