- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

As Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt's 51-yard field goal soared through the mile-high snow and over the goal post in overtime Sunday night, Denver coach Mike Shanahan's stomach wasn't alone in getting upset. So was the AFC playoff race.

The Broncos (7-4), who were on the verge of a clear claim on the AFC's top seed, instead slipped into a three-way tie for the West lead with San Diego and Oakland and the No.3 seed.

Meanwhile, the AFC South-leading Colts (7-4), who would have been out of a playoff spot if not for Vanderjagt's 54-yarder at the end of regulation and his subsequent game-winner, are the AFC's No.2 seed because of a better conference record (5-3 vs. 4-4) than the Broncos. That's a huge difference because the No.2 seed gets a first-round bye.

Denver's loss left Miami (7-4) as the AFC's current No.1 seed because of its 6-3 conference record, but the Dolphins lead the East only by a game over New England and the New York Jets, neither of which is currently playoff-bound.

AFC North leader Pittsburgh (6-4-1) is the No.4 seed for now, with San Diego No.5 and Oakland No.6. That sets up a potential mentor vs. protege first-round game between the Steelers' Bill Cowher and the Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer and another Raiders-Broncos grudge match.

Matters are a little clearer in the NFC, where South leader Tampa Bay's big victory over Green Bay gave the Buccaneers (9-2) the edge in the race for home-field advantage. After Monday's amazingly one-sided 38-17 triumph over San Francisco with Koy Detmer and then A.J. Feely at quarterback, NFC East leader Philadelphia (8-3) is the No.2 seed because of a better conference record (7-0 to 6-3) than NFC North-leading Green Bay.

NFC-West leading San Francisco (7-4) is the fourth seed despite its loss to No.6 New Orleans (7-4). Atlanta (7-4-1) has overtaken the Saints for No. 5.

Who's over the hill? Although it was a little overshadowed by the Detmer-Feely drama, Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell set the NFL record with his 13th return touchdown. Mitchell, 34, considered washed up by the Washington Redskins after the 1999 season, is second in the NFL with a 26.9-yard kickoff return average and second in the NFC with a 12.8-yard punt return average.

Indy's heroes Strangely, Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, had missed five of his last eight field goal tries, including a 23-yarder, before Sunday. And just as weird is that Vanderjagt wouldn't have had his chance to wreak havoc on the AFC playoff chase if Denver's Jason Elam's record streak of 371 consecutive extra points hadn't ended in the second quarter.

The overtime also enabled Colts receiver Marvin Harrison to become the first player to catch 100 passes in four straight seasons. What's more amazing is that the Steelers' Hines Ward, with 81 catches, is the only player within 20 of Harrison.

Among players who have caught 100 passes in a season, the biggest margin over the second-place finisher was 19 catches by Denver's Lionel Taylor in 1961. The last receiver to come close to Harrison's 19-catch advantage was Green Bay's Sterling Sharpe, who won the title by 14 catches in 1993.

FieldTurf's the rage NFL players have always preferred grass to turf, but that attitude might be changing with the latest fake stuff. It's called FieldTurf. Seattle and Detroit installed it in their new stadiums this year, and 11 teams practice on it.

What makes FieldTurf different is a patented infill of sand and Nike grind (ground-up recycled sneakers) underneath the playing surface. Its manufacturer claims that its patented vertical drainage system makes its playability the same no matter the weather.

"FieldTurf will definitely prolong a lot of players' careers," said Lions Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Porcher. "It's easier on the knees and the back. There is no comparison between FieldTurf and the old artificial turf because this is like grass."

The raves are also coming from visiting players. Jets Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin said, "I wish we had it in our stadium." And in what had to be music to the ears of FieldTurf CEO John Gilman, a former CFL player and coach, Broncos Pro Bowl receiver Rod Smith said, "That turf was incredible it's the best field I ever played on. It's better than grass. They ought to install that field at every stadium."

Heinz Field might be next. Steelers players have blasted the grass field in their 2-year-old facility, and owner Dan Rooney is considering moving to FieldTurf. AFC North rival Cincinnati might dump its grass field as soon as next year.

"If you're in the north, you have a problem," Rooney said, citing the fields in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, New York and Washington. "Everyone wanted a grass field, and now they're saying [the one at Heinz] isn't any good."


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