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The race for the playoffs

Ten wins might not be enough, and it's impossible to predict how this will shake out.

By DARRELL FRY
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 7, 2001


The magic number in the NFL usually has been 10. Win 10 regular-season games and you're all but assured of making the playoffs.

With five weeks remaining in the regular season, there are a host of teams within reach of 10, but the only thing they seem assured of is a lot of anxious moments over the next few weeks.

For the first time since 1991, when San Francisco and Philadelphia missed the playoffs with 10-6 records, 10 might not be enough.

"If you win 10, there's a very slim chance that you won't be in, but I don't think we've had this many teams with seven, eight wins at this point in the season before," said Bucs coach Tony Dungy, whose team is one of those on the bubble at 6-5. "If you win your division, you know you're in. Other than that, it's a crapshoot."

It's a good bet that division front-runners such as the Bears (9-2), Rams (9-2), 49ers (9-2) and Steelers (9-2) will make it, either by winning their divisions or as wild cards. The Bears can clinch a playoff spot Sunday if they win in Green Bay and the Bucs, Giants and Falcons lose.

Others, including the Packers (8-3), Dolphins (8-3), Raiders (8-3) and Ravens (8-4), barring collapse, also probably are in.

Still, with the unpredictability we've seen this season (can anyone believe the Cardinals beat the Raiders on Sunday in Oakland?), all of this comes with a huge disclaimer.

"Who the heck knows?" said former quarterback and CBS broadcaster Phil Simms when asked how things would shake out.

In the NFC, the Rams host the 49ers on Sunday with the winner taking possession of first place in the NFC West. Even if the Rams lose, they'll still likely win the division because of a remaining schedule of New Orleans (6-5), Carolina (1-11), Indianapolis (4-7) and Atlanta (6-5).

The Packers and Bears also fight for first place Sunday. If the Bears win, they'll have a two-game lead on the second-place Packers, which probably will prove insurmountable. If the Packers win and earn a share of first place, the division race probably will go down to the final week, when the Bears host the Jaguars and the Packers play at the Giants.

The Eagles (7-4) have a two-game lead in the NFC East, but the race is wide open because the Eagles have been up and down while the Redskins (5-6) and Cardinals (5-6) have been streaking.

Still, unless the Eagles totally come apart, they probably will hang on to the lead. The Redskins, Cardinals and Giants (5-6) pretty much have to run the table to get in, and their remaining schedules don't make that likely.

The final wild-card spot figures to go either to the Bucs or Saints. The Falcons have a shot, but with quarterback Chris Chandler's health in question and a remaining schedule that includes a home game against the Saints and road games at the Dolphins and Rams, the going will be tough.

"I think St. Louis has the best chance of winning it all because both their losses came when they didn't play very well," former Cowboys fullback and Fox Sports broadcaster Daryl Johnston said. "They're hard to beat if they don't help you out a little bit."

In the AFC, the Raiders pretty much have the West division title wrapped up. The Dolphins and Jets (7-4) are only a game apart atop the East, but the third-place Patriots (7-5), 1 1/2 games behind Miami, look to be the best bet to win the division because of their soft remaining schedule that includes the Bills (1-10) and Panthers.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins must play at the 49ers and Patriots and at home against the Falcons. And the Jets are at the Steelers on Sunday and finish at the Raiders.

The Central figures to come down to the Steelers and Ravens, who face each other in Baltimore a week from Sunday in a game that could decide control of first place. The Ravens, who trail the Steelers by 1 1/2 games, probably have to win that game to have any chance at the division crown.

The Browns are toast because of a remaining schedule that includes road games against the Patriots, Packers, Titans and Steelers. Same goes for the Seahawks (6-5), Broncos (6-6) and Titans (5-6), all of whom would probably have to win out to make the postseason.

"I think we'll know a lot more pretty soon," CBS broadcaster Randy Cross said. "Give it two more weeks."

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