- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Three teams are fighting for the final two playoff spots in the NFC.

A loss by Seattle to so-so San Francisco means Minnesota and Green Bay are in, one as division champion, the other as a wild card. A Seahawks victory and it gets a bit more complicated.

The Vikings can clinch the NFC North with a victory at Arizona tomorrow even if the Packers beat Denver. The Seahawks need a victory, plus a loss by one of the other two teams. If all three win, then the Dallas-New Orleans game will determine whether the Packers or Seahawks get the wild card.

Even though the Packers face the Broncos, perhaps the hottest team in the NFL, they may have the easiest path. Despite last week’s rout of the powerful Chiefs, the Vikings have lost six of their last nine and have won just one of their past 17 outdoors. The Seahawks are 4-5 since a 5-1 start and 1-6 on the road. And while the Packers are an unusually mediocre 4-3 at home, the Broncos are in the mood to be generous. They are not playing three ailing starters and may rest others with their AFC playoff spot sealed.

“We tend to struggle against teams with lesser records,” said coach Mike Tice, whose Vikings have lost at San Diego, Oakland and Chicago and to the New York Giants at home. “Hopefully, some of our guys aren’t very worldly and don’t know Arizona’s record [3-12].”

For all their woes, the Cardinals are 3-4 at home, having beaten the Packers, AFC North contender Cincinnati and the 49ers. NFC West champion St. Louis and NFC South champion Carolina barely survived their trips to the desert. If the Vikings are going to follow suit and win their first division title since 2000, they will need a big game from Randy Moss. The mercurial receiver needs just 24 yards to become the first player to average 100 yards and a touchdown over a 16-game season but still doesn’t always give his all.

“When it’s a nationally televised game, Randy is coming to play,” quarterback Daunte Culpepper said after Moss had seven catches for 111 yards and two scores against the Chiefs. “He has that look in his eyes. I just wish he had that look in his eyes all the time.”

Seahawks-49ers — Forgive Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren if he has a glazed look in his eyes. If Seattle, Minnesota, Green Bay and Dallas (which has locked up a berth) all finish 10-6, there are 148 playoff scenarios involving all seven NFC intraconference games this weekend. Seattle qualifies in 56 of the 148 scenarios. The fifth tiebreaker, strength of victory, could move the Seahawks ahead of the Cowboys into the first wild card.

“People have referred to me as a control freak,” Holmgren said with a laugh. “I don’t agree, but there are things in this crazy world that I have no control over, and those scenarios are certainly one of them.”

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, just 153 yards shy of Warren Moon’s team record for passing yards in a season, will play despite a torn muscle in his non-throwing shoulder, a sprained ankle and a severe cold. Top receiver Darrell Jackson sprained an ankle in last week’s victory over Arizona but also is expected to be in the lineup as Seattle (9-6) aims to reach postseason for the first time since Holmgren’s first season in 1999. The 49ers are 7-8, but they’re 6-1 at home and coming off a huge upset of Philadelphia. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, struggling with injuries or poor play earlier that had him on the verge of losing his job, has been effective in three games in December with a 125.3 rating, 851 yards, eight touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Broncos-Packers — Six years ago, the Broncos kept Brett Favre and the Packers from defending their Super Bowl crown with a 31-24 victory in the title game. Tomorrow the Broncos (10-5) can keep Favre from taking the Packers (9-6) to the playoffs for the ninth time in his 12 years. Whereas most fans were rooting for Denver quarterback John Elway to win his first title in 1997, this time everyone is pulling for Favre.

A day after his father died suddenly at 58 of a heart attack, the three-time MVP recorded a career-best and team-record 154.9 rating in Monday’s 41-7 rout of Oakland.

“You couldn’t draw up a better script,” coach Mike Sherman said. “We’re a close team to begin with, and now it appears we’re even closer. Adversity does bring out sometimes the best in you and sometimes the worst. With this team, it’s brought out the best.”

The Broncos are hot, but coach Mike Shanahan is going to sit running back Clinton Portis, center Dan Neil and cornerback Kelly Herndon and has hinted that other starters like quarterback Jake Plummer may be pulled depending on how the game goes. Denver will be on the road next week as either the fifth or sixth AFC seed. If Tennessee beats Tampa Bay earlier in the day, Denver will be No.6 and will have little incentive except pride.

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