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Schedule deals a cold shoulder

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


Putting together the NFL schedule is an arduous task involving factors too numerous to list.

But is it asking too much to have warm-weather teams play at home in the last week? Tampa Bay, Miami, Jacksonville and Arizona play in cold climates this weekend. A league official said Monday it's just a coincidence.

It seems it would have been fairly easy to change the schedule. The Bucs and Dolphins are playing division games that, in theory, could have been reversed.

Wouldn't it have been better if Tampa Bay had played at Green Bay on Nov.12 and the Packers at Raymond James on Sunday? How about the Dolphins playing at New England on Sept.24 and the Patriots in Miami this weekend?

In a word, maybe. Switching the Miami-New England games would not have created a bad circumstance, but if you flip-flop the Tampa Bay-Green Bay games with no other consideration, the Bucs would have been forced to play three consecutive road games, including back-to-back against Green Bay and Chicago.

Clearly, altering the schedule is not easy, and someone is going to end up with an advantage no matter how you configure it. If it seems unfair that Tampa Bay has to play at Green Bay, imagine how the Bears felt when they were forced to face the Bucs at 1 p.m. Sept.10. Even Tampa Bay fans would have preferred a later starting time.

And the truth is, many fans love to watch those snow games -- from the comfort of their homes. Admit it: You watched at least a portion of that Tennessee-Cleveland game just because it was fun to see Eddie George romp around in the snow. Some of John Facenda's best prose involves men battling the elements as well as the opponent.

Wintry wonderlands boost ratings and leave indelible memories. The Ice Bowl, the Monday night Denver-Green Bay battle during a Mile High snow storm and the Dallas-Miami Thanksgiving clash in which Keith Byars made a snow angel in the end zone come to mind.

It's entertaining, but one of these days some team, such as the Bucs, may not be able to frolic in the snow because it will be stuck on a runway in Tampa or Milwaukee. When that day comes, we'll be wondering why the Packers weren't flying into Tampa International.

STOP BELLYACHING: Raiders fans have been gnashing their teeth about Saturday's loss to Seattle, which was aided by a controversial safety.

Why are they crying?

Even with the safety, which came when Raiders safety Marquez Pope slid into the end zone trying to recover a fumble, Oakland had a three-point lead. If the Raiders had stopped the Seahawks from marching 61 yards on the ensuing drive, they would have won. How were they robbed?

The whole thing is pretty academic because Denver and Miami lost. All Oakland likely forfeited was the opportunity to have homefield throughout the playoffs, but chances are it still will win the AFC West and get a first-round bye.

Meanwhile, the league is likely to change the momentum rule on fumbles. It changed the rule on interceptions after a similar play in 1985 involving Cincinnati's Lewis Breeden. No one thought to change the rule for fumbles, and it has twice come into play this season. Carolina's Doug Evans had a similar play against the Seahawks.

UP IN THE AIR: If it seems as if the playoff picture usually is clearer going into the last week, you're right. Not since 1980 has no division been clinched until the next to last week. The Giants clinched the NFC East with a narrow victory over Dallas, but if they had lost, no team would have had a division crown.

Given the uncertainty, perhaps it's only right coach Jim Fassel be low key about New York's title, its first since 1997.

"By no stretch of imagination am I looking at this as the top of the mountain or we've reached the pinnacle or anything else," Fassel said. "This week the goal changes to position ourselves the best we can for the playoffs, and then to go after the ultimate goal that we all shoot for."

BIG-APPLE BOWL: The Giants have done their part to keep alive the possibility of an all-New York Super Bowl, but the Jets are another story.

Sunday's loss to Detroit put the Jets in the position of having to beat Baltimore to assure a playoff spot, and though they have such stars as Vinny Testaverde, Wayne Chrebet and Curtis Martin, the team's chances very well may come down to backup linebacker Dwayne Gordon.

Gordon has to replace Bryan Cox, who broke his leg against Detroit. With Baltimore thriving off a grinding rushing attack, it'll be critical for Gordon to slow Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes.

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

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