NFC East, AFC South could have three playoff teams each Print
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Thursday, 27 December 2007 10:48
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 If Washington and Tennessee win Sunday and make it to the playoffs, it would mark the fourth time in NFL history that two divisions had three playoff teams in the same season.
The Redskins play Dallas, which already has clinched home-field advantage in the NFC. If they win, they join the Cowboys and the New York Giants, who have already clinched a wild-card spot, as representatives from the NFC East.
The Titans are at Indianapolis on Sunday night against the Colts, who have locked up the AFC's second seed. If Tennessee wins, it's also in, joining AFC South rivals Indianapolis and Jacksonville in the postseason.
There have been several instances since the NFL went to its 12-team playoff format when a division has placed three teams in the postseason, most recently last season: Philadelphia, the Cowboys and the Giants represented the NFC East.
As for it happening in two divisions during the same year, the last time was 2001 when the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins got in from the AFC East, while the Bears, Packers and Buccaneers qualified from the NFC Central. Back then, with only six divisions, there were three wild cards per conference.
In 1999, the AFC East (Colts, Bills, Dolphins) and NFC Central (Bucs, Vikings, Lions) also did it. And in 1993, the AFC West sent the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos, while the NFC Central again had three reps: Lions, Vikings and Packers.
In 1998, four of the AFC playoff representatives came from the East: the Jets, Dolphins, Bills and Patriots joining division champions Jacksonville and Denver.
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HALL EMERGES: In the first half of the season, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall was singled out by opponents and made to look like a raw rookie. His second half has been dramatically better.
The first-round draft pick from Michigan has started the last five games and started making his mark. He had his fifth interception during a 19-14 win over Cleveland on Sunday, tying the club record for interceptions by a rookie.
Safety Tommy Casanova (1972), cornerback Ray Horton (1983) and linebacker Odell Thurman (2005) also had five interceptions as rookies.
``He's made a lot of plays,'' coach Marvin Lewis said. ``He does a great job of tackling. He has effective blitzes and he's obviously good in coverage. He's done a better job of playing to his strengths on each and every play, and I think that has enabled him to play with more confidence.''
The first half of the season was a struggle for Hall, the 18th overall pick. With cornerback Johnathan Joseph recovering from a foot injury, Hall had to play more than initially envisioned.
Like every rookie cornerback, he learned by trial and error.
``I wasn't really surprised,'' Hall said. ``I knew it was going to be difficult. I knew there would be ups and downs. I expected to come in and play, but it's a whole different thing when you're out there.''
The low point was a 24-13 loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 28 that left the Bengals out of contention at 2-5. The Steelers repeatedly took advantage of Hall's inexperience to complete passes.
``That was a tough one,'' Hall said. ``It was a pretty big game, we're at home, it was a rivalry game.''
Soon after, he started showing improvement that translated into a starting job. He said there was no specific turning point.
``At a point, you just get fed up watching the film and seeing yourself play badly out there,'' Hall said. ``I take pride in how I play. All of it was stuff that was fixable. I took it upon myself to make those plays I didn't make before.''
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PLAYOFF LEFTOVERS: The Titans now stand a win away from the playoffs, somewhere they haven't been since 2003. Only seven players are left from the team that lost to New England in an AFC divisional playoff.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was one of those players. Asked after the Titans' 10-6 victory over the New York Jets last Sunday if he could taste the playoffs yet, he said he didn't know.
Then he smacked his lips.
``I'm missing that taste. It's been a while. I'm just waiting for that to get back there,'' he said. ``After next week, I'll let you know what it tastes like. It's been a long time. Man, my first year in the league I thought it was easy to get into the playoffs, went to the AFC championship.
``I'm like, `We'll be there next year.' We got to the second round. I'm like, `This is easy.'''
Then came injuries and salary cap-forced slashing and rebuilding. The Titans went 4-12 in 2004, 5-11 in 2005 and 8-8 in 2006.
They found themselves counted out after an overtime loss to San Diego on Dec. 9, their fourth loss in five games. But now they have won three of four, and coach Jeff Fisher said Monday he was excited for his hardworking players.
``They're deserving of an opportunity,'' Fisher said. ``They're not there yet by any means. Indy's a good football team. We're going to have to find a way to win.
``We told them if you just stay focused and work at it, good things will happen. They happened.''
The Titans (9-6) must win, or tie combined with a Cleveland loss to San Francisco, to clinch that final AFC wild-card spot. That would put them in a wild-card game against either Pittsburgh or San Diego.
Fisher is trying to keep things very simple.
``There's one scenario this week, and it's try to find a way to score one more point than they do,'' he said.
Then the Titans will find out what Haynesworth said he took for granted when he was young.
``Now it's been so long, you can't wait to taste it again,'' he said.
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Football Writers Barry Wilner and Dave Goldberg, and Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this story.
 

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