December 15, 2000
Six spots remain up for grabs with two weeks to go.
That's the story, quick and simple, as the NFL season careens towards another unpredictable, topsy-turvy conclusion.
Six teams have made the 2000 playoffs. That leaves six spots open. Who will fill them, and in what slots, will be decided this week, and next _ the final two weeks of the regular season.
"Getting to the playoffs is huge," says one who got there last week, quarterback Trent Dilfer of the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore joins the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans as 2000 playoff participants. Even with those six spots decided, the races have been so close this year that not one division title has been clinched yet _ the first time in 20 years (since Week 15 of 1980) that there are no division winners this late in a season.
"We feel like anything is possible," says defensive tackle La'Roi Glover of the New Orleans Saints, one of the teams that can win a division this week.
What's "possible" as the NFL enters Week 16 starting on Saturday with 17 teams still in contention for Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Florida on January 28:
· AFC EAST: Two clubs can enter the playoffs, with one taking the division.
The first-place Miami Dolphins (10-4) clinch their first division title since 1994 with a win over Indianapolis and a New York Jets loss or tie. Miami makes the playoffs with a win or tie.
None other than Dan Marino, their former quarterback, thinks the Dolphins are primed for the playoffs. "I believe they're going to have the opportunity to go to Super Bowl," says the NFL's all-time passing yardage and TD leader. "I think they'll be one of the best in the AFC come January."
The New York Jets (9-5) can clinch a playoff berth with a win over Detroit or with losses or ties by Pittsburgh and Buffalo and a loss by Indianapolis.
· AFC CENTRAL: Two teams are in the playoffs.
The first-place Tennessee Titans (11-3) can clinch the franchise's first division crown since 1993 with a win over Cleveland and a Baltimore loss or tie. Coupled with that scenario, the Titans also earn a first-round bye with an Oakland loss or a Miami loss or tie. Also along with the Titans' original scenario, they clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with both an Oakland loss and a Miami loss or tie.
The Ravens (10-4) last week clinched the first playoff berth in their five-year existence. "One word, two syllables: Playoffs," says tight end Shannon Sharpe. "It feels good."
Baltimore is on pace (158 points) to break the NFL record of the 1986 Chicago Bears (187) for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.
· AFC WEST: The first-place Oakland Raiders (11-3) and Denver Broncos (10-4) have both earned playoff spots, and the Raiders can add to their berth this week.
Oakland, with its most wins since 1990, can clinch the division with a win over Seattle Saturday and a Denver loss or tie. The Raiders can also win the division and a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss or tie and either a Miami loss or tie or a loss by Tennessee and a loss or tie by Baltimore. Finally, Oakland wins the AFC West and homefield advantage with a win and losses or ties by Baltimore, Denver and Miami and a loss by Tennessee.
The Broncos are the hottest team in the NFL right now with six wins in a row, including a Week 15 victory over Seattle fueled by 27-year-old rookie running back Mike Anderson's 131 rushing yards and two TDs. "All in a day's work," says the four-year U.S. Marine.
· NFC EAST: The first-place New York Giants (10-4) can clinch a playoff spot and the division title. The Philadelphia Eagles (10-5) have gained their first playoff berth since 1996, and enjoy a bye this week.
The Giants, 6-1 in the division and 6-1 on the road, travel Sunday night to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. New York can secure its first division crown since 1997 with a victory, and clinch a first-round bye with a win and losses or ties by St. Louis and New Orleans. The Giants can lose and still clinch a playoff berth with a Detroit loss or tie or a loss by either Tampa Bay or New Orleans or a New Orleans tie and a St. Louis loss.
New York has won three in a row and seven of its last nine. "We're trying to play Giants ball," says linebacker Mike Barrow. "We'll leave it up to the great writers and poets to decide if it's playoff caliber."
· NFC CENTRAL: The Minnesota Vikings, with the best record in the NFC (11-3), are already in the playoffs, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) can join them.
The Vikings claim the division and homefield advantage with a win over Green Bay. If Minnesota ties, it clinches the division and a first-round bye, and homefield advantage if the Giants lose as well. Lastly, if Minnesota loses, it can still win the NFC Central with a Tampa Bay loss or tie.
The Bucs, who at one point this year were 3-4, can enter the playoffs with a win Monday night over St. Louis. "We control our own destiny and that's what's important," says Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy. "We know that if we win we're in and that's a good feeling."
· NFC WEST: The New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams, both tied for first at 9-5, can earn postseason spots.
The Saints capture their first division crown since 1991 with a win over Atlanta and a St. Louis loss. They clinch their first playoff berth since '92 with a win and either a Detroit loss or tie or a Tampa Bay loss.
The Rams, in with a win over the Buccaneers, are starting to look like their old Super Bowl-champion selves with quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk rounding back into shape after injuries.
Warner connected on 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards last Sunday in a 40-29 win over Minnesota, and Faulk set a club record with four rushing touchdowns. It was his second four-TD game of 2000 only the third time in history a player has scored at least that many in a game twice in a season (Jim Taylor in 1962 and Gale Sayers in 1965).