- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

The first definition of “wild card” is “one picked to fill a leftover playoff or tournament berth after regularly qualifying competitors have all been determined.”

The second definition is “an unknown or unpredictable factor.”

Bingo.

Next to the meanings, there should be pictures of the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and St. Louis Rams. At some point during the season or entering the playoffs, they weren’t supposed to get this far. Yet here they are.

Unknown. We thought we knew these teams. No doubt about it, one, two or all three of them would lose in the wild-card round. But we didn’t know. For the first time since the current NFL postseason system was adopted in 1990, three wild-card teams won road games and advanced to the division playoffs. Only the Indianapolis Colts played to form and blew out the Denver Broncos.

Unpredictable. The Jets would lose to San Diego because they can’t beat a good team and their quarterback can’t throw deep. The Vikings would lose to Green Bay because they can’t win on the road, especially outside, and they generally stink. The Rams would lose to Seattle because they needed to beat a team for a third time, which is hard, and do it on the road, where they had lost five straight.

The Rams and Vikings also were fighting history. Both went 8-8 this season, and no 8-8 team ever had won a playoff game.

But the NFC never has been this universally lousy. The top two seeds, Philadelphia and Atlanta, who enjoyed first-round byes and no doubt watched the proceedings with great amusement, are strong but hardly invincible. The rest of the conference is a junkyard.

Yet the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field appeared to be a lock even though they, like Seattle, needed to beat a team for a third time. The Vikings were 2-20 outdoors since October 2000 and had lost seven of 10, including an ugly defeat to the lowly Redskins in the regular-season finale. Both teams had porous defenses, but the Packers had a strong running game and quarterback Brett Favre, who had slowed down a bit but was still Brett Favre.

Favre threw four interceptions against a Minnesota unit that ranked 29th in pass defense and was missing starting safety Corey Chavous.

Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper played great, as usual. In a disappointing season, coach Mike Tice said, Culpepper was a sure thing. He did everything except tackle and cover, Tice said after the game, “But we thought about it.”

The win brightened what had been a turbulent, miserable year for Tice and the Vikings. Looking ahead to Sunday’s rematch with the Eagles, who won the first game 27-16 on Sept. 20, Tice said, “There was a whole lot of time toward the end of the season it didn’t look like we were gonna have that chance [to play Philadelphia] again. For some reason, the Lord works in funny ways.”

In the wake of the Redskins’ loss, Tice seemed disconsolate leading up to the Packers game, lacking any solutions.

“Obviously, we’re not over the hump,” he said last week. “I wish I had a book that told me what it is going to take to play with a little more confidence and a little more looseness.”

One thing the Vikings did was let their hair down, literally. Receiver Randy Moss and others allowed their full-blown Afros to blossom. Moss caught two touchdown passes and provided his usual dose of controversy when he simulated mooning the fans after one of the scoring catches.

This came a week after Moss caused a stir by walking off the field with two seconds left in the Redskins loss. It’s always something with Moss. Maybe the Vikings finally will have had enough of the antics and try to trade him, although his reputation and contract are burdensome (but maybe not to a certain NFC East owner who is constantly looking to make a splash).

Like the Vikings, the Jets were coming off a tough loss (at St. Louis). They faced the prospect of traveling 3,000 miles to play the 12-4 Chargers. But quarterback Chad Pennington, dealing with a damaged shoulder for much of the season, limbered up his suspect arm, uncorked a few long ones and had an outstanding game overall in the 20-17 overtime win. The Jets’ defense followed suit, limiting quarterback Drew Brees, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and the rest of the Chargers’ offense.

They also had help from Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who orchestrated an amazing turnaround from last year’s 4-12 mess but failed again in the playoffs. Schottenheimer drew a key 15-yard penalty when he ran on the field to yell at an official, then compounded that by putting his rookie kicker, Nate Kaeding, in the position of having to win the game in overtime with a 40-yard field goal attempt on a slick field. Kaeding missed.

The Jets were 10-6 during the season, but almost all the attention was directed toward Pennington’s arm and New York’s problems with playoff teams. The Jets had lost three of their last four games to Pittsburgh, New England and St. Louis and had lost earlier to New England.

“I don’t think we bought into what everyone else was saying,” Jets coach Herm Edwards said Sunday, referring to the consensus that the Jets didn’t stand a chance. “We just felt we lost some tough games against some good football teams.

“When we got in the playoffs, we were a confident football team. We felt we belonged in the playoffs. We didn’t feel like, hey, somebody’s giving us a break.”

On Sunday, the Jets play 15-1 Pittsburgh, which won the first game between the teams 17-6 on Dec.12. Again, they will be expected to lose.

“I like it when nobody expects us to do well,” receiver Justin McCareins said, repeating the mantra of all underdogs.

“If we play our game — don’t turn the ball over, take the ball away, don’t commit foolish fouls — we have a great chance of winning,” Edwards said.

The Rams’ 27-20 victory over the Seahawks was the least surprising of the three upsets, mainly because Seattle was one of the worst 9-7 teams in recent years. And St. Louis was playing well of late. Quarterback Marc Bulger was sharp, and the defense was improving.

But after losing to Arizona on Dec.19, St. Louis’ sixth loss in eight games, making the playoffs looked shaky. Some even questioned the job security of coach Mike Martz. Now the Rams travel to Atlanta to play the 11-5 Falcons on Saturday.

“These guys are energized,” Martz said yesterday. “The season’s just begun, in their minds.”

“We’ve had a lot of turmoil, a soap-opera team,” tight end Cam Cleeland told reporters after his game-winning touchdown catch Saturday. “But we are coming together at the right time. We’re hitting our stride now when it means the most, and we just have to keep it rolling.”

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