Loss may benefit Patriots
By Dave Goldberg
By Dave Goldberg
Losing may have been good for the New England Patriots yesterday, a dramatic NFL season finale filled with curtain calls, milestones, an inspiring return — and one kooky antique of a play.
The Patriots settled for a fourth seed in the AFC playoffs after a 28-26 loss to the Dolphins. But securing a No. 3 seed would have meant a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got in yesterday as the sixth seed.
Instead, New England begins its quest for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl at home Saturday against the inexperienced Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4).
In a day mostly tinged with serious drama — Tony Dungy's return to the Colts, Dick Vermeil's retirement, possible last appearances by Brett Favre and Jerome Bettis — the usually businesslike Patriots provided the comic relief.
After a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Patriots coach Bill Belichick sent Doug Flutie out with the kicking unit. The 43-year-old backup quarterback drop-kicked an extra point through the uprights, the first successful such kick in the NFL since 1941.
Houston lost in overtime to San Francisco, locking up the first pick in next April's draft and the rights to Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush, who must apply to enter the draft early.
In Indianapolis, the crowd roared for Dungy, who returned to the sideline following the death of his 18-year-old son to watch the top-seeded Colts' backups beat Arizona, 17-13. After a Kansas City loss, Vermeil confirmed at a tearful press conference that he was retiring, and the 69-year-old coach swore that this time, he wasn't coming back.
Not yet decided on retirement: Brett Favre, who at 36 may have thrown his last touchdown pass in Green Bay's 23-17 win over top seed Seattle at Lambeau Field. Shaun Alexander scored his NFL record 28th touchdown and wrapped up the league rushing title that he missed by a yard last year.
And Jerome Bettis, 33, scored three touchdowns in what was probably his last game in Pittsburgh. Bettis stayed dry-eyed, but it wasn't easy — he nearly lost it when the crowd gave him a standing ovation and began chanting "One more year! One more year!"
But first, it's on to the playoffs.
Jacksonville (12-4) at New England (10-6) (3 p.m. Hawai'i time Saturday)
Although they won't say it, the Patriots most likely prefer to play Jacksonville.
Yes, they've beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh in their past two meetings — on the road in the AFC championship game last season and 23-20 in the third week this season.
But the Jaguars, despite their record, played a relatively weak schedule and unlike the Steelers have few players with postseason experience.
Pittsburgh also is hot, having had to win its last four games just to make it to the playoffs.
Jacksonville also has been playing with backup quarterback David Garrard for the injured Byron Leftwich.
Leftwich, who broke his ankle Nov. 27, was the third quarterback yesterday as the Jaguars beat the Titans, 40-13, but his status for the playoffs remains in question and he will be rusty if he comes back.
New England also has been playing well as it's gotten healthier and it's reflected in the early line — New England by 7 1/2.
"We're going against the defending champs," Jaguars safety Deon Grant said. "You can't ask for anything more than that. We can go up there and shut a lot of people's mouth(s)."
The key for the Patriots has been the return of Richard Seymour — perhaps the NFL's best defensive lineman.
Since a 40-21 loss at home to Indianapolis on Nov. 7, the Patriots had won six of seven before their 28-26 loss yesterday to Miami. Third-string quarterback Matt Cassel played much of the game and the highlight was Flutie's drop kick.
Carolina (11-5) at New York Giants (11-5) (8 a.m. Hawai'i time Sunday)
Even with a spate of late-season injuries, the Giants will be hard to beat at home, where they are 8-1, including a "road" win over New Orleans in the second game of the season. The Meadowlands could also neutralize what could be an advantage for Carolina — Steve Smith against New York's suspect secondary — because it's hard to throw deep in the January winds of Giants Stadium.
"As we have come down the stretch, our home crowd has unquestionably been a factor in our performance," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said yesterday. "Our team feeds off the crowd, and we have been able to energize the crowd with our performance."
Because of those winds, the Sunday afternoon game might be won on the ground.
If that happens, give the edge to Tiki Barber of the Giants, one of just three running backs ever to have three 200-yard rushing games in a season and the league leader in total yards from scrimmage.
Carolina's DeShaun Foster had a good game yesterday and could exploit New York's injury-riddled linebacker corps.
The line: Giants by 2 1/2.
Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5) (11:30 a.m. Hawai'i time Sunday)
These teams split the season series, with each team winning on the road.
The Steelers, who are favored by a point despite being on the road, won, 27-13, at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 27, but lost at home Dec. 4 by a score of 38-31. But that was the last game the Steelers lost, winning their final four to make it into the playoffs as the sixth and last-seeded team in the AFC.
This is another game with a huge contrast in playoff experience.
The brash young Bengals have almost none. The Steelers have a wealth of it — this is their 10th playoff experience in the 14 seasons that Bill Cowher has coached the team.
The Steelers seemed glad to have it after they clinched their spot yesterday with a 35-21 win over Detroit.
"We play them twice a year and we know them," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We'll take our chances going to Cincinnati."
Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5) (11:30 a.m. Hawai'i time Saturday)
A replay of one of the season's most intriguing games — a 36-35 win by the Bucs on Nov. 13 on a 2-point conversion with 58 seconds left. That came after the Redskins were offside on a blocked extra-point attempt following a Tampa Bay touchdown with 58 seconds left.
The Bucs' defense certainly has been here before — Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Dexter Jackson and Simeon Rice were the heart of the defense that won the Super Bowl in 2003, and Anthony McFarland was on that team but hurt. Clinton Portis has finally learned the Joe Gibbs system and is running as well as he ever has, but Brooks and McFarland especially are strong against the run.
Still, the offense is young, especially quarterback Chris Simms, who has progressed in his third season but still can be prone to turnovers under pressure, especially against a solid Washington defense. A questionable offensive line doesn't help, although rookie RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams can take off some of the pressure.
One problem for Washington, which got into the playoffs by winning its final five games, is injuries in the secondary. Simms, who brought the Buccaneers back with two touchdown passes in the first meeting, can exploit them if he can get time, especially with Joey Galloway having one of his best seasons.
The Bucs are favored by 2 1/2.