By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 27, 2004

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Heal up, all ye who play cornerback. You have three weeks.

Bill Belichick may still find some way to confound Peyton Manning, even if you have to put Fat Albert and The Fridge out there at cornerback. It's actually quite simple. They got Marvin Harrison? We got Jarvis Green. Done deal. Again.

Oh, that it would be so easy.

The AFC playoff picture is a lot clearer, at least at the top end as Week 16 settles into everyone's Christmas memories. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore, 20-7, New England clobbered the Jets 23-7, and Indianapolis outlasted San Diego in overtime, 34-31. These results nailed down the top four seeds in the conference: Pittsburgh and New England will get byes, Indianapolis is the three and San Diego is the four. With San Diego losing just prior to kickoff at the Meadowlands on Sunday, it gave the Patriots the two seed if they could beat the Jets, which they did. New England could still tie Indianapolis, but the Patriots win that tiebreaker on head-to-head victory.

What remains now is to untangle the mess that is the Wild Card, if that even is worth anyone's while. Barring some unforeseen upheaval down in the southwestern corner of our great nation, San Diego will go to Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis will once again travel to its version of Football Hades (thanks, Ron Borges), Gillette Stadium. And you can bet your boots that that game will be played on a Saturday night, and that the indoor Colts will be asking Tennessee's head coach Jeff Fisher if he can borrow a few extra pairs of long underwear.

Before dissecting that matchup, let's have some fun and wrestle with the Wild Card mess and see who Indianapolis and San Diego might play, in case they do face a tough challenge on Wild Card weekend.

The Jets can clinch the five seed next weekend with a win at St. Louis. Fighting for their playoff lives against an incredibly schizophrenic Rams squad with one of the worst game manager head coaches on the planet, the Jets can and should win this game. The Rams have playoff aspirations of their own, as they can still win their division, but they need help to either win the division or even clinch a playoff berth. Based upon how difficult it was for the Rams to beat the Eagles on Monday night despite the NFC top seed resting everyone with nothing to play for (the Rams won, 20-7, but it should have been 50-7), give the Jets the edge and a playoff berth locked up.

But what if the Jets lose? You could then have three teams tied at 10-6. Denver and Buffalo could also finish 10-6, but each of these two teams has home games against top four seed teams (Denver has Indianapolis, Buffalo has Pittsburgh). Since neither Pittsburgh nor Indianapolis has anything to lose or gain from this game (the same with the Patriots in the finale at home against San Francisco), they could treat their games like preseason games and rest all their regulars early. Wins by Denver and Buffalo are definite possibilities.

So, if Denver, Buffalo and the Jets all tie at 10-6, then two go to the playoffs and one stays at home. The team that would stay at home would be the Jets, as they would be the odd team out of this three-way tie because they would lose a tiebreaker to Buffalo based upon common games. In this case, Denver would be the five seed and Buffalo the six seed. The Bills need to win to save their season; in any case, if the Bills lose and fall to 9-7, they are eliminated from the playoffs. A Denver win puts them in the playoffs no matter what else happens.

Now, if both Buffalo and Denver lose, and if Jacksonville and Baltimore both win, then you get four teams at 9-7. One of those four teams gets in, and this scenario obviously puts the Jets in at 10-6.

A four-way tie between these teams leads to a complicated strength of victory scenario between Jacksonville and Baltimore, as Buffalo and Denver fall by the wayside along the way (thanks, Joe Ferreira of cbs.sportsline.com). The final weekend of the regular season would need to play out to determine this, but Jacksonville has the advantage in this scenario thanks to a lead in the strength of victory tiebreaker, and an edge against Baltimore if the strength of victory becomes tied (with Denver still in the picture) and the teams have to revert back to a two-team tiebreaker.

Ferreira goes on to mention that should Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver tie, Baltimore would become seed six. If Jacksonville, Buffalo and Denver tie, the Jaguars get the final playoff berth. Jacksonville finishes the season at Oakland, while Baltimore closes out the season at home against Miami. Both Jacksonville and Baltimore can win these games.

Where the Patriots are concerned, all this talk is academic if Indianapolis beats whoever shows up at the RCA Dome on the Wild Card weekend. The Colts will get the lowest seeded Wild Card team, while San Diego gets the other. If the Colts win, they go to Foxborough for the Divisional round. That's as simple as these convoluted playoff scenarios get. It looks like Manning is on another collision course with Bill Belichick and his complex defensive schemes once again, and Manning will be more primed than ever to finally break through against what has to be his greatest career nemesis.

In each of the last two divisional games in Foxborough, Bob Kraft, who is on the television committee, has successfully petitioned the NFL for a Saturday night game at his crib. Look for Kraft to once again lobby for a Saturday night deal, and look for it to be accepted. In 2002, there was a blizzard against Oakland. In 2004, there were arctic conditions against Tennessee. Both games turned out to be three-point Patriot wins.

Oh, by the way, the season opener for the Patriots against the Colts was also a three-point win.

All we know right now is that the Patriots will be there, hosting somebody. For it to not be the Colts would be shocking. Maybe the Jets or Buffalo would have the material to give Manning problems; the Bills will tell us a great deal about what they have really become this Sunday against the Steelers (unless the Steelers absolutely tank the meaningless (for them) game). Denver and Buffalo, as previously stated, face far superior teams at home with nothing to play for other than to not get starting players injured. It will be very hard to predict those games; despite the obvious league edicts which will come down telling Indianapolis and Pittsburgh to "play to win and field a competitive team", both teams may go into August mode.

In any case, get ready for Saturday night, January 15, 2005, Gillette Stadium, and another visit by the Colts. And wish for snow and freezing cold all you want, but it did not deter the Raiders or the Titans in previous matchups.

Wish instead for a healthy Patriot secondary above anything else.


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