Odd & Evens
THE PLAYOFF POSSIBILITIES ARE STAGGERING
by Ed Odeven
American Reporter Correspondent
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz., Dec. 27, 2002 -- When the National Football League's 2002 began, people expected this to be a competitive season. After all, this era of free agency and the salary cap essentially eliminated the threat of long-term dynasties.
Nobody, however, expected this season to be so unpredictable. Week after week, there are countless upsets, a plethora of down-to-the-wire contests. So-called experts have as much luck choosing the winners as clerks in neighborhoodhood convenience stores.
Entering the NFL's final week of regular-season games, 19 of the league's 32 teams are in playoff contention or have already assured themselves a spot in the 10-team postseason tournament. Playoff implications will be part of 12 of the 16 games on this week's slate - talk about keeping the fans' collective interest.
U.S.A Today provided an accurate description of what this weekend truly is. "Playoff jumble," proclaims the headline for the centerpiece story previewing the weekend's gridiron action.
Earlier this season, a story in The New York Times suggested that a two-game winning streak by the New York Giants was a "tsunami of success," based on what is considered success these days in the unpredictable, mercurial league.
So what does all this mean? No one is completely certain. I certainly won't pretend that I am. commentary for the sake of commentary, there is no seemingly invincible team.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers have the league's best won-loss records at 12-3. They are clearly tough teams to beat. The Eagles have excelled throughout the second half of the season with starting quarterback Donovan McNabb sidelined. The Packers have relied on the great arm, talent and leadership of QB Brett Favre to give them another playoff berth.
So, yeah, the Eagles and Packers have their fair share of supporters, people who think they are teams to beat in the playoffs.
Then there's the San Francisco 49ers, who play in the disappointing and weak NFC West. Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens are potent weapons leading a very good offensive ballclub.
And let's not forget the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who under John Gruden have a chance to win it all, like the Raiders did last year with Gruden at the helm. The Bucs' defense is superb, allowing a league-low of 196 points so far.
The New York Giants, who have looked totally dominating in recent weeks, face a must-win game against Philly. Otherwise, they'll need some help from the New Orleans Saints, i.e. a Giants tie and a Saints loss or tie.
The 9-5-1 Atlanta Falcons have the league's most electrifying player, Michael Vick, running the show. The Saints (9-6) are right behind them in the ultra-tough NFC South. Both are wild-card contenders. Neither is guaranteed a spot, although the Falcons have the inside edge (they need to win or tie).
The AFC is a mess, a jigsaw puzzle without the necessary corner pieces. Consider: Thirteen of the conference's 16 teams have a chance to finish at .500 or higher.
Two teams have the best record in the AFC: The Oakland Raiders and Tenneroller coasterat 10-5.
The Raiders have been on a rollercoaster all year, starting the campaign with four wins, followed by four straight defeats, then five wins, a loss and a win last week against Denver, 28-16. They have clinched the AFC West.
Knotted in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC West, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego all remain in contention with 8-7 records.
The Tennessee Titans, meanwhile, have won nine of their last 10 games. They have clinched the AFC South. At 9-6, the Indianapolis Colts also could earn a playoff berth, thanks in large part to Peyton Manning's strong right arm and Marvin Harrison's sensational, record-breaking season at wideout.
In the AFC Central, the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5-1) have locked up a spot. The Cleveland Browns (8-7) are still alive, too, and much to the delight of the city's Art Modell haters (the owner who moved the original Browns to Baltimore) the Ravens are one game behind 'em in the standings.
It says here the Ravens nearly need a miracle to make the playoffs. Here's what has to happen: The Ravens win and the New England Patriots lose and the New York Jets lose and the Browns lose and the Broncos lose and the Chargers lose and the Chiefs lose. Yikes, that's a lot of what-ifs for Baltimore fans if the Ravens falter at Pittsburgh Sunday!
Last, but not least, there's the mess known as the AFC East. The division title is still up for grabs. Miami is the front-runner with a 9-6 record, but the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots are 8-7, as are the Jets, who recovered from a dreadful three-game slide early in the season, found their quarterback of the future in Chad Pennington, and rediscovered how to play stellar defense and run the ball.
So enjoy this weekend's NFL action. But remember what a wise man once said, "Expect the unexpected."