By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 25, 2006

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In addition to a bunch of 8-7 teams, the entire football world must have been rooting for the Jets to lose Christmas night, just to make things interesting.

But the Jets would have none of that. In a rainstorm in Miami on Monday night, the Jets claimed the inside track to the sixth and final AFC playoff seed. With Denver putting a virtual lock on the five seed on Sunday thanks to a wild win at home against Cincinnati, and with all the four division titles clinched, it pretty much sets the six playoff teams. The only way this could change would be in the form of unlikely road wins by both Bay Area teams, neither of which should happen.

The division champions are San Diego in the west, Baltimore in the north, Indianapolis in the south, and your Patriots in the east, these teams listed in current seeding order. The seedings right now are not clinched from four on up; San Diego has not yet clinched home field and the Patriots could still move up to the three seed. It?s just that with the Jet victory on Monday night, teams like Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Kansas City can pretty much kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.

Here is a team-by-team shakedown of how the playoff teams figure to head into the postseason:

San Diego needs to win to clinch home field, or can back in if Baltimore loses their finale. The Chargers draw Arizona at home, who shouldn?t be much problem without Matt Leinart. Still, as the season?s end draws nearer, Charger faithful must always be aware of head coach Marty Schottenheimer and his bad playoff track record. He has offensive coordinator Cam Cameron calling the plays now, which could prove crucial. Until Schottenheimer actually shows he can win a big game, a Charger choke must always be a consideration.

Baltimore finishes with a home date with Buffalo, which could present some trouble but it is not a game the Ravens figure to lose. If they win, they get the two seed, and a one seed also if the Chargers lose. If they lose, they could drop to the three seed if Indianapolis also wins. The Ravens won?t fall lower than the three, as they would win a tiebreaker with New England based on a better conference record if they tied the Patriots at 12-4.

Indianapolis has Miami at home in their finale. Had Miami been able to knock off the Jets on Christmas night, one might think that the Dolphins could go into the RCA Dome and pull off an upset. Instead, the Colt defense should have no trouble dealing with the impotent Dolphin offense and Peyton Manning should have enough to get a win and lock up at least the three seed. Should Miami pull off the upset and if New England wins, the Patriots would claim the three seed and the Colts would drop to the four.

New England is the only team among the top six who finishes on the road. They play a Tennessee team which now has much less to play for. If the Patriots could find any positive from the Jet win Monday night, it is that it perhaps mortally wounded the Titans? playoff hopes. The Patriots could find themselves slightly easier pickings with a Titan team with little to play for. Unless their game gets moved to the evening, any game the Patriots or Titans would be interested in will be played at 1:00 PM eastern time, leaving neither team any advantage of knowing results going into the game. Given the slim prospects of Indianapolis or the Jets losing, the Patriots may rest their regulars and the Titans may treat the game as a tuneup for next year.

Denver finishes at home with San Francisco, which should approach the game with a lot of intensity but should still not be a real problem for the Broncos. With Denver not being too terribly far away from San Francisco, the 49ers might not treat the game as a ?get on the bus? deal. If Denver wins, they lock up the five seed. Should Denver lose, they would still most likely make the playoffs, as the only scenarios where they would be left out are incredibly unlikely.

The New York Jets put themselves in a great position with their win Monday night at Miami, 13-10. All they have left is Oakland at home, the worst team in the conference. Oakland is a mess right now, dealing with rumours surrounding the job security of head coach Art Shell. The Raiders will definitely be in a ?get on the bus? mode, having to travel all the way across the country for this season finale. If the Jets win, they clinch at least the six seed, and would get the five seed if Denver should lose. Should the Jets lose, Cincinnati could sneak in and claim the six seed if they beat Pittsburgh at home in their finale.

In all the games involving these six teams, the only team which figures to lose are the Patriots, and that would likely be by design, much like last year. The Patriots could very well rest Tom Brady the entire game, especially after that jarring hit he took from Jacksonville linebacker Clint Ingram on Sunday. Other Patriots could very well be rested, including Vince Wilfork, Rodney Harrison, Ben Watson and Ryan O?Callaghan. The Patriots could use the Tennessee game as their bye week, or as a ?tuneup? game for Denver, who figures to be their Wild Card round playoff opponent.

Given how poorly the Patriots always play against Denver, the ?tuneup? factor might make a lot of sense. Granted, there is no one on the Broncos who even slightly resembles Vince Young, and there aren?t many other Titans who are comparable to Denver counterparts (for example, Pacman Jones is good, but he?s no Champ Bailey). But the Patriots could use the game to brush up on certain offensive and defensive packages they might want to use the following week in the playoffs. On the other hand, playing the Titans as vanilla as possible gives Denver that much less to game plan for, though the Broncos usually do a good job of gameplanning anyway against the Patriots.

The other five games involving the top six are either slam dunks, or very close to it. Any loss by these teams would be in the abominable category. Buffalo could give Baltimore a good game, and the same could be said for San Francisco, but both home teams still figure to win. If Arizona should somehow rise up and beat San Diego, the entire organization would probably explode in panic, and Schottenheimer could do very well to watch his backside.

But it?s a pretty good bet that the pecking order will wind up San Diego, Baltimore, Indianapolis, New England, Denver and the Jets. Patriot Nation can start talking right now about whether or not this will finally be the time the Patriots figure the Broncos out.

Peyton Manning has now beaten the Patriots two straight. Anything is possible, it seems.


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