December 22, 2000
As the presents are unwrapped, playoff positions will be wrapped up.
The only question in the NFL this Christmas week will be who, exactly, will do the "wrapping up"?
"The race will be decided when Santa Claus comes down the chimney," says New York Jets head coach Al Groh.
Thing is, somebody is going to get coal in their stocking.
As the NFL enters the final week of its 2000 regular season, seven teams are fighting for the final three playoff berths. Eleven of the week's 15 games have an impact on either playoff entry or seeding.
As symbolic of the unpre-dictability of the NFL _ where every season starts with fans feeling their team has a chance for the playoffs - all six divisions this year can be headed by new champions. One team - the New Orleans Saints - has gone from "worst to first" in its division in one year - from last place to a division championship. And they can be joined in that accomplishment this week by the Denver Broncos. In the past five years, 20 of the 30 division champs - 67 percent - have been new from the year before.
"This is the NFL," says quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers, one of the teams fighting for a postseason berth. "Anything can happen."
What can happen in the NFL's six divisions this week as 16 teams remain in contention for Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Florida on January 28:
· AFC EAST: The typical AFC East logjam _ three teams separated by a game (the 10-5 Miami Dolphins, and 9-6 Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets), and all three eligible to win the division.
The Dolphins and Jets have each lost their past two. The Colts have won their past two after losing three in a row. "Two weeks ago, it wasn't looking too good, and a lot of people were counting us out," says Colts head coach Jim Mora. "We don't push the panic button."
Miami Dolphins (10-5) can clinch the AFC East and a first-round bye with a win over New England and a loss by Oakland. Miami clinches the division with a win or tie or losses or ties by both the New York Jets and Indianapolis. Miami can clinch a playoff berth with a loss or tie by either New York or Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts (9-6) can clinch the AFC East with a win over Minnesota and a loss by Miami and a loss or tie by New York. Indianapolis can clinch a playoff berth with a win and a loss by Miami or a loss or tie by New York.
New York Jets (9-6) can clinch the division with a win over Baltimore and a loss by Miami. New York can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a loss by Indianapolis and a loss or tie by Pittsburgh.
· AFC CENTRAL: The division that will hold homefield advantage in the AFC. Two teams - the 12-3 Tennessee Titans and 11-4 Baltimore Ravens, both already in the playoffs - go for the division and homefield advantage. The value of homefield is obvious. In the 1990s, 16 of the 20 teams with homefield advantage advanced to their conference championship game, and seven won the Super Bowl.
The 8-7 Pittsburgh Steelers, at one time a 5-6 club, can also earn a playoff berth. The Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win over San Diego and losses by New York and Indianapolis.
· AFC WEST: Division title up for grabs between two clubs who've been battling neck-and-neck for a good half season _ the 11-4 Oakland Raiders and 10-5 Denver Broncos. The Broncos welcome the San Francisco 49ers in one of Saturday's three nationally televised games. It will be the last regular-season game in the Broncos' 40-year history at Mile High Stadium. The team will move into a new 76,125-seat stadium next season. The Raiders host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Raiders can clinch the AFC West and a first-round bye with a win or tie against Carolina or losses or ties by both Denver and Miami. The Raiders can clinch the AFC West with a win or tie or a loss or tie by Denver.
Denver can clinch the division and a first-round bye with a win over San Francisco and a loss by Oakland and a loss or tie by Miami. The Broncos can clinch the AFC West with a win and a loss by Oakland.
· NFC EAST: The New York Giants (11-4) have clinched their first division title since 1997. They can earn homefield advantage with a win over visiting Jacksonville on Saturday.
"The opportunity is there," says Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. "We've got to seize the moment. Opportunities like this don't come around very often."
The 10-5 Philadelphia Eagles have clinched their first playoff berth since 1996.
· NFC CENTRAL: For the eighth consecutive year, the division will send more than one team to the playoffs _ the longest such active streak in the NFL. This season, it's the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and possibly the Detroit Lions or Green Bay Packers.
Minnesota can clinch the NFC Central with a win or tie against Indianapolis or a Tampa Bay loss or tie. The Vikings clinch a first-round bye and homefield advantage with a win and a loss by New York. They clinch a first-round bye with a win or tie or losses or ties by Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Tampa Bay, with a win over Green Bay and a loss by Minnesota, can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a loss by Minnesota and a loss or tie by New Orleans.
The Detroit Lions can clinch a playoff spot with a win against Chicago or a loss by St. Louis and a loss or tie by Green Bay.
Green Bay can clinch a playoff berth with a win over Tampa Bay and losses by Detroit and St. Louis.
· NFC WEST: The New Orleans Saints are division champs, their first such title since 1991. It is the fifth year in a row that the division has had a new titlist. The Super Bowl XXXIV-champion St. Louis Rams will have to beat the Saints in New Orleans this Sunday - and Detroit lose or tie - to make the playoffs.