By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 25, 2004

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Two weeks to go, and it's finally time to think playoffs.

Patriots/Jets
Close-Up
Where: Giants Stadium
East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Sunday 12/26/04
4:15 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 715, 930
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 12-2
Jets 10-4
Latest Line: Patriots by 3
That is, assuming you're not a player. In such a case, your one and only thought is "New York Jets", even more so than "Happy Holidays". Go celebrate your sacred holiday on Monday. Hopefully, other celebrating will be in order as well.

The Patriots draw a tough matchup Sunday when they travel to the Meadowlands to take on the Jets. In what was supposed to be an easy division title win for the Patriots, which it actually was, the Jets never shriveled up and blew away like some experts thought they would in the preseason. The Jets sit at 10-4, and while they cannot catch the Patriots for the division title, they can wound the Patriots' postseason seeding as well as cement their fitness for a Wild Card berth.

All the four AFC division races are over. New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and San Diego are all locked in. These are your top four seeds, that is clear and set. Currently, the pecking order is Pittsburgh, New England, San Diego and Indianapolis (the Bolts have a better conference record than the Colts). What these seedings will be like two weeks from now is the focus of this article, and what they all need to do to get the highest seed possible.

Before we get too deep into this discussion, let's rule out anyone tying. It's too exhaustive to crunch ties, and the last tie in the NFL happened in 2002 with Atlanta and Pittsburgh playing to a draw; the last ties before then were 1997 (Baltimore and Philadelphia, Washington and the Giants). Ties are simply too rare to seriously consider in this kind of analysis, even though the NFL's official playoff scenario report has to at least mention them.

We'll begin with the Patriots. By winning out (at Jets, San Francisco), they secure at least the two seed and a first round bye. If the Patriots win out and Pittsburgh loses their last two (Baltimore, at Buffalo), the Patriots secure the top seed and home field throughout the playoffs. Assuming that there is no way on earth the Patriots can lose at home to the 2-12 49ers, the worst the Patriots are looking at is 13-3 if the Jets beat them. Should that happen, San Diego claims the two seed if they win out (at Indianapolis, Kansas City). The Patriots can clinch not finishing behind the Colts if they win one more game, as the Patriots hold the tiebreaker with them based on head-to-head. In other words, one more win will clinch at least a three seed for the Patriots.

Pittsburgh's road to glory is simple. Win one more game and they secure home field throughout the playoffs. Both games are loseable, as Baltimore handed them their only loss earlier this season, and Buffalo is one of the hottest teams in the league presently. Should this happen and the Steelers finish at 13-3, San Diego would finish ahead of Pittsburgh based upon a better conference record. Should Indianapolis win out and tie Pittsburgh at 13-3, that tiebreaker would go down to common games, whereby Pittsburgh would win (3-2 versus 2-2). This means that Pittsburgh at present will do no worse than a three seed.

San Diego is in an interesting position. They play at Indianapolis this weekend, which will in all likelihood determine the three and four seeds. If San Diego wins out and both New England and Pittsburgh lose out, the Chargers will take the top seed. This scenario is possible but highly unlikely, the biggest problem being that San Francisco would have to upset New England at Foxborough in the season finale for this to have any chance. If the Patriots lose to the Jets and wind up tied with San Diego at 13-3, the Chargers would finish ahead of the Patriots based upon a better conference record. As stated earlier, San Diego would finish ahead of Pittsburgh if both finish at 13-3.

Indianapolis (San Diego, at Denver) have two tough games left and could lose both. Peyton Manning needs to break Dan Marino's touchdown record early and get on with the real business of the season, and that is to secure as highest a playoff seed as possible. Should the Colts win out and go 13-3, they can get as high as a two seed if New England loses both of their games. The Colts lose a tiebreaker with Pittsburgh and cannot finish ahead of everyone else in wins, so they cannot hope for a one seed.

Now, on to the Wild Cards. The next Jet win clinches a playoff berth for them. Behind them, there are four teams at 8-6 (Jacksonville, Baltimore, Denver and Buffalo, in that order). If Jacksonville (Houston, at Oakland) beats the Texans and all the other 8-6 teams lose, the Jaguars clinch a playoff berth based upon the strength of victory tiebreaker. Any other permutations are too lengthy to discuss at this time, but should become clearer next week. But if the Jets and Jaguars conform to these scenarios, the six AFC playoff teams would be set going into the final week of the regular season.

There's your playoff road map. Now, the Patriots need to tune up their engines for the final push to the finish line.

Yes, the Patriots will continue to have secondary issues until Ty Law returns. He has been upgraded to questionable, so his return against the Jets on Sunday is now even money. Even so, three things will work in favor of the Patriots as they prepare for their bitter rivals from New York.

John Abraham is a scratch, meaning that Tom Brady's backside may be a little less of a problem. But Shawn Ellis may turn out to be a thorn in Matt Light's side also, if he lines up at right end instead of left. Whatever the case, Abraham has been known to wreak havoc in the Patriot backfield, and after seeing Jason Taylor and David Bowens massacring the Patriot offensive line Monday night, Abraham's scratch has to be welcome news.

If Corey Dillon had been able to play at Pittsburgh, he would likely be leading the league in rushing and not Curtis Martin. Martin's enmity towards his old team is well documented. But Dillon has an enmity towards Martin for this rushing title business, and he will be hungry to pound out some yards on Sunday. Dillon is approaching two Patriot records held by Martin, those being carries and rushing yards in a season.

Finally, Chad Pennington has now fallen out of favor with the New York media. His unbelievable tirade on Monday was both amazing and hard to fathom. He went from glamor boy to diva almost immediately, his rambling rants at times hard to comprehend and accept. The newspapers will skewer him at every opportunity, and Pennington has put a tremendous amount of pressure on himself to succeed. The last time the Patriots took on Pennington at Exit 16-W, the former Marshall gunslinger fired five interceptions. Look for the Patriots to go after Pennington and make him back up his angry words.

The Patriots can root against Pittsburgh all they want. All they really need is the two seed at the least. Get the week off and deal with Pittsburgh later, if they even get the chance to. The Patriots know full well that they can win in Pittsburgh in January.

But the most important thing is to win in Joisey on Sunday, and make it a Merry Christmas for all Patriot Nation.


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