Twin Cinderellas fight over NFL glass slipper


Saturday, December 15
When the season started, the Buffalo Bills were 100-1 shots to win the Super Bowl and the Cleveland Browns were 65-1.

They meet in Cleveland on Sunday still with a chance to make it into the final 12 teams in the Super Bowl Derby. Just the fact they are in contention is a surprise to their fans, coaches and to one of the owners.

"At the start of the season, I never thought we'd win seven games. But you never know. You never know," Buffalo's Ralph Wilson acknowledged last week after the Bills beat winless Miami to improve to 7-6.

The Browns, 4-12 last season, are 8-5, in large part because Derek Anderson has become one of the NFL's more dependable quarterbacks. His 26 TD passes are tied for fourth in the NFL with Ben Roethlisberger, behind only behind Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Peyton Manning.

That's pretty good company for a guy who was cut by the Ravens two years ago and backed up Charlie Frye in the Browns' season opener. But Frye was traded to Seattle after that game and Anderson has thrived since, combining with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow to overcome leaks in a defense that has allowed 356 points, most in the NFL.

Cleveland could clinch its first playoff berth since 2002 and only its second since returning to the league in 1999 with a win over the Bills and losses by Tennessee in Kansas City and Denver in Houston.

The Bills, who haven't been to the postseason since 1999, are winning despite four starters on injured reserve and two more out indefinitely. They also are lucky to be in the same division with the winless Dolphins and the 3-10 Jets, who have provided four of their wins.

But that's the way the NFL goes.

Asked about the playoffs this week, Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel acted as if he hadn't thought about them.

"Playoffs?" he joked in a parody of the oft-copied rant by Jim Mora the elder. "Playoffs? I don't know anything about playoffs."

Five teams have clinched playoff berths and five have reasonable clinching scenarios this week. With some unusual results, six could clinch this week, leaving only the second NFC wild-card spot vacant with two weeks to go.

In the NFC, Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle have won the East, North and West, respectively. Tampa Bay can clinch the South by beating Atlanta at home and the New York Giants can wrap up one wild-card spot with a win at home Sunday night over Washington.

In the AFC, New England has won the East and earned a first-round bye, and Indianapolis has locked up a playoff spot. The unbeaten Patriots can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the New York Jets in Foxborough, and the Colts can clinch the South with a win at Oakland or a loss by Jacksonville at Pittsburgh.

San Diego will win the West if Denver loses and it beats Detroit at home. The Steelers win the North by beating Jacksonville and can take the division or get a wild-card with a variety of other scenarios. The Jaguars can clinch a wild-card spot with a win and a Tennessee loss.

And Cleveland has that chance with a win and losses by the Titans and Broncos.

The weekend actually started on Thursday, when the Texans crushed the Broncos, 31-13.

Cincinnati (5-8) at San Francisco (3-10)

This is hardly the kind of game that will convince folks to push their cable companies for the NFL Network. It was probably put there because both teams had playoff hopes entering what turned out to be lost seasons.

The Bengals have been erratic on offense and dismal on defense. San Francisco finally put QB Alex Smith on IR with a shoulder injury this week, and with Trent Dilfer also out, career third-stringer Shaun Hill will start, with newly signed Chris Weinke behind him.

New York Jets (3-10) at New England (13-0)

One of the more anticipated games of the season, as it has been since Week 1, when the Jets turned in a Patriots employee taping New York signals from the sideline. Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, the team was fined $250,000 and the Patriots forfeited their first-round draft choice.

The assumption has been that Belichick might run it up to the point where the Pats surpass the Bears' 73-0 win over Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game. He's been running up scores all season against other teams anyway, and he dislikes the Jets more than anyone else.

But the Jets have improved since Kellen Clemens replaced Chad Pennington at quarterback, winning two of their last four, including an overtime victory over the Steelers. "We're going to approach it like every other game," Belichick has insisted under constant prodding all week.

Jacksonville (9-4) at Pittsburgh (9-4)

The assumption is the Jaguars will be the first AFC wild-card team and that the Steelers will win the North and be the conference's third-seeded team in the playoffs. There's no reason to think otherwise, even though Pittsburgh leads Cleveland by only a game in its division. Pittsburgh has beaten the Browns twice and thus holds the tiebreaker.

Jacksonville has been more impressive lately than Pittsburgh. Fred Taylor has three straight 100-yard rushing games after having none before that; he shares time at running back with Maurice Jones-Drew.

Washington (6-7) at New York Giants (9-4)

The Giants are coming off wins in Chicago and Philadelphia, two teams ranked ahead of them in preseason predictions. They are only 3-3 at home, but have won six straight on the road.

The Redskins lost quarterback Jason Campbell with a knee injury last week when they ended a four-game losing streak by beating Chicago. They remain in the pack chasing the last NFC wild-card spot with Todd Collins, whose last start at QB was Dec. 14, 1997 for Buffalo.

"The way the NFC has gone this year, it's a lot of parity, so to speak," linebacker London Fletcher said, perhaps meaning "mediocrity" more than parity. "Where we are right now, having lost four consecutive games and to still be in consideration for a playoff spot, it's a good thing for us."

Baltimore (4-9) at Miami (0-13)

Might this be the Dolphins' win? The Ravens are impossible to figure, nearly beating the Patriots in a game they probably should have won, then getting totally blown away by the Colts, their seventh straight loss.

Cam Cameron, winless as an NFL coach, thinks he has a chance. He's starting Cleo Lemon over rookie John Beck at QB "because he gives us our best chance to win."

Arizona (6-7) at New Orleans (6-7)

Chicago (5-8) at Minnesota (7-6)

More of the NFC wild-card chase.

The Vikings are the hot team, having won four straight, including a 27-7 win in San Francisco last week despite only 3 yards from Adrian Peterson, the NFC's leading rusher. They are catching breaks, too, such as the decision by Bears coach Lovie Smith to start third-stringer Kyle Orton at quarterback over Brian Griese, who has shared the starting job with the injured Rex Grossman.

The Cardinals-Saints game is an elimination contest. Both teams have been erratic all season. Arizona, for example, had five turnovers and gave up five sacks in a 42-21 loss in Seattle.

Indianapolis (11-2) at Oakland (4-9)

The Colts may ultimately benefit from all their injuries. Rookie WR Anthony Gonzalez has emerged in the absence of Marvin Harrison — he has two 100-yard games in the past three and had his first two TD catches in Baltimore last Sunday night. If Harrison is back for the playoffs, Gonzalez seems ready to be Peyton Manning's third dangerous wide receiver in the way Brandon Stokley was when he was in Indy.

The Raiders had won two straight before losing 38-7 in Green Bay. That's another indication that while there is progress, they're not ready to line up with the big guys yet.

Green Bay (11-2) at St. Louis (3-10)

Philadelphia (5-8) at Dallas (12-1)

The Cowboys got a scare in Detroit, winning 28-27 on a Tony Romo-Jason Witten TD pass with 18 seconds left. A loss would have left them tied with the Packers for home-field advantage in the NFC, although they still hold the tiebreaker because they beat Green Bay.

Green Bay had no problems with Oakland as Ryan Grant ran for 156 yards, his fourth 100-yard rushing game in the last six.

Scott Linehan, the St. Louis coach, was told he would be back for his third season after injuries, especially those to QB Mark Bulger and RB Steven Jackson, ruined this season. "From the first game, the offensive line was a mess, and then Marc and Steven got hurt," team president John Shaw said. "From Day 1, it was almost impossible to evaluate him."

Tennessee (7-6) at Kansas City (4-9)

The Titans were in good shape for an AFC wild-card spot until the fourth quarter last week, when they blew a 17-3 lead to San Diego and lost in overtime. Now they probably have to win their final three games.

They also were hurt by what coach Jeff Fisher is convinced was a blown call on Chris Chambers' fourth-down "catch" that prolonged the Chargers' tying TD drive. But there was no replay angle that could definitively show the ball hit the ground before Chambers grabbed it.

"It was not a catch, but they couldn't overturn it because they didn't get a look," said Fisher, co-chairman of the league's competition committee. "You can't overturn it. That's just part of replay. I'm a proponent of replay."

Detroit (6-7) at San Diego (8-5)

Technically, the Lions are part of the NFC wild-card race. But they have lost five straight and blew the game to the Cowboys last week after leading by 13 points early in the fourth quarter. One culprit: almost-always-reliable Jason Hanson, who missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.

The Chargers, who have lost three times more than all of last season, will almost surely win the AFC West because it is a down year for the division. They will be without star linebacker Shawne Merriman, out with a knee injury. QB Philip Rivers has a sprained left knee, but expects to play.

Atlanta (3-10) at Tampa Bay (8-5)

This should clinch the NFC South for the Bucs, who like the Chargers are benefiting from a down year in their division. The Falcons may be fired up for Emmitt Thomas, the interim replacement for Bobby Petrino, who departed for Arkansas on Tuesday, leaving behind an angry team.

Jeff Garcia, who has back problems, may return at quarterback for the Bucs. "He brings a lot of lift. We really missed him for three games," coach Jon Gruden conceded.

Seattle (9-4) at Carolina (5-8)

The Seahawks have won five straight and can tinker for three games as they prepare for the playoffs, likely as the third-seeded NFC entry. That's a delicate balance for team locked in to a playoff position — Mike Holmgren has those games to rest players, but try to keep momentum entering the playoffs.

One reason Seattle is winning is that it's passing more.

"I think New England is proving the point," says Holmgren, until now an advocate of a balanced offense. "While they run the ball very well, they throw the ball 33 times in a row and still have these big wins. ... No one's saying they have to run the ball in the playoffs. I haven't heard that."


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