- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

Seattle and Minnesota were the chic preseason picks to challenge Philadelphia’s presumed NFC supremacy. Now the Seahawks (6-6) and Vikings (7-5) are just hoping to make the playoffs as they meet today in Minneapolis.

Seattle is 3-6 since its 3-0 start and has lost three of it last four games, surrendering 81 points the last two weeks to sub-.500 teams Buffalo and Dallas. The Seahawks lost a 10-point lead and the game in the final two minutes to the visiting Cowboys last Monday.

The high-powered Seahawks scored just 45 points in the three games leading up to Dallas while the injury-plagued defense, the NFL’s best after three games, has fallen to 20th. With the Vikings, New York Jets and Atlanta (both 9-3) ahead, coach Mike Holmgren knows he’s in trouble even though his team currently holds a wild-card berth.

“As much as I try to avoid it, I hear it and I’m human,” said Holmgren, 47-47 with no playoff victories in his six seasons. “I’m as disappointed as anybody at some of the things that have happened.”

The scenario is similar in Minnesota, where coach Mike Tice’s contract is expiring and the Vikings just lost 24-14 to Chicago and rusty quarterback Chad Hutchinson. The Bears, easily the worst team on third down, went 10-for-17 against the Vikings. Randy Moss was mocked by the Chicago secondary, which limited the star wideout to four catches for 31 yards. Minnesota, which missed the postseason last year after a 6-0 start, has lost four of six after starting 5-1.

Jets-Steelers — New York (9-3) can clinch a playoff berth if it upsets Pittsburgh (11-1) and three other games go the right way. The Steelers can punch their postseason ticket with a Denver defeat and seal the AFC North with an 11th straight victory and a Baltimore loss.

Jets running back Curtis Martin, a high school and college star in Pittsburgh, returns in search of his first victory in four pro games in his hometown. Martin is only seven yards behind the Steelers’ Jerome Bettis for fifth place in career rushing.

Slasher Martin and bruiser Bettis have different styles, but their careers have been similar. Both have averaged 4.0 yards. Martin has 83 touchdowns, Bettis 80. Martin’s longest run is 70 yards, Bettis’ 71. Both are 5-foot-11. However Bettis is 45 pounds heavier at 255.

“Curtis is a gladiator,” said Bettis, who’ll split time with Duce Staley today against New York’s NFL-stingiest defense which is minus injured elite pass rusher John Abraham. “To be the size that he is and to be able to take the punishment he’s been able to take over the course of his [10-year] career is pretty outstanding.”

Bengals-Patriots — Running back Corey Dillon, who demanded to be traded from Cincinnati after a seventh nonplayoff season in 2003, returned Aug.21 with New England and got squashed 31-3. Of course, that was preseason. Today, Dillon faces his old team for real and can help the Patriots (11-1) clinch a playoff spot (and the AFC East if the Jets lose) while damaging the postseason hopes of the Bengals (6-6).

Dillon wasn’t talking this week, but his teammates were.

“Whether it was preseason or not, nobody likes to get beat up and pushed around like we were,” said tight end Christian Fauria, whose team has won 26 of its last 27 in regular season and postseason.

New England is 7-0 when Dillon gains 100 yards. The Patriots’ 225 rushing yards in last week’s 42-15 rout of Cleveland were their most in nearly 11 years. Cincinnati has the second-worst run defense.

The Bengals are on a 4-1 run, with the only loss a 19-14 thriller to Pittsburgh. They ended a 42-game road losing streak to winning teams by scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter behind the red-hot passing combination of Carson Palmer to Chad Johnson to beat Baltimore 27-26 last week.

However, the Bengals better not count on a similar comeback in Foxboro, Mass., where the Patriots have won 17 in a row. New England has set a post-1969 NFL record with 37 straight victories when leading after three quarters and can establish another mark today with a 31st consecutive victory when leading at halftime.

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