By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 23, 2002

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Guess the urgency level Sunday night wasn't enough for the Patriots.

Why? Because your lads can still win the division at 9-7. With the one seed gone with a Tennessee win and a two seed gone with an Oakland win, and a three seed gone with Pittsburgh winning Monday night, why knock yourselves out against the Jets when the real deal is needed only next Sunday against Miami? And, for that matter, why worry about Miami when those sad sacks are coming off a loss at Minnesota last Saturday?

Oh, the players will deny all this. They'll tell you that they played hard and that they were outgunned by Tennessee and the Jets. They'll say how ashamed they are, they'll say all the right things that you the fan want to hear, they'll promise they'll work real hard next time.

That's the problem. Next time. The Patriots have still yet to run out of next times.

Ugh. The Patriots are playing some awfully awful football down the stretch, yet stand to win the division and gain the four seed in the playoffs. All they have to do is to beat Miami and hope the Jets stink out the joint at home against Green Bay, which might just happen given how poorly the Jets play at home and that the Packers will be gunning for home field advantage. You have seen how bad the Patriots have become, and yet they are still on the cusp of their second straight division title. And you can think of only one thing to say.

Shame.

Shame on the players. Shame on the coaching staff. Shame on the support personnel. Shame on all the Patriots for still being able to win the division. Sorry, folks, but this is the only way you the Patriot fan should feel right now.

Oh, well, I suppose we'll have to crunch all this stuff and figure out how the playoffs are going to pan out for the Patriots. Assuming the Patriots don't out-stink the Dolphins at home and the Jets stumble against the Pack, which will give the Patriots the division title, we're going to see what real chance the world champs have at staying world champs.

And believe me, we are all sick to death of the word "assume". We all assumed the Patriots would run the table after 5-5 and repeat what they did last year. We all forgot that when you assume, you make an ass out of "u" and me. That's about as poetic as Yours Truly gets.

First of all, can the Patriots still get the 3 seed? Sorry, folks, but with Pittsburgh defeating Tampa Bay on Monday night, Pittsburgh will at worst finish ahead of New England on percentage points (9-6-1 versus 9-7). Pittsburgh could get a one seed with a win and losses by both Oakland and Tennessee. One of those two teams losing coupled with a Steeler win clinches a first round bye for the Steelers.

But we'll skip all that speculation. Let's look closely at all the remaining games that mean something and try and make some sense out of this playoff muck.

Miami at New England: New England.

Green Bay at Jets: Green Bay.

Kansas City at Oakland: Oakland.

Atlanta at Cleveland: Atlanta.

Jacksonville at Indianapolis: Indianapolis.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh.

Tennessee at Houston: Tennessee.

Arizona at Denver: Denver.

Seattle at San Diego: San Diego.

Now, you have these for final standings:

AFC East: New England 9-7, Miami and Jets both 8-8.

AFC North: Pittsburgh 10-5-1, Cleveland 8-8, Baltimore 7-9.

AFC South: Tennessee 11-5, Indianapolis 10-6.

AFC West: Oakland 11-5, San Diego and Denver 9-7, Kansas City 8-8.

Oakland gets the one seed over Tennessee based upon head-to-head (Oakland won, 52-25 in Week 4). Everything else falls neatly into place, for the first time all year. Pittsburgh would be seeded third, New England fourth, Indianapolis fifth and San Diego sixth (who knocks out Denver based on better conference record, 6-6 to 5-7).

This breaks good for the Patriots, as they would host Indianapolis in the Wild Card round while the Chargers would head to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers. Bill Belichick would be licking his chops to take on the former division rivals and to have another whack at Peyton Manning, while San Diego would have a tough time up in the Steel City, especially if there are too many folk left over who haven't gotten over the 1994 AFC Championship loss which sent the Bolts to Super Bowl XXIX.

So, if the home teams win and advance, Pittsburgh travels to Tennessee while the Patriots make a return trip to the Black Hole. If Oakland was tough to deal with during the regular season, it will be totally insane for the encore. In any case, the Patriots are huge dogs at any of those venues. Oakland and Tennessee both defeated the Patriots at home, and the Patriots don't seem up for much revenge. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will have plenty of revenge on mind if they get to host the Patriots for the AFC Championship for the second straight year.

Again, all this assumes the results previously stated. Patriot Nation has been doing an awful lot of assuming lately, and much of it has been incorrect assuming. It's simply not nice to predict a Patriot loss on Sunday. Conversely, it's foolhardy to confidently predict a Patriot win. What will make the game interesting is that both teams are coming off disappointing losses, but the Jets didn't seem fazed by the stinker they cut at Chicago on Sunday night.

The way things are shaping up right now, the best the Patriots can hope for is the divisional round. Oakland and Tennessee should have no trouble in beating the Patriots a second time at home. Pittsburgh has the revenge factor, and looked formidable after nearly shutting out Tampa Bay on the road on Monday night.

It's sad, but you can see the end of the Patriot championship on the horizon. It will pretty much boil down to how gracefully the Patriots surrender the title.

And though some crusty folks out there would rather see Miami win Sunday than New England, it will be devastating to not see the Patriots defend their title in the postseason. If they be shamed to still be alive going into the final game for the division title, the shame will be a hundredfold if they cannot make the playoffs.

From a season of fame to a season of shame. Enjoy Christmas, and the fact that the finale is six long days away.


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