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December 31, 2005
A Most Unusual Playoff Tale
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

This may be more about who doesn’t want to win versus who does.

Patriots/Dolphins
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 1/1/06
1:00 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 711, 930
2005 Team
Records:
Patriots 10-5
Dolphins 8-7
Latest Line: Patriots by 5 1/2
You have New England and Cincinnati, neither of whom really wants to face Pittsburgh in the first round. You have Denver, who needs to rest regulars, which by losing could knock out Kansas City, which would then cause Pittsburgh to also want to rest regulars. You would then be left with the two teams vying for the three seed in the AFC playing against teams with nothing to play for, hoping secretly that the other team will somehow cause them to be seeded lower without having to go out and tank a game to get a better playoff slot.

It’s not quite the same thing, but this is why the NBA has that stupid draft lottery. Maybe the NFL should concoct a playoff lottery. Just be one of the six teams, and seedings are drawn at random. Indianapolis would hate the idea, yes, but at least everybody would play hard up until the very end.

Let’s go back to the beginning and sort this all out. And when you hear some commentator hoping that the Patriots finish fourth seed instead of third, please don’t dismiss him or her as temporarily insane.

We begin on Saturday, with Denver playing at San Diego. Here you have a team which has clinched the two seed against an eliminated team. But this game does have a purpose. Kansas City will be rooting like crazy for Denver to somehow call on their scrubs to rise up and conquer the Bolts. Why on earth does Kansas City need Denver to win? And why does an eliminated team have anything to do with the fates of the Chiefs?

Plenty. Kansas City needs the Chargers to lose. Should San Diego win, it would eliminate Kansas City from the playoffs and lock Pittsburgh in at the six seed. The only way Kansas City makes the playoffs is if they and Pittsburgh both finish 10-6, in which case the Chiefs win the tiebreaker. But if San Diego wins and gets into a three-way tie with Kansas City and Pittsburgh, Kansas City is out and Pittsburgh is in. San Diego wins a tiebreaker with the Chiefs, and Pittsburgh wins one with San Diego. To break the three-way tie, you pare each division down to the best team, then play the best surviving team off against the other. So, the Bolts knock out the Chiefs, who then get bumped by the Steelers.

Should San Diego win a very winnable game at home against a Bronco squad who will rest everyone important, Pittsburgh will then take it easy against Detroit while Kansas City will have nothing to play for at home against Cincinnati. Here now is where your Patriots finally come into play.

Losing to Detroit won’t hurt Pittsburgh if the Chargers knock out the Chiefs, so the Steelers will be locked into the six seed. If the Patriots would like to take the four seed but not make it look stinky, all they have to do is root for Cincinnati to beat Kansas City.

Now, what do you do if you’re Cincinnati, you have an opponent with nothing to play for any longer, and you don’t want the three seed any more than the Patriots do? Suffice it to say that the game versus Cincinnati and Kansas City will be a most interesting expose on player psychology, as well as where team’s true priorities lie when presented with a situation that you want to turn out adverse but probably won’t.

At the root of the problem is Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The reason both New England and Cincinnati want the four seed instead of the three seed is that neither wants to face Pittsburgh in the first round, get beaten up, then have to go to Denver and the altitude. What the Patriots and Bengals want is a little less physical tussle with Jacksonville, then go to Indianapolis and catch a Colt squad still reeling from late season losses and the Dungy family tragedy. This would be presumably the easier route to the AFC Championship Game, which may go through Denver no matter what.

There are those who bring up the “Patriots will take on all comers and beat all comers” dogma, but this year is different. The Patriots should try and avoid Pittsburgh if they can; even though they would be favored and likely win at home, the pounding they would take could take its toll on the no-depth Patriots and likely would be lethal in their quest for a third straight Super Bowl win. Having to go to Denver after beating Pittsburgh, the Patriots would be exposed to the high altitude again, having to engage in a rematch with a team which spanked them pretty good earlier this season. Bill Belichick is good at rematches, but this is one rematch which would be a reach for the Patriots to win.

By playing Jacksonville and Indianapolis instead, the Patriots get two teams that they can handle. The Jaguars have Byron Leftwich who will be at far below one hundred percent at quarterback, and a good but not great defense which won’t clobber the Patriots like Pittsburgh will. Then you go to Indianapolis and take on a demoralized team which the Patriots have shown that they can beat in the RCA Dome, with a far different and better squad than the one which lost to the Colts earlier in this season.

Miami is coming to Foxborough this Sunday, no matter what. The game will still be played. There is a sixty percent chance of snow for Sunday, which won’t tickle the Dolphins’ fancy. Miami will play the Patriots very tough, no matter who the Patriots throw out there. It is hard to sit here and say that the Patriots will not play to win, and the fans won’t like seeing the Patriots finish the season at 10-6 by losing at home to Miami, even if it helps them get to Detroit in February just a little easier.

As much as the Patriots would like to win and keep the momentum going into the first playoff weekend, don’t be surprised if the Patriots are rooting for San Diego to win on Saturday. Anything to dampen the Chiefs and help promote a Bengal win. Talk about strange bedfellows here.

Come Sunday night, we’ll finally know all the answers to these questions, and this total mess will finally be all cleaned up.


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