By: Bob George/
December 15, 2002

No Brady or Gronk, but plenty of storylines at Patriots OTAs
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski not at the start of the team's OTA's today
NFL notes: Don't be surprised if Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers rise up for Patriots
New Patriots DL Danny Shelton preps to hit the hill
Patriots center David Andrews excited with his new Georgia Bulldog teammates

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We found this out last year. When the Pats get the help, a Vince is on the way.

Naturally, such extreme speculation is unfounded, especially given the strength of the top three teams in the NFC. Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Green Bay look incredibly tough right now, and the Packers own a victory at Foxborough earlier this season. This corner of the Nation predicted the Eagles would win the NFC Championship in the preseason.

But as long as it's still about the AFC for the moment, such we will key on at this time.

And the AFC is fast becoming the poster child for the Parity Proponents of America. Not one single playoff berth is clinched yet, with the near-conclusion of Week 15 at hand. Things are such that the Patriots could finish at 11-5 and secure home field throughout the playoffs. Things are also such that the Patriots could wind up as the only team in the AFC with 11 wins. Now that's parity.

As things stand right now, the only teams that can still win 11 games in the conference are New England, Miami, Oakland, Indianapolis and Tennessee. New England can hand both Miami and Tennessee a sixth loss, and the Patriots win a tiebreaker with the Colts if both teams win out. Oakland remains the one team in the conference who can nail down the top seed if it wins out, as they hold the tiebreaker with New England based upon their win a few weeks back at Oakland.

That said, it is time to extend a great debt of thanks to a few nice NFL teams for their good work on Sunday, all of which scored wins that benefited the Patriots.

The Chicago Bears once again hosted an AFC East team in Champaign-Urbana, but this time managed to hold the lead in the fourth quarter. Despite the Jets making a furious run at the Bears in the final minutes, Wayne Chrebet's wacky attempt at hurdling a tackler forced him to cough up the ball, and thus sealing a Chicago 20-13 win. The Jets are now at 7-7, and could drop two games behind the Patriots if the world champs score a win Monday night against the Titans. Whatever the case, the Jets were eliminated from any chance at a division win with the loss. Wild Card hopes now loom with whomever finishes second in the AFC East and the AFC West. Possibly the AFC South runner-up might have a say, if Tennessee can win at least ten games.

Hang the draft pick. Patriot Nation had to be cheering high and mighty for Drew Bledsoe today. The Bills got a late touchdown run by Travis Henry, and the Bills dealt the San Diego Chargers their sixth loss, 20-13. This ensures that the Patriots will finish ahead of San Diego if the champs win out. No matter what, the Patriots seem to be looking at mid-first round for a draft pick compensation from Buffalo. Today, the Patriots needed the Bills to win. And win they did. The Bolts hold a tiebreaker edge over the Patriots, based upon the meeting back on Week 4, a 21-14 San Diego win at the Q.

Finally, you might want to take a poll and find out who was rooting for Oakland to beat Miami today. Everyone needs to understand that right now, Oakland losses are much more valuable than Miami losses. If the Patriots win out, it doesn't matter what Miami does since one of those wins will be over Miami. With a possible one seed at stake, Patriot Nation had to be rooting like crazy for Miami to win today at home in south Florida.

And the Fish did not disappoint, and to make matters better, they played a less-than-perfect game at home in defeating the Raiders, 23-17. Jay Fiedler, Ricky Williams and Chris Chambers enjoyed pretty good games, but the Dolphins nearly coughed up a 17-3 lead. Oakland had pulled to within 20-17 when Olindo Mare missed a 40-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. It took a miracle interception by Patrick Surtain late in the game (Surtain made a diving one-handed catch to take a long gainer away from Jerry Rice) to finally seal the deal.

By Oakland losing, the Patriots can now think about a possible one seed. For that to happen, two things need to occur.

First, the Patriots have to finish with 11 wins and hope that nobody else other than Indianapolis does the same. Of course, the only other team that could do that would be Oakland. The Patriots would also have to hope for Oakland to lose one of their remaining games, home dates with Denver and Kansas City. Both games are winnable, but both games are losable as well.

A second scenario, a bit far-fetched at that, would call for the Patriots to lose one of their next two contests (Titans, Jets) and finish at 10-6 (they would then need to beat Miami and win the division based upon division record). If this happened, Pittsburgh would then have to lose one of its last two (one of them is a road game at Tampa Bay), Tennessee would have to lose a seventh game (this caveat not needed if the Patriots beat the Titans and lose to the Jets), Indianapolis would have to lose one game (this would be a reach, since the Colts have home dates with the Giants and the Jaguars left), Oakland would have to lose both the aforementioned home games (also a reach), Denver would have to drop its finale with Arizona and San Diego would have to lose one of its last two (a road date with Kansas City is a possibility here).

Realistically, the Patriots shut themselves out of a one seed with one more loss. One more Colt loss and one more Steeler loss greatly helps give the Patriots a cushion for a first-round bye. It is likely that the Patriots' playoff fate will come down to the season finale at home with Miami.

That said, the Patriots would be drawn and quartered by Bill Belichick if he caught them looking ahead to Miami. Suffice it to say that the Patriots are totally focused on beating the Titans Monday night. It's just that some teams made the road to a one seed for the Patriots a little easier, albeit still a little hard to attain.

The biggest question is: Can the Patriots duplicate their feat of last season and win their last seven games? They're at four down and three to go at the moment. Nothing else really matters unless the Patriots do come home at 11-5 once again.

What the Raiders do won't concern the Patriots, perhaps at all. Winning that grudge match a few weeks ago at the Black Hole was almost a given for the Raiders, with all that they had to prove on the line that night. The Patriots would be tickled pink if the road to the Super Bowl did not have to go through the Black Hole. Having to go back there to try and return to the Super Bowl would be a harder task than winning that regular season matchup of a few weeks back.

All the Patriots really want to do is to win the division. Win out and they secure a second straight year of a bye week and a home playoff game in the divisional round. That may be all they can hope for at that time, as winning out will be a supreme accomplishment in its own right, regardless of what Oakland does. It further underscores how meaningless what Oakland does is if the Patriots don't at least win out.

That is why all of Patriot Nation will be on pins and needles on Monday night. This will be a tough game against an opponent who is on the rise and who has seen recent past glory. The Titan fans will be out in force, making life miserable for Tom Brady and company.

But it still doesn't hurt to call up your local Bear, Dolphin and Bill fan and offer up a bit of early holiday cheer. Their faves did your faves a favor on Sunday. Toast 'em, thank 'em, and appreciate 'em.

For the moment, at least. Especially the Fish Faithful.