Week Seventeen
December 29, 2004
By Scott A. Benson

It痴 the final week of the regular season and all but the bottom two seeds of the AFC playoff bracket have been settled.

With their convincing win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-1) clinched the first seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Our own New England Patriots (13-2) climbed off the mat to thump the New York Jets and clinch the second seed, and a home game in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

With their dramatic rally over the Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts (12-3) assured themselves of the third seed, and the right to host the sixth seed on Wild Card Weekend.

The San Diego Chargers (11-4), winners of the AFC West and fourth seed, will host the fifth seed in the other wild card game when the playoffs open on January 8th and 9th.

What remains to be seen is which teams will earn the right to face the Colts and Chargers in the wild card round. Five teams still vie for two spots. Presently, the New York Jets (10-5) and the Denver Broncos (9-6) hold the advantage, as the only two AFC teams who truly control their own destiny this weekend. Win, and they池e in, exactly in that order.

The other three challengers � the Buffalo Bills (9-6), the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7) and the Baltimore Ravens (8-7) � all need wins plus the right combination of losses by their rivals to advance to the tournament.

Of the top four seeds, only Pittsburgh (playing at Buffalo) and Indianapolis (playing at Denver) can still influence the AFC痴 final playoff seedings. New England (hosting the Niners) and San Diego (hosting Kansas City) cannot.

Arguably, though, this weekend痴 action is still critical for the Pats. On the weekend of January 15th and 16th, they will host the highest seeded team among the survivors of the wild card round. Pittsburgh will play the lowest seeded remaining team.

Let痴 look at possible fifth seeds:

(Brief disclaimer: I told you before � I don稚 work with ties. Ties almost never happen. I don稚 see the point of getting a headache over something that almost never happens. So enough with the ties already.)

(Second brief disclaimer: I wouldn稚 swear that any of what you池e about to read is right.)

The New York Jets (at the Rams) have the inside track. A win in St. Louis and they clinch the fifth seed. They can even absorb a loss to the Rams and still retain the fifth spot, if Buffalo loses to the Steelers. Of course, the Jets should also keep in mind � they can miss the playoffs entirely if they lose and Buffalo and Denver win.

The Denver Broncos (home with the Colts) can be the fifth seed if they defeat Indianapolis and get wins from St. Louis (over the Jets) and Buffalo (over the Steelers). Denver too can miss the playoffs entirely if they lose and Buffalo, Baltimore (home with Miami) and Jacksonville (at Oakland) all win.

The Buffalo Bills (home with the Steelers) can be the fifth seed if they defeat Pittsburgh and get wins from St. Louis (over the Jets) and Indianapolis (over the Broncos). If the Bills lose, however, they will be eliminated from the playoffs.

And now, let痴 look at the possible sixth seeds:

The New York Jets will be the sixth seed if they lose to St. Louis, the Bills beat the Steelers and the Colts beat the Broncos.

The Denver Broncos will be the sixth seed if they beat Indianapolis and the Jets beat St. Louis or the Steelers beat Buffalo. Denver can still be sixth seed even with a loss to Indy, if Pittsburgh beats Buffalo, Miami beats Baltimore, and Oakland beats Jacksonville.

The Buffalo Bills would be the sixth seed if they beat the Steelers and either: 1) the Jets lose and Denver wins, or: 2) the Jets win and Denver loses.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens can still grab the sixth spot. To do so, they both need wins by themselves coupled with (at minimum) losses by Buffalo and Denver. That scenario sets up a ridiculous sequence of three-way and four-way tiebreakers (broken ultimately by Strength of Victory) that I frankly don稚 have the time nor interest in working out for you.

I don稚 know why it matters anyway. In the last ten years, there have been 20 teams that have advanced to the AFC championship game. Eight of them have been first seeds, six of them have been second seeds, four have been third seeds, and two have been fifth seeds. Baltimore and Jacksonville were both been thoroughly emasculated last weekend, so do you really think either of them can beat Indy or San Diego on the road, even if they roll the Lucky Seven this weekend?

Me neither. So why are we talking about this? Let痴 face it; the greatest likelihood is that the Patriots� divisional round opponent will be either Indianapolis (the only need to beat the sixth seed to assure this) or San Diego (but only if they win and Indy loses its wild card game in an upset). No sense spending any more time on this.

Since this is the last playoff column for the year, let痴 take a shot at predicting the outcome of this weekend痴 meaningful games:

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, New York Jets at St. Louis � at first, you have to be a little concerned about the Jets, seeing that they just got their ears boxed by their older brother, and the tabloids have decided that the only thing better than unnecessarily pumping up Chad Pennington is relentlessly tearing him to shreds. However, in an amazing stroke of luck, the Jets draw Mike Martz for their final game, and I don稚 care if the Rams are playing for their playoff lives too, at home no less, they are still coached by Mike Martz. The Jets win here and clinch the fifth spot, and a trip to the coast.

Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, Indianapolis at Denver � I suppose since the Colts 蘇ave nothing to play for� (except the backs of their football cards) the prevailing wisdom will favor Denver, who can get in with a win. I don稚 like any prevailing wisdom that favors a cruddy team like Denver over anybody. They suck. They致e lost their last two home games and are facing a team that hasn稚 lost since October. The Colts win.

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Pittsburgh at Buffalo � I don稚 see how anybody can be rooting against the Bills at this point. Never the first team to fall of the lips in any playoff discussion, they致e now won six in a row after they had been given up for dead. Buffalo presents a formidable challenge for Pittsburgh, another team with 創othing to play for�. I think the Steelers have a little more on the ball than to casually dismiss this contest, but when it comes down it, I like a Bills win to grab the sixth seed and a date with Indy next weekend. Rock on, AFC East.

Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, Jacksonville at Oakland and Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Miami at Baltimore. Who cares? I値l tell you, THESE are the games Bob Neumier and Greg Dickerson should have no interest in watching.

But if you’re insistent in working yourself into a migrane over two teams that are way too flawed to make any difference whatsoever, knock yourself out by visiting with Joe Ferreira at http://www.sportsline.com/nfl/playoffrace/notes