The Jets, Browns, Colts and Falcons are the last ones in the 12-team field.
By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002
Before Sunday, left tackle Mark Dixon could only imagine what it would be like if Miami, considered by some to be one of the league's elite teams, missed the playoffs.
He doesn't have to imagine now.
In a wild finish to the playoff race, the Dolphins (9-7) emerged as the most baffling story.
They squandered a 5-1 start with their 27-24 overtime loss at New England on Sunday that, coupled with a Jets victory, ousted them from the playoffs though they led the AFC East going into Sunday.
As a result, the Browns and Jets completed late-season charges to gain surprising berths: the Jets as East champions and Cleveland as a wild card.
"I can remember this room after the second game we played, against New England," Jets coach Herman Edwards said of his team, which started 1-4. "Then our third game, against Miami. I think someone said the season was over. I wasn't smart enough to know that, and the players weren't dumb enough to believe that."
The Raiders (11-5), who have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and Titans (11-5) earned first-round byes. In this weekend's wild-card games, the AFC North champion Steelers (10-5-1) host the Browns (9-7) at 1 p.m. Sunday (Ch. 10) and the Jets (9-7) host the Colts (10-6) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday (Ch. 28).
In the NFC, the East division champion Eagles have a first-round bye. The other first-round bye goes to the Bucs (12-4), who beat the Bears Sunday night.
The Bucs earned the No. 2 seed and a week off. The Packers host a wild-card game against the Falcons (9-6-1) at 8 Saturday (Ch. 28) and the No. 4 seed 49ers host the Giants (10-6) at 4:30 Sunday (Ch. 13).
Green Bay could have earned homefield throughout the playoffs by beating the Jets.
The Raiders and Titans not only finished as the AFC's top teams, but are the favorites because they appear to be peaking heading into the postseason. After losing four straight near midseason, the Raiders won seven of their final eight, including their last two by a combined score of 52-16.
The Titans started 1-4 but won 10 of their final 11, including four against playoff-bound teams. They outscored the last three foes 65-20.
The Browns might have the worst chance of advancing beyond the wild-card game. They will be without starting quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his right leg early in Sunday's win over Atlanta.
He played well lately, rallying the Browns to a 14-13 win Dec. 22 at the Ravens. In the playoffs, the Browns are expected to turn to backup Kelly Holcomb, who has played sparingly this season.
The NFC is more wide open. The Eagles, Bucs and Packers have slumped a tad lately, the Eagles and Packers having lost their finales. The Bucs lost in their second-to-last game to the Steelers at home and their starting quarterback, Brad Johnson, has a sore back which has kept him out the past two games.
By far, though, the most shocking development was the Dolphins' elimination. Who imagined a team with four Pro Bowl players, including the league's leading rusher in Ricky Williams, could miss the playoffs? Certainly few in Miami, where fans dreamed of reaching the Super Bowl after the team traded for Williams in the offseason.
But it was another late-season flop by the Dolphins, who have a reputation for finishing weakly.
"This team does not have a killer instinct," Miami linebacker Zach Thomas told the Associated Press. "You can say all you want about how we should have (beaten New England), but I'm sick and tired of hearing how good we are. We can't win a big game."