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NFC in a wild, wild-card shuffle

WashPost: Teams with bad records may slip into postseason
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson didn't think much of his team's playoff chances after Sunday's loss at Philadelphia dropped it to 5-9.

"I would assume after this game that we should be canceled out," Johnson said. "I do not think we could go into the playoffs at 7-9."

But Johnson was thinking about a normal season in a respectable conference, not about this crazy season in the pitiable NFC. There is a reasonable chance a team with a 7-9 record will reach the playoffs, and the Cowboys still are in the chase.

Three NFC teams -- the Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers -- have clinched playoff berths. The Seattle Seahawks, at 7-7, lead the NFC West by a game over the St. Louis Rams. The Minnesota Vikings lead the wild-card race at 8-6.

Three teams (the Rams, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints) are tied for the other wild-card spot at 6-8, and seven (the Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals) are a game back at 5-9.

Only the San Francisco 49ers (2-12) are without playoff hopes in the NFC. It is a conference in which a team that started 1-7 (the Panthers) is in the wild-card catbird seat and a club on a seven-game losing streak (the Giants) remains in the thick of the race.

The Packers suffered a discouraging 28-25 defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Lambeau Field in which quarterback Brett Favre threw three interceptions and lost Green Bay's final regular season home game for the first time in his career. Yet the Packers still clinched a playoff berth because the Cowboys, Bears, Panthers and Giants all lost during the weekend.

"For some reason, we're still in the playoffs," Favre said. "I don't know if that says a lot about us or it doesn't say a lot about the other teams. But it is an opportunity. As disappointing as I hope we feel and as down as I feel, it's hard to crack a smile and say, 'Well, we're in the playoffs.' "

The Panthers seem to have the best chance of the NFC's 6-8 teams to win out and finish 8-8. Their remaining games are at Tampa Bay and home against New Orleans. The Saints host the Falcons before finishing the regular season at Carolina. The Rams play both of their remaining games at home, but they're against the Eagles and New York Jets.

The key could be the game Sunday between Carolina and Tampa Bay. If the Panthers win the road game, the NFC could save some dignity with an 8-8 team getting the second wild-card berth. But if Carolina loses, the conference could be well on its way to having a 7-9 club in the playoffs.

A team with a losing record never has reached the playoffs in a non-strike season. It happened only in the strike-shortened season of 1982, when two 4-5 clubs reached the postseason. There have been five 8-8 teams in the playoffs, most recently the Cowboys and Lions in 1999.

The Seahawks could be an 8-8 or even a 7-9 division champion, with remaining games at home against the Cardinals and Falcons.

There aren't likely to be any apologies from a team if it reaches the playoffs with a losing record. Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said last week he wouldn't be embarrassed if his club finds a way to sneak in.

"That's the way it goes," Gruden said. "I've been on teams where 9-7 isn't nearly good enough. Things go in cycles. Some of these guys who cut albums for a living go three, four, five years without having a good one, then all of a sudden they put something out that's really exciting. We haven't been heard from here in the last year and a half. Hopefully we can end with a bang and get a little good fortune."

The NFC playoffs became a more wide-open affair yesterday, when the top-seeded Eagles learned they'd lost wide receiver Terrell Owens until at least the Super Bowl because of the injury to his right ankle that he suffered during Sunday's 12-7 win over the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field. If a low-seeded team enters the postseason playing well, it perhaps could be a threat to go deep into the playoffs. The problem for NFC clubs has been finding ways to play decent football over any sort of sustained stretch.

"Even though we're in the playoffs, we need to be playing well now,'' said Packers tackle Mark Tauscher, whose team plays at Minnesota on Friday, with the winner clinching the NFC North title. "And we're not doing that."

Things are just as competitive in the AFC, but with far better teams. Jacksonville put itself in good position in the AFC wild-card chase with its 28-25 win Sunday at Green Bay. The Jaguars are tied with Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver for the second wild-card spot, with records of 8-6.

But the Jaguars have the easiest remaining schedule, with remaining games at home against Houston and then at Oakland. The Bills play at San Francisco but then end the regular season at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens play at Pittsburgh before closing at home against the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos play at Tennessee but close at home against the Indianapolis Colts.

Shapiro contributed to this report from Green Bay, Wis.