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NFL

6 Sunday showdowns to shape NFL playoffs

Each game pits contending teams with critical implications.

By ROGER MILLS
Published December 5, 2003

College football has rivalry weekend, and apparently so does the NFL.

A muddled playoff picture should begin coming into focus Sunday with six marquee games, each with critical implications.

Week 14 brings games pitting the top two teams in five divisions and a sixth game between a division leader and a runnerup from another division.

None of this is by accident.

"With the advent of parity, there's no question that there are more teams alive for playoff spots this time of the year than there has ever been," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said.

"The league does, by design, schedule more division and conference games at this time of the year, for that reason. From a competitive standpoint, that's the beauty of the system. It's given every team hope. We have as many teams alive as possible and what that gives you is great games at the end."

While the Bucs (5-7) travel to New Orleans (6-6) for a game they must win to stay alive, a host of other NFC teams could shape their destiny starting Sunday.

In the AFC, the Chiefs (11-1), Titans (9-3), Colts (9-3) and Patriots (10-2) appear locks for the playoffs and are now battling for seeding. But key games between them and wild-card contenders will affect who's playing and where come January.

Here's the rundown:

COWBOYS (8-4) AT EAGLES (9-3): That the Cowboys are in the driver's seat for their first playoff appearance since 1999 explains why owners were prepared to fire playoff coaches to get Bill Parcells.

Earlier in the season, a 28-yard field goal by Bill Cundiff gave the Cowboys a 23-21 win at Texas Stadium. But they have fallen a game behind the Eagles and need to draw even for that tiebreaker to mean something.

The Eagles, winners of an NFL best seven in a row, appear to have found their stride at the right time. This should come as no surprise since Philadelphia is 25-5 in November and December since 2000, the best mark in the NFL during that period.

A win over the Cowboys will clinch a playoff spot and give the Eagles a two-game lead with three to go. It also evens the head-to-head race.

Eagles fans will be happy to note that quarterback Donovan McNabb has eight touchdowns and one interception in his past four games against the Cowboys.

"Their offense seems to be a little more diversified than what it was early in the season," Parcells said of the Eagles. "When you can hand it off and make yards and you can throw it and make yards, it gives the quarterback a pretty relaxed environment in which to operate."

SEAHAWKS (8-4) AT VIKINGS (7-5): While they are 7-0 at home, the Seahawks have been woeful on the road. A Seahawk victory will solidify any legitimate chance to get past the first round of the playoffs.

Trailing the Rams by one game, the Seahawks can't afford to fall out of the West division race since teams like the Bucs, Saints, Packers, Eagles and Cowboys still have wild-card hopes.

"It's December," Vikings linebacker Greg Biekert said. "It's the month in the NFL."

After starting the season with six straight wins, the Vikings have come back to earth dropping five of six games. Part of the reason is the resurgence of quarterback Daunte Culpepper's turnover problems.

Plagued by fumbles and interceptions much of last season, Culpepper had protected the ball admirably through the early win streak. But in the past six games he has 10 turnovers (six picks and four fumbles lost).

With the Packers (6-6) and the Bears (5-7) right behind, the North division race is too tight to predict. Minnesota has a chance to create some breathing room with a win, particularly if the Packers lose to the Bears at Lambeau Field.

DOLPHINS (8-4) AT PATRIOTS (10-2): The closeness of this rivalry can't be understated. The last two times they played, the games went into overtime, and four of their seven games in this decade have been decided by seven points or less.

Of course, the Patriots won the last two overtime games and seem to have an emotional edge over their AFC East rival.

New England can clinch the division title with a win, securing a home playoff game at the very least.

The playoffs remain a comfortable possibility for the Dolphins, though not a certainty. Only one second-place team, Tennessee, has more wins than the Dolphins, but Miami finishes against the Eagles, at the Bills and against the Jets.

What bodes well for the Dolphins is that running back Ricky Williams is starting to reassert himself. He gained 104 yards against the Cowboys last week to mark the fourth consecutive year he has rushed for 1,000. In three games against the Patriots, Williams has 384 yards.

Important? Absolutely. Through the past 14 games, the team that has rushed for more yards has won 12 games.

"I think they're better now, they have some momentum going," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi told the Boston Globe. "They won like two football games in five days. They're feeling good about themselves. Their offense has some momentum going. They're where they want to be, so it's going to be a fight when they come up here."

COLTS (9-3) AT TITANS (9-3): Perhaps there's a soothsayer in the schedulemaker's office who predicted that on Dec. 7 the teams would be tied at the top of the AFC South. Or perhaps it's just good luck.

While both likely will make the playoffs, the difference between winning the division and being a wild card will be significant. Finishing with 10 or 11 wins will earn a first-round bye for one and a first-round game for the other.

The Colts, who hammered the Titans 33-7 on Sept. 14 behind 120 yards from Edgerrin James, are listed ahead of the Titans due to that tiebreaker. But a loss to the Patriots last week, in which they failed to score on four tries inside the 2-yard line, will challenge the road team.

"It really doesn't change our situation at all in terms of winning the division," Colts coach Tony Dungy told the Indianapolis Star. "It puts us behind the eight ball in getting byes and homefield and that type of thing. But to win the division, because we lost to Jacksonville, we were going to have to win this game no matter what."

The big question for the Titans is the health of quarterback Steve McNair. The NFL's leader in fan voting for the Pro Bowl has been having a career year but is bothered by a calf injury.

BENGALS (7-5) AT RAVENS (7-5): How impressive a job has Marvin Lewis done? Well, the once-labeled "Bungles" are not just talking playoffs but winning the AFC North title and hosting a playoff game.

"As long as I've been here, December was just December," Bengals running back Corey Dillon said. "It didn't mean much. This is different."

Very different. The Bengals have overachieved and along the way sent some messages. They knocked off the Ravens 34-26 on Oct. 19, then took out the previously unbeaten Chiefs 24-19 on Nov. 16, proving they are not intimidated.

That'll be necessary since the Ravens are beginning to look more like the bruisers who bashed their way to a Super Bowl title in 2000.

In this series, the Ravens have won nine of the past 11, and have proved in the past two games they are not all defense.

Quarterback Anthony Wright has passed for six touchdowns and one interception his past two starts.

CHIEFS (11-1) AT BRONCOS (7-5): Had it not been for a spectacular effort from Peter Warrick and good all-around play from the rest of the Bengals, the Chiefs could be 12-0 and legitimately threatening the '72 Dolphins' record.

Nonetheless, Kansas City has rebounded nicely with two wins and looks every bit as dangerous. A win or a tie gives the Chiefs the AFC West title and a stronghold on homefield advantage through the AFC playoff run.

Running back Priest Holmes leads the league with 17 TDs, putting him eight behind Emmitt Smith's NFL record of 25, set in 1995.

The Broncos hopes will rely on winning three of their last four games and hoping second-place teams like the Dolphins, Titans and Bengals falter.

The return to health of quarterback Jake Plummer should prove profitable since he is 4-1 against teams in the West division.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 01:34:13]


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