GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Losses by Giants and Steelers tighten playoff picture Print
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Monday, 17 December 2007 11:34
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 The Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home for the first time this season, leaving their hopes for an AFC North title still hanging. The New York Giants, who have six consecutive road wins, lost for the third straight time at home, squandering a chance to clinch a playoff spot.
And Dallas, a prohibitive front-runner for home-field advantage in the NFC, put that status in jeopardy by losing to Philadelphia in a game in which Tony Romo injured the thumb on his throwing hand.
So maybe Cleveland, the longest of long shots to start the season, will win the AFC North. Maybe the Giants will miss the playoffs altogether, a thought foremost in the minds of those who booed them, then left the Meadowlands early during their 22-10 loss to Washington on Sunday night. And maybe the NFC road to the Super Bowl will go through Green Bay rather than Texas Stadium.
Unlikely, but possible.
``If we go on and win the Super Bowl, the loss is a good thing. If we lose in the first round of the playoffs, the loss is not a good thing,'' Romo said after the Cowboys were beaten 10-6 at home by the Eagles and fell into a tie with Green Bay at 12-2, although they still hold the tiebreaker because they beat the Packers.
The Eagles-Cowboys game featured a heady but highly unusual play by Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook, who eschewed a sure touchdown and stopped at the 1-yard line with just over two minutes left, allowing his team to run out the clock and keep the ball away from Dallas.
``It was brilliant,'' Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said.
Despite that, the Eagles won't be in the playoffs and the Giants and Steelers probably will be. But neither is playing well and New York lost tight end Jeremy Shockey with a broken leg in its loss to the Redskins, the third key player to go down with that injury this season.
Jacksonville and Cleveland, meanwhile, are coming on, the Jaguars playing more like the Steelers than the Steelers in their 29-22 win in wintry conditions.
``The Jaguars are the Pittsburgh of the South,'' said the Steelers' Willie Parker after the southerners rushed for 224 yards, which is what the Jags must do in northern climes to win. ``The weather was kind of bad, and they came in like they've been playing in it for a while. We've got to use our weather to our advantage.''
Here's a look at the playoff picture with two weeks to go.

AFC
The Patriots (14-0) and Colts (12-2) have clinched first-round byes and San Diego (10-5) has clinched the West. That leaves the North and two wild cards.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady used their usual ``the next game is the only one'' routine when asked about an unbeaten season for the umpteenth time after Sunday's win over the Jets in rain and wind, a good rehearsal for playoff weather. But they weren't talking about not going unbeaten either, which means that starters are likely to play in the final two games, at home against finally victorious Miami, then at the Giants.
``It's good. It's good to have that, but right now that's not really anything we're going to dwell on,'' Belichick said in his characteristic Monday clichefest. ``We're just going to get ready for Miami and get ready to play the Dolphins. That's what we're going to do this week.''
Indy does it differently.
The Colts are locked into the second seed, which means there are likely to be Jim Sorgi sightings in home games against Houston and Tennessee. That's been Tony Dungy's late season M.O. the last few years, and there's no reason it won't happen again, although Peyton Manning will certainly start to keep intact his streak of 158 straight from the start of his career.
Cleveland (9-5) is tied with Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead, although the Steelers beat the Browns twice and have the tiebreaker.
Both will be favored to win their final two, even though Pittsburgh, 2-4 away from Heinz Field, has two road games: at St. Louis and Baltimore. If the Steelers can't beat the Rams (3-11) and the Ravens (4-10), who have lost eight straight and were beaten by winless Miami, they don't deserve to win the division.
Cleveland has it equally easy: at Cincinnati (5-9) and San Francisco (4-11) at home. The defensively challenged Browns got a shutout Sunday, albeit in a snowstorm, beating the Bills in the first 8-0 NFL game since Nov. 10, 1929, when the Chicago Cardinals beat the Minneapolis Red Jackets.
Figure Jacksonville (10-4) for the first wild-card spot and perhaps a return to Pittsburgh; the Jaguars clinch a spot by beating Oakland at home next week. If the Browns and Steelers win out, Pittsburgh wins the division and Cleveland, ahead of Tennessee (8-6), is a wild-card and likely to head to San Diego.
Neither the Browns nor Steelers are likely to beat the Colts or Patriots.
But watch the Jaguars if they go to New England. They seem as well-prepared for the cold as the Patriots.

NFC
The division winners are set, although it could come down to a Dallas-Washington finale to decide home-field advantage. The Redskins, who play at contending Minnesota next week in another important game, are 7-7 and could get a spot if they win out, so they might have even more incentive on Dec. 30 in an always-intense rivalry game.
The Packers, on the other hand, have two division games they should win: at Chicago, which is playing for next season, and at home for Detroit, loser of six straight.
The Giants (9-5) had better win in Buffalo next week. They close with New England, which (see above) doesn't seem about to let down. The other realistic contenders are the Vikings and New Orleans (7-7).
There are some 6-8 teams alive too, but does anyone think Detroit, which started 6-2 before reverting to type, is about to win anything? Or Arizona? Or Carolina?
Best guess:
The Giants at Tampa Bay the first weekend of the playoffs, and Minnesota at Seattle. None of those four teams beats Green Bay or Dallas, except, perhaps, the Seahawks if they revert to the form they showed in a five-game winning streak that ended Sunday in Carolina.
 

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