By: Bob George/
December 21, 2003

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Is Denver really that good or is Indianapolis finally exposed?

Despite all the Saturday night euphoria over beating the Jets and raising their record to 13-2, and considering even further that Kansas City lost earlier in the day to give New England the lead for the top seed outright, nothing regarding the postseason changed at all when the final gun went off at Exit 16-W. In a game full of positives and satisfying moments, the Patriots were no better off after the game than they were going in. Win or lose, they still have to beat Buffalo next Saturday to clinch the top seed for the playoffs.

Well, on Sunday, something finally broke for the Patriots. Despite not having Clinton Portis at their avail, Denver relied on its history of being ghastly deep at the running back position (anyone remember Olandis Gary?). They merely pounded away at the supposedly improved Colt defense, getting 136 yards rushing from Quentin Griffin and holding Indianapolis to only 15:02 in time of possession, a franchise low. Denver prevailed at the RCA Dome, 31-17, clinching themselves a postseason berth and having an effect on a bunch of other areas in the AFC postseason.

The loss by Indianapolis clinches a first round bye for both New England and Kansas City. The Denver win cements at least the six seed for themselves, and eliminates Miami from postseason contention despite their 20-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday afternoon. The only issues yet to be decided is who among Tennessee and Indianapolis will get the three or five seed, who among Baltimore and Cincinnati will get the four seed, and who among New England or Kansas City will get the one or two seed.

Tennessee stayed alive in their quest for the AFC South title with a harrowing 27-24 win over the pesky Houston Texans. The loss by the Colts prevented them from clinching that division tonight. The Ravens assumed the lead in the AFC North by blanking the Browns, 35-0, while the Bengals were bombed by the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, 31-10. That division race is not yet over as Cincinnati holds the tiebreaker over Baltimore.

As we head into the final week of play, let's examine the key games and how they will probably turn out.

The suspense regarding the Patriots will be over early, as they play Saturday at 1:00 at home against the team that blanked them back in Week 1. We'll save the best for last and look at all the other games first.

Denver will have a very tough season finale, having to travel to Green Bay. The Packers will have a major issue to deal with, as the father of Brett Favre passed away on Sunday in an automobile accident. Favre's Packers play Monday night at Oakland before hosting Denver. By that time, Favre should have regained enough spirit to deal effectively with the Bronco defense, but they need a win Monday night to keep their playoff hopes alive. They are battling Minnesota for the division title and Seattle for the second Wild Card seed.

Both Cincinnati and Baltimore have winnable home games against division opponents. Baltimore wins the AFC North with a win or tie over Pittsburgh or a Cincinnati loss. The Bengals win the division with a win over Cleveland and a Baltimore loss. The winner of the division will nail down the four seed and host a first round playoff game against probably the loser of the AFC South. The loser will be eliminated from the playoffs as neither can gain a Wild Card spot.

Tennessee will enjoy a great chance to steal the division from the Colts as they host Tampa Bay, while Indianapolis must travel to Houston and face a tough Texan team who nearly beat both New England and Tennessee at Reliant Stadium, and did beat Miami on the road. If Indianapolis' spirit was broken Sunday night against Denver, the Texans may cut them off at the knees. The Titans should be able to handle the downtrodden Buccaneers, who fell behind 30-7 at home to Atlanta on Saturday before a furious rally fell just short. The AFC South winner gets the three seed, the loser gets the five seed. An Indianapolis win clinches the division for them, but a Colt loss and a Titan win gives the division title to the Titans.

Kansas City will know their HFA fate going into their battle Sunday with Chicago, as the Patriots will have played 24 hours prior. The Bears could make this tough on the reeling Chiefs, who were smacked 45-20 on Saturday at Minnesota and have now been exposed as not being able to stop the run. If the Bears can get Anthony Thomas untracked, this game could be a tough one for the Chiefs. A Kansas City loss gives the Patriots the top seed, if it still matters by that time. A Kansas City win gives the Chiefs the top spot if the Patriots stumble on Saturday.

Which now brings us to our dear Patriots, and their one remaining obstacle to home field throughout the playoffs. And how perfect it is, getting the Buffalo Bills at home.

Not one single Patriot will forget the 31-0 pasting in the season opener in western New York. The Patriots were obviously not ready to play that game, coming on the heels of the shocking release of Lawyer Milloy, who wound up playing with the Bills that Sunday. Since that game, the Bills and Patriots have gone in completely opposite directions, and the Patriots have to be absolutely licking their chops.

The Bills are 6-9. Drew Bledsoe is getting booed with regularity, Gregg Williams will likely be fired after the year, and some folks believe Milloy aches to be a Patriot once again. Bledsoe was awful on Sunday, with a passer rating of only 46.2. The only reason Miami didn't score more than 20 points on Buffalo was that they weren't good enough to do so.

It may be an easy win no matter what, as Patriot motivation will be at an all-time high. The Bills could be in a "get on the bus" mode, this being the finale of a dead end season. But Milloy won't allow that to happen, not for a second. He will incite his teammates to try and spoil things for the Patriots in his first game in Foxborough as a Bill. Still, when you factor in all the mitigating circumstances, it would take an upheaval of unheard of proportions for the Patriots to not win Saturday's game against Buffalo, which would clinch the top seed for the Patriots.

Six days to go and counting. Revenge for 31-0, and the prize is home field throughout the playoffs. Win the game and, for the first time ever, the road to Houston must go through Foxborough. At least the Patriots have no worse than a two seed, and if someone upsets Kansas City along the way (like Jacksonville did to Denver in 1996), the Pats get two home playoff games anyway.

One other nice thing to consider is that the last two times the Patriots have been the two seed, they have advanced to the Super Bowl. As far as the one seed is concerned, we just don't know, but we cannot wait to find out.