Next Week, Things Go Back To Normal

Bob George
January 8, 2002 at 11:05 pm ET

Thanks, Jets. Now we hate you again.

Jets at Oakland II. It’s just like the Yankees in for a three-game weekend set at Fenway. The Jets were scared to fly to Oakland after the terrorist attacks, and rightfully so. They ought to just stay put in the Bay Area, enjoy Fisherman’s Wharf, Sausolito and Haight-Asbury, and forget about a trans-continental round trip.

Last week, things were different. We needed Oakland to lose, so we were forced to root for the Jets. And win the Jets did, despite Vinny Testaverde looking somewhat less imposing than Broadway Joe. For the first time since 1962, this franchise won a game in the city of Oakland. You might wonder if Heidi was tuned into this game.

But next week, it’s completely different. The good deed has been done. Now, things go back to normal. Whereas the Jets needed to win last week, now the Jets need to go back to their Buffalo mode and lose to Oakland. The Jets got the Patriots a two seed, now they need to get the heck out of the playoffs.

Do you wonder if the Jets would have tried that hard on Sunday to win that game if a win meant nothing to them but so much to the Patriots? Oh, heck, let’s not challenge their professionalism. Let’s just be thankful that the Jets had to win to stave off playoff elimination, and gave it their best shot.

Now it’s time for the Raiders to give it their best shot, and win the rematch. The Patriots no longer need the Jets to win. They desperately need the Jets to lose. And having to win two games in a row at Oakland may be too much for the sworn enemy of the Patriots to have to pull off.

With Baltimore winning Monday night against Minnesota as expected, the playoff seedings in the AFC are finally set. Next weekend, the Jets play Oakland, Baltimore travels to Miami, and Seattle bows out after putting up a gallant last-minute bid to get invited to the Big Dance.

Once again, Baltimore’s win helped the Patriots. It gave the Patriots a good first opponent, barring an upset. It greatly increased the odds of the Jets getting ousted from the playoffs. And it helped to give the Patriots perhaps the easiest possible road to the Super Bowl, if somehow Baltimore gets bumped off along the way.

It may seem a reach to say something like this, but the Patriots ought to hope beyond hope that they avoid having to play the Jets at home in this postseason. Avoiding the Ravens wouldn’t hurt, either, but knocking off the Jets is the biggest hope for the Patriots right now.

The only way the Patriots would have to meet the Jets is in the AFC Championship Game. If by some chance the Jets did beat Oakland again, as the six seed they would be mandated to travel to Pittsburgh for their next game. Asking a Jets squad to win consecutive playoff games at Oakland and Pittsburgh is a very tall order. If the Jets somehow did arrive at the AFC title game, they will have greatly earned it and would be more buoyant than if Bill Parcells were still there ready to stick it to Bob Kraft.

The Patriots dearly want to avoid the Jets for lots of reasons. Since Parcells left town, the Jets are only a blocked field goal away from a perfect 5-0 record at Foxborough. The Jets are 7-1 on the road this year, the first NFL team to ever do so. Curtis Martin elevates his game to astounding levels every time he comes to Foxborough to play the former team he hates with a passion.

Besides, the Jets will have revenge on their minds from their early December clash. Despite the 17-16 Patriot win in their last meeting, the Patriots still match up poorly against the Jets and play scared and psyched out against them. Tom Brady suffered a pathetic first half against them before finding the range later on. This time, the Jets would be ready for him.

And then there’s the fact that this would absolutely be the final game played at Foxborough Stadium. What a better way to stick it to the Patriots than to deny them a Super Bowl trip at the closing of their stadium? This gives the Jets a slam-dunk in the “intangible” category, a category that they will always have an edge against the Patriots until the day Martin leaves the team.

Fortunately, the Patriots likely won’t see the Jets at all. Odds are that either the Raiders or Steelers will give them the boot. The Raiders ought to take care of them right off the bat, unless Rich Gannon can’t rediscover his earlier touch or Sebastian Janikowski is sent packing to Poland earlier than expected (and don’t discount Jon Gruden being the one who hammers the final nail in his shipping crate). Janikowski’s absence Sunday cost the Raiders four points, which was the difference in the game.

If the Raiders do take care of business, they will travel to Foxborough regardless of what happens with Miami and Baltimore. Unlike the Jets, the Raiders (whom the Patriots have not played since 1994, and they have not met with the team based in Oakland since 1981) provide a good matchup for the Patriots. Cold weather agrees with the Raiders less than any Florida team, and the Patriots ought to win the battle of special teams (easily if Janikowski misses the game). Antowain Smith has a chance for a great day against the faltering run defense of the Raiders (though they did a good job on Martin last week), and Brady’s proficiency at the short passing game ought to neutralize the likelihood of Charles Woodson and Eric Allen taking away the intermediate and deep passing routes.

The Patriots would then advance to the AFC title game, but against whom and where?

Miami and Baltimore is literally a tossup. Baltimore, who looked absolutely putrid in their Monday night win over Minnesota, is hampered by an even worse quarterback situation than last year. Elvis Grbac is literally killing his team, and neutralizing the great Raven defense. Miami would be at home, but the question here is what kind of a running game the Dolphins could establish against the tough front seven of Baltimore. The Ravens should step up their game now that the playoffs are here, and Miami figures to get a tougher Ravens team than the Vikings got Monday night.

Rather than try and guess the winner, let’s see how they match up against Pittsburgh, where the winner would go if Oakland beats the Jets.

Miami likely falters in the freezing cold of Heinz Field. But Baltimore is a tough division opponent of the Steelers. Baltimore might be able to go in and win a tight game, thanks to their familiarity with the Steelers. In fact, one of the three Steeler losses this year was at home to Baltimore.

So, it falls upon the Ravens to control the fortunes of the Patriots. If they can get their act together offensively, they can likely go in and upset the Dolphins and Steelers on the road. They are the defending Super Bowl champs, and won two road games last year on their way to their Vince.

Whether the Patriots will be able to handle the Ravens at Foxborough or not is really something to ponder. Again, this assumes that the Ravens get at least decent play from Grbac, who cannot afford to bring his “C” game to the playoffs. If he does, the Ravens will go down hard at Miami.

Given all these variables, the Patriots might prefer a date at Pittsburgh for the AFC title game. It’s not as outlandish as you might think, and this might be more winnable than Baltimore at home.

These teams met every year between 1995 and 1998. There is some lingering history between those two teams. Pittsburgh looks at us and sees fog. We look at Pittsburgh and see Kevin Henry and Jason Gildon.

Where the Patriots might have an edge here is in how they handle Kordell Stewart. Stewart, who is somehow going to the Pro Bowl this year, remains more overrated than anything else. He has been helped a lot this year thanks to monster years from Hines (the stadium was named for ketchup, not this guy) Ward and Plaxico (Plexiglass) Burress, but Stewart remains more of a flake and a loose cannon rather than a polished quarterback.

Pittsburgh has a great weapon in Jerome Bettis, but he is a wounded weapon. If all the Patriots have to do is to shut down Stewart, the Patriots have a great shot at winning. Bettis, who was also injured for the 1996 Fog Bowl, has to be healthy for the Steelers to have a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

And if the game comes down to kicking field goals? How can a 13-3 team have such a horrid kicker as Kris Brown? The Patriots kill the Steelers in special teams, and that could definitely prove decisive.

Speculation is fun. Baltimore could go out quick, Pittsburgh could really be as good as their record indicates, and Oakland may have a few surprises for the Patriots.

But the smoothest road for the Patriots may ultimately go through Pittsburgh. Naturally, few people would complain if the final home game for the Patriots was the AFC Championship Game. If it were, the likeliest of opponents would be the defending Super Bowl champs. You’d probably like Miami, but them winning at Pittsburgh is perhaps too much of a reach.

And if the Jets defy all odds and knock off Oakland and Pittsburgh? Sorry, but I chicken out. I don’t even want to go there.

That’s reason number one to switch allegiances this weekend. Drink many a toast to Da Raidahs this week, who need to go from losers to winners in a hurry.

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