They're a pretty sorry bunch of playoff contenders. They came into last weekend needing a win to stay alive or clinch a berth or even win a division outright. Some got blown away, a few played their worst game of the season, and one of them, the Patriots, got suckered by a 282-pound defensive lineman.
Maybe the league could switch the format and put an asterisk next to one team and say, "Look, you're going to be gentlemanly and cede your spot to the Bengals, since they're playing the most interesting football in the league right now." No? Can't do it at this late date? Well I guess not, so here's what we're left with.
The Bucs, needing a win for their first postseason berth in 15 years, got slaughtered by the Jets. While they were wringing their hands over the loss, they found out they were in the playoffs anyway because the Panthers, desperately hanging on and needing two wins, got massacred by the Packers.
The Redskins, with a division title on the line, turned the ball over six times and got blown out by the Giants. New England, with a chance to move on top in the AFC East, holding an eight-point lead and the ball with 2:10 to go against the Steelers, saw it all go poof when defensive end Kevin Henry returned an interception 36 yards, setting up the touchdown and two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime. The Pats' loss put Miami in swell position to move on top a day later, and we know what happened in that one. Colts 41, Dolphins zip.
The Vikings could have clinched a playoff spot by beating the Lions in Minnesota. So with two minutes left Eddie Murray blew a 37-yard field goal that would have put the game out of reach, and the Lions drove 72 yards for the win.
O.K., now we're down to the final week, and there will be furious battles on all fronts to see who will advance into the playoffs. Before I get into the prognosticating, let me give you one statistic. Since 1970, when a second wild-card team was added, 100 teams have played in the first round. Three have reached the Super Bowl.
The winner of Monday night's New England- Miami battle will take the AFC East. The Jets can't win it (unless the Patriots-Dolphins game ends in a tie), and if they lose to Detroit, they're out of the playoffs and the Patriots-Dolphins loser is in.
What a dismal pair of locker rooms in Foxboro and Indianapolis last weekend. There was a nasty confrontation between the New England defenders and the offensive group. The defense felt the offense had blown the game with that fatal pass, leading one defensive player to say bitterly, "We've been on the field 80 plays a game for weeks now. And all the coach says now is, 'We've got one game left. Think about Miami.' What's going to be different?" Eighty-eight snaps against the Steelers, five straight games in which the enemy has run more than 70 plays, and that's got to have a long-range effect.
But the Dolphins aren't exactly riding high. Dan Marino's 71 yards passing against the Colts were the second fewest in his career. (He threw for 67 in Indianapolis last year, but he broke his ankle in the first quarter of that one.) Jimmy Johnson's press conference lasted exactly 95 seconds and he answered three questions, one of them from a tipsy fan who'd somehow gotten past security.
I like the Patriots to beat Miami on the road. I like the way their defensive people were flying to the ball and gang-tackling Jerome Bettis. They deserved better against Pittsburgh.