- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

AFC West rivals Denver and Kansas City reached the playoffs in the same year five times from 1986 through 1997. That won't happen this season, because the loser of today's game in the Mile High City between the 7-6 teams will be eliminated from contention. So this is the most critical Broncos-Chiefs matchup since their second-round playoff meeting in 1997.
"Nothing duplicates being competitive in December," said Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, whose team already has bettered last year's 6-10 record and faces fellow AFC West contenders Denver, San Diego and Oakland over the final three weeks.
The Chiefs allow a league-high 387 yards a game but average an NFL-best 32 points, thanks largely to running back Priest Holmes. With 24 total touchdowns and 21 rushing touchdowns, Holmes is on pace to break NFL records.
Holmes, who sat out the fourth quarters of Kansas City's 49-0 and 49-10 victories the past two weeks, fell 46 yards behind Miami's Ricky Williams in the NFL rushing race but still has a 297-yard margin in yards from scrimmage over San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson.
The teams split their past two meetings, with both going to overtime. Denver, now ranked third on defense and fifth on offense, won 37-34 on Oct.20 at Kansas City.
While the Chiefs have won three of four, the Broncos have lost three in a row and four of five since they went into their bye week 6-2 atop the division. Denver quarterback Brian Griese, who threw an interception at the New York 2-yard line with 1:23 left in last Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Jets, said his team doesn't deserve a playoff berth even though the three straight losses have come by just 12 points, two on overtime field goals.
"We're a good team, but we're not good when we have to be," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, who burned the Chiefs for 214 yards and two touchdowns in Week7. "On third down, we need to be good, we're not. Fourth quarter to put a team away, we're not. Overtime, we're not. Good teams find a way to be good all the time."
Williams' 444 yards rushing the past two weeks was the fourth-highest total in NFL history. Among his 1,500 yards are a league-best six runs of at least 30 yards, five more than during his first three seasons in New Orleans combined.
While Williams is peaking, quarterback Jay Fiedler is still working out the kinks. Fiedler, who missed six games with a broken thumb, hit on just 10 of his final 23 passes in Monday's 27-9 rout of Chicago. The AFC East-leading Dolphins (8-5) were 2-4 in his absence.
The three members of the 1,000-catch club Oakland's Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and Miami's Cris Carter will be on the field today.
Last Sunday's 27-7 pasting of the Chargers was the fifth straight victory for the Raiders (9-4) and not only gave them the AFC West lead but the edge in the battle for homefield advantage. However, none of the last three AFC teams so blessed (Pittsburgh, 2001; Tennessee, 2000; and Jacksonville, 1999) reached the Super Bowl. And Oakland offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy hasn't forgotten losing the 2000 AFC Championship game at home.
"It's good to be on top, but the fact is, we've been there before," Kennedy said.
Packers-49ers Having clinched your division with the candles still in the menorah can mask problems, but Green Bay's porous run defense is in serious danger of being exposed by San Francisco's sixth-ranked ground game today.
The NFC North champion Packers are allowing 5.1 yards per carry, the NFL's most in 26 years, while allowing 132.2 yards per game (29th). The only Super Bowl champion to surrender more rushing yards per game was their 1967 predecessors. No Super Bowl winner has allowed more than 4.7 yards per carry.
Green Bay's run-stopping woes are new. Since re-emerging as a contender in 1992, Green Bay averaged an 11th-place finish in rush defense (101.3 yards) and 15th in yards per carry allowed (3.9). But this year's defense has been hurt by season-ending injuries to ends Vonnie Holliday and Joe Johnson. At 37, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson doesn't have the speed to cover for the line's mistakes. And retired safety LeRoy Butler has been missed.
That said, the Packers are 8-1 against the 49ers with Brett Favre at quarterback. And injuries to safeties Tony Parrish, Zack Bronson and John Keith leave San Francisco's 23rd-ranked pass defense vulnerable to Favre's strong arm. The 49ers were so short-handed in the secondary in last week's 31-27 victory in Dallas that coordinator Jim Mora Jr. used nine players at safety and often had linebacker Julian Peterson covering receiver Joey Galloway.
"That was the most creative game plan I've ever seen," said coach Steve Mariucci, whose 49ers (9-4) are battling the Packers (10-3) for playoff positioning.

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