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Scenarios finally play out today

NFL fans can put away the slide rules, forget the tiebreakers and enjoy decision day.

By ROGER MILLS
Published January 2, 2005


PHOENIX - This is exactly how the NFL wants it.

Last weekend of the regular season. Much at stake. Marquee matchups featuring teams with everything to gain ... and everything to lose.

As decision Sunday gets under way, games such as Tampa Bay's afternoon venture in Arizona carry no significance in the playoff picture. But those aren't the ones the NFL is banking on.

The Vikings are at the Redskins, and the Saints are in Carolina. Those are pretty good.

The Jets are at the Rams, and the Falcons are in Seattle. Those are even better.

The Colts in Denver, and the Steelers in Buffalo? Those are absolute doozies.

Can you say cha-ching?

Four teams are vying for three spots in the NFC and five teams have a chance at two spots in the AFC.

In the NFC, the Eagles (13-2), Falcons (11-4) and Packers (9-6) are in as division champs. The Seahawks (8-7) have clinched at least a wild card. The Vikings (8-7), Rams (7-8), Panthers (7-8) and Saints (7-8) are keeping hope alive.

And check this out, if the Rams win and the Seahawks lose, St. Louis would win the West and host an opening-round game. If Seattle wins, the Rams are out completely.

"It's thrilling," Rams coach Mike Martz told the St. Louis media. "After all the drama that we've been through this year, being in position to potentially be in the playoffs - how awesome is that?"

Here are a couple things to look for in the NFC. Bear in mind that ties can confuse these scenarios.

The Panthers, who began 1-7, make the playoffs with a win over the Saints and losses by the Vikings and Rams or a win plus a Vikings loss and a Seahawks win.

The Saints, who were 3-5, need a win along with a Rams loss or tie. If the Saints and Rams win, New Orleans can still get in with a tie or a loss by the Vikings.

The Vikings are in with a win or a tie but will go to St. Louis or Seattle in the opening round. They also make it if the Panthers or Rams lose or tie.

A loss to the Redskins, however, could eliminate Minnesota, which means for the second time in as many seasons, the Vikings go into the final week in a playoff atmosphere.

Last season the Vikings dropped a heartbreaking 18-17 decision to the Cardinals when Nathan Poole caught a pass from quarterback Josh McCown with no time left. The loss sent the Vikings packing after a 6-0 start. The Vikings are banking that such misfortune doesn't strike twice.

"We went through this last year," Vikings receiver Nate Burleson told the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. "We try not to focus on what happened. But at the same time, we know what it feels like to end the season on the last game. Hopefully, we can finish strong. Coach (Mike) Tice talks about it all the time. If we finish strong, everything's going to be all right."

A calculator might be necessary to compute all the NFC possibilities, but the AFC may be worked out by using your fingers.

The Steelers (14-1), Patriots (13-2), Colts (12-3) and Chargers (11-4) are division winners with games that have no impact on their playoff seeding.

Pittsburgh and New England have byes next weekend and host division playoff games in two weeks. The Colts and Chargers host wild-card games next weekend.

That leaves the Jets (10-5), Broncos (9-6), Bills (9-6), Jaguars (8-7) and Ravens (8-7) in a dogfight for two spots.

The Bills make the playoffs and cap a remarkable turnaround with a win against the Steelers (who are playing only to stay sharp), coupled with a loss by the Jets or Broncos. The Bills also get in with a tie and a Denver loss.

The Jets are in with a win or a tie, or if the Bills and Broncos lose or tie.

The Ravens have a slim chance. They need to win and have the Bills, Broncos and Jaguars lose.

Like the Ravens, the Jaguars need to win and have the Bills and Broncos lose.

Then there are the Broncos. As host to the Colts, who locked up the No. 3 seed, Denver needs a win. Conventional wisdom suggests the Colts might not play their starters much, but the Broncos are planning for Indianapolis' best effort.

"If you expect anything other than that, you're falling into a trap," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told the Denver Post. "All that I know is that I've got to get our football team ready, and we've got to win this football game to get in the playoffs."

The Broncos-Colts game carries great interest in Indianapolis too. Not only can Peyton Manning add to his NFL record 49 touchdown passes this season, but the Colts have a chance to give coach Tony Dungy his first 13-win season.

"We're going out there to win," Dungy said at a news conference last week. "I'd like to win No. 13 and we'd like to go in with a nine-game winning streak. There are a lot of things we want to do in terms of keeping that momentum and continuing to be sharp."

Dungy said the Colts will start their regulars and won't pull them after 10 plays. But he hinted they might not be on the field in the second half.

Still, it would be risky for the Bills or Broncos to assume their opponents will shut things down too early.

Broncos safety John Lynch remembered losing a meaningless finale with the Bucs against the Eagles (17-13) in 2001. In that game, the Bucs, then coached by Dungy, rested most of their starters. They played the Eagles the next week in the opening round of the playoffs and were crushed 31-9.

Lynch said Dungy likely won't make that mistake again.

"We weren't as sharp as we could have been," Lynch said. "I think we'll get their best shot."

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