- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

The nosedives of last year’s Super Bowl teams, Tampa Bay and Oakland, have made this seem like yet another incredibly unpredictable year in the NFL. Not so.

While only two of the AFC’s six playoff teams from 2002 — Indianapolis and Tennessee — are headed back to postseason. New England and Denver just missed out last year at 9-7, Kansas City was 8-8 and Baltimore (which leads the AFC North) was 7-9. Only if Cincinnati edges past the Ravens will there be a true Cinderella.

Philadelphia is the only NFC lock to return to the playoffs, but Green Bay might get back there, too. Almost everyone saw St. Louis’ 7-9 flop of 2002 as an aberration and Dallas improving under Bill Parcells, although not this quickly. Michael Vick’s injury ruined Atlanta’s season and opened the door for Carolina, which won four of its final five games to finish 2002 at 7-9. That was also last year’s record for Seattle, which won its last three. So the Cowboys, 5-11 in 2002, and NFC North leader Minnesota, which was 6-10, would be the conference’s only real postseason surprises.

Consider these facts: As expected, the AFC East is the NFL’s best division, the AFC North its worst and the AFC South its most divided (the Colts and Titans are both 11-4, while Jacksonville and Houston are both 5-10). The South, as expected, was the NFC’s most competitive division, while the North, like its AFC counterpart, will produce a champion almost by default.

Nine of the 12 playoff spots have been wrapped up, while only five teams are alive for the last spots. That’s a knock at the ever-hyped NFL parity.

Run, run, run — Led by Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis, who is 154 rushing yards from breaking the all-time season record, and Kansas City’s Priest Holmes, who is one rushing touchdown from setting the all-time season record, it has been a glorious season for NFL runners. There have been a record 145 games in which a back has gained 100 yards, including 15 of 175 yards, two shy of the all-time mark. Nine years ago, only 10 backs cracked the 1,000-yard barrier. With a week left this year, nine backs have already topped 1,300 yards.

And a nod to the New York Giants’ Brian Mitchell, who likely will play the final game of a 14-year career that has included records in eight categories, including 18,866 return yards and 13 return touchdowns. His 23,064 yards from scrimmage are second only to Jerry Rice.

Sore Bledsoe — Buffalo will finish below .500 for the second time in coach Gregg Williams’ three years. Williams (17-30) likely will be fired, partly because quarterback Drew Bledsoe had a weak year after a Buffalo debut in 2002 in which he set 10 franchise records. Bledsoe has passed for less than 200 yards in eight of 15 games, and with 2,777 so far, he will wind up with his fewest yards since his rookie season with New England. Bledsoe also has just 11 touchdowns, two fewer than his worst total in his 10 years as a starter.

“I’m so angry,” the 31-year-old Bledsoe said after Buffalo’s 20-3 loss to Miami on Sunday. “I didn’t see the season going this way. I’m trying to figure out what the answers are.”

Here are some: Bledsoe was hurt by the offseason trade of deep threat Peerless Price to Atlanta; the release of safety valve Larry Centers; and the injury-plagued season of receiver Eric Moulds. And don’t forget Bledsoe’s slump began in the second half of last year. He had 16 touchdowns, 2,500 yards and five interceptions at midseason 2002, then eight touchdowns, 1,859 yards and 10 interceptions the rest of the way.

Couldn’t you just kiss him? — Joe Namath may have embarrassed himself by asking ESPN’s Suzy Kolber for a kiss three times during a brief interview Saturday, but the Hall of Fame quarterback should be applauded for finally going back to get his degree 39 years after he left the University of Alabama two courses shy of graduation.

Namath, 60, was prodded by a golfing partner and by the fact that his daughter Jessica has begun looking at colleges. When she told her father that she would the first in the family to finish college, the man who guaranteed that the whopping underdog New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III replied, “You want to bet?”

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