By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 24, 2005

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Terrence McGee just sent a huge Christmas present to Foxborough, if you'd like to call it that.

Patriots/Jets
Close-Up
Where: Giants Stadium
East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Monday 12/26/05
9:00 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
ABC
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
2005 Team
Records:
Patriots 9-5
Jets 3-11
Latest Line: Patriots by 5 1/2
For the last several weeks, a New England versus Jacksonville Wild Card matchup has been literally chiseled in stone. The Jaguars (who clinched the five seed on Saturday by beating Houston) and Patriots all finish with cupcake opponents and will coast in as the four and five seeds with ease. Indianapolis and Denver locked up the one and two seeds, and the Patriots lost tiebreakers to either of those teams anyway. Cincinnati? Easy end of the season schedule, they figured to nail down the three seed and get at least 12 wins.

Not so fast. Playing an easy and downtrodden opponent at home who is fighting through a five-game losing streak, the Bengals left their fans aghast in shock as Buffalo rose up and knocked off the home team on Saturday, 37-27. McGee sealed the win with a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown with 35 seconds left in the game. This shocking loss by Cincinnati, who is assured of the playoffs after having clinched their division title last weekend, can potentially throw the projected playoff pairings into complete chaos, or at least seedings three through six.

By losing against the Bills, the door is now open for the Patriots to jump up to the three seed, a slot deemed unthinkable going into Saturday's games. The Bengals finish at Kansas City, and that will be a dogfight for the Bengals since with a win and a Pittsburgh loss, the Chiefs could claim the six seed and knock the Steelers out of the playoffs. Should the Bengals lose that game, and should the Patriots win out (at the Jets on Monday night, home against Miami on New Year's Day), the Patriots would claim the three seed over Cincinnati as they would win the tiebreaker based on a better conference record (8-4 versus 7-5).

Basically, here is how things could likely play out. Despite Kansas City having a lot to play for next weekend against Cincinnati, all Pittsburgh has to do is to beat woebegone Detroit at home to clinch the six seed. If the Steelers lose and the Chiefs win, Kansas City knocks out Pittsburgh based on conference record. So let's say that Pittsburgh gets the six seed, the Patriots win out and the Bengals lose at Kansas City. That would send Pittsburgh, and not Jacksonville, to Foxborough for the Wild Card weekend. Jacksonville would then head to Cincinnati for their first round playoff game.

If you were wondering about San Diego, their loss to Kansas City on Saturday eliminated them from playoff contention. Say what you want about how powerful the Chargers were this year and what they did on the road at Indianapolis and Foxborough. But sooner or later, the Chargers will wake up and find out what Cleveland and Kansas City already know: Marty Schottenheimer cannot coach in big games.

Back now to your favorite team. Honk if you still prefer Jacksonville to come calling in two weeks instead of Pittsburgh.

If you still want Jacksonville, then root for Bill Belichick to rest his regulars and eat one or two losses in the remaining two games, both of which are winnable for the Patriots. The only way that Pittsburgh comes to town is if the Patriots win out and Cincinnati loses next weekend at Kansas City. If any of those three games turns out the other way, Jacksonville will be the Wild Card opponent against the Patriots.

But Pittsburgh could very well be coming your way. Cincinnati has the division locked up. Denver clinched the AFC West and the two seed by beating Oakland on Saturday, shutting Cincinnati out from finishing higher than a three seed. What do the Bengals have to lose? If they don't want Pittsburgh in the first round, maybe they lay down against Kansas City (who needs that game far worse than Cincinnati does). By "laying down", we obviously mean that Marvin Lewis would rest his regulars much like other playoff teams with their seedings assured would be apt to do.

Right now, it could be said that Pittsburgh is a far more dangerous opponent than Jacksonville is. The Steelers blanked Cleveland on Saturday, 41-0, though Jacksonville handled the Texans easily on the road, 38-20. Granted, both Cleveland and Houston will never be mistaken for Super Bowl contenders. But if you dissect both Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, the Steelers are in better shape right now for the playoffs.

The key difference is at quarterback. Both teams have had issues with healthy quarterbacks this year, but Ben Roethlisberger is back right now for the Steelers, while Byron Leftwich is still out for the Jaguars. David Garrard has done well for the Jaguars, but Roethlisberger is a much better and more dangerous quarterback for anyone to face. Of course, one could argue that the Patriots might fare better against Roethlisberger than Garrard; they have faced Big Ben three times in the last two years and have beaten him twice in a row after a loss last Halloween, whereas the Patriots know nothing about Garrard (but do know Leftwich, who lost in 2003 in the snow at Foxborough).

Both teams offer tough running games. Fred Taylor is a load for Jacksonville, and Greg Jones at fullback is a nice alternate option. But Pittsburgh has Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, even though the Patriots have a history of stopping both gentlemen.

Defensively, it is almost a push. Going into Saturday's action, Jacksonville had the number four defense in the league, Pittsburgh the number five. Pittsburgh is third against the run, Jacksonville sixth against the pass. Again, familiarity would help here as the Patriots know the Steelers a little bit better thanks to the recent contests.

It would likely come down to passing offenses as being the critical difference between the two potential Patriot opponents. The Jags still have Jimmy Smith, the lone Jax holdover from the 1996 AFC Championship Game at old Foxborough Stadium (and the last remaining original Jaguar). The Steelers are deeper at receivers with Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and tight end Heath Miller. Jacksonville's 321 points scored are the fewest in the AFC amongst teams with at least nine wins (the Patriots have more points despite having played one fewer game than Jax).

Patriot Nation may have to be thinking about Pittsburgh rather than Jacksonville in two weeks. The way the finishing schedules might play out, the only way Jacksonville still comes to Foxborough is if the Patriots decide to slow things down, beginning with Monday night's tussle at Exit 16-W with the 3-11 Jets. If the game meant anything critical to the Patriots, the Patriots should have no problem whatsoever with the Jets as the Patriots tend to play better on the road against the Jets rather than at home (since 2001, the Patriots have outscored the Jets 105-46 at the Meadowlands; the Jets have outscored the Patriots 63-56 during the same time period at Foxborough).

It could be that the only significant element to Monday night's game is that it is the final such telecast on ABC. Otherwise, the Patriots have an easy opponent that won't have either Curtis Martin or Wayne Chrebet at their disposal. Las Vegas had this game off the board for a time, but the game is back on and the Patriots are favored by 5 ½ points.

But if you care greatly what seed the Patriots wind up with, then adjust your rooting interests appropriately.

**********

Here is how the playoff seedings look after Saturday's action (assuming no team involved finishes with any tie games):

Indianapolis has clinched the one seed.

Denver has clinched the two seed.

Cincinnati has clinched the AFC North. Can clinch the three seed with a win at Kansas City next week or a New England loss in either of its remaining two games.

New England has clinched the AFC East. Can clinch the three seed with wins in its final two games against the Jets and Miami and a loss by Cincinnati at Kansas City next week.

Jacksonville has clinched the five seed.

Pittsburgh clinches a Wild Card berth and the six seed with a win next week against Detroit or a Kansas City loss next week against Cincinnati..

Kansas City clinches a Wild Card berth and the six seed with a win next week against Cincinnati and a loss by Pittsburgh next week against Detroit.


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