Although they have yet to clinch a playoff berth, the New York Jets will win the AFC East today if they beat the skidding Oakland Raiders, New England somehow loses to awful Carolina and lowly Buffalo upsets host Miami.
The AFC West champion Raiders (10-5), who have lost three of their past five games and squeaked by also-rans Kansas City and San Diego in the other two, might be without receiver Jerry Rice and kicker Sebastian Janikowski as they try to nail down a first-round bye. Rice is with his ailing father in Mississippi. Janikowski has been hospitalized with cellulitis in his kicking foot, the same condition that sidelined him for two games as a rookie last year. And coach Jon Gruden and Rich Gannon, the league’s top-rated quarterback, are at odds over the team’s discipline during its current slump.
But at least the Raiders aren’t battling ghosts. Not only are the Jets 0-8-1 in Oakland since 1962 (including the infamous 1968 “Heidi” game), but the memories of last year’s 1-4 playoff-costing stretch run are fresh, especially with New York having lost three of its past five games, including a 14-9 shocker at home to lowly Buffalo last week. If the Jets (9-6) lose in Oakland, Baltimore beats crumbling Minnesota and Seattle gets by the Chiefs, New York will watch the playoffs on television again.
So even though it’s Herman Edwards’ first year with the Jets, he’s not spouting the usual coach-speak about the past having no relation to this season.
“It’s pretty important for this team, for these fans, for this organization to alleviate the ghosts,” Edwards said. “I just hope we get in for the players to get this off their necks. I took this job because I wanted to win a world championship. You can achieve what you believe. It’s about changing people’s mindsets and making people believe.”
The Jets certainly believe in their defense, which has allowed the NFL’s 10th-fewest points. New York’s offense is a different story. Despite NFL rushing leader Curtis Martin and an offensive line that has allowed the second-fewest sacks, the Jets have scored just seven touchdowns in their past six games and just eight in their last 28 red zone trips.
“This is the defining game,” Martin said. “We had destiny in our hands, and we lost it [last December]. This year has to be different. This will put the whole franchise in a different frame of mind.”
Chiefs-Seahawks Trent Dilfer, whom the Ravens didn’t re-sign after he guided them to the Super Bowl title in January, can get revenge by keeping the champs from making the playoffs. Dilfer, 11-0 as a starter with Baltimore last year, is 3-0 with Seattle and will start today over the erratic Matt Hasselbeck, who has a separated non-throwing shoulder and, worse, a 5-7 record. If the Jets win, the Seahawks (8-7) beat the Chiefs (6-9) as they did six weeks ago, and the Ravens (9-6) lose to the Vikings (5-10), Seattle’s in and Baltimore’s out.
Although Seattle coach Mike Holmgren gave the keys to the offense to Hasselbeck last spring, he still doesn’t trust the kid to drive on the highway. While Hasselbeck has been limited to the dink-and-doink attack, Dilfer completed three touchdown passes of at least 37 yards in last week’s 25-22 victory over the Chargers. Despite his success, Dilfer, who signed a one-year deal with Seattle last summer after being snubbed in free agency, doesn’t know if he’ll start the playoff opener should the Seahawks qualify. And Dilfer likely will pursue a starting job elsewhere this offseason since Hasselbeck remains Holmgren’s guy.
Eagles-Buccaneers Since they know there’s a playoff rematch next week at Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid and Tampa’s Bay Tony Dungy, both conservative coaches by nature, will offer up more blandness than a nursing home dinner today in Tampa, Fla.
“You’re not going to show your hand,” said Reid, who likely will rest several ailing players today. “It will be more vanilla on both sides of the ball and special teams.”
The Bucs (9-6) come in healthier than the NFC East champion Eagles (10-5) and more motivated thanks to their 21-3 playoff loss last January at the Vet.
“Those guys were laughing at us,” NFL interceptions leader Ronde Barber said. “Hopefully it will come back to haunt them.”
The Bucs are also playing to save Dungy’s job, which is in jeopardy despite four playoff berths in six years with a franchise that previously had suffered 13 straight losing seasons. Word is that Dungy must win a playoff game or two to stay put, especially with Steve Spurrier, whom the Bucs tried to hire before settling for Dungy, now available.
“The man is obviously a proven coach and a winner,” Bucs halfback Rabih Abdullah said of Dungy. “We’re about to win our 30th game in three years. You can’t overlook his accomplishments. It’s just a matter of time when people realize his genius as a coach.”