- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

Seven weeks ago, defending NFC champion Carolina was 1-7. Four weeks ago, New Orleans was 3-8. Both teams were looking forward to January only to be out of their misery. Yet today the Panthers (7-8) play host to the Saints (7-8) with the winner just about assured of an NFC wild-card berth.

Carolina also needs Minnesota (8-7) to be upset by Washington (5-10) or Seattle (8-7) to remain ahead of St. Louis (7-8) for the NFC West title. New Orleans needs the Rams to lose or tie the New York Jets (10-5) or the Seahawks and Vikings to both win or tie.

Despite playing without injured offensive stars Stephen Davis, Steve Smith and DeShaun Foster, the Panthers have averaged 30.4 points while winning six of their past seven games. One of those victories was a 32-21 decision over the Saints on Dec.5.

However, New Orleans has allowed just 43 points in winning its past three games, rallying from 10-point deficits at Dallas and Tampa Bay before topping Atlanta, which rested star quarterback Michael Vick after edging Carolina to clinch the NFC South the previous week.

“I wish they’d have done it against us, [but] we just need to take care of our business,” said Panthers coach John Fox, whose team has won its past four meetings with the Saints. “If it’s good enough, so be it. If not, it’s not.”

Jim Haslett might not return for a sixth year as the Saints’ coach if his team misses the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

“We aren’t even average yet, but in this league if you can get into the playoffs, it doesn’t really make a difference,” Haslett said. “You wipe the slate clean and start over.”

Jets-Rams — While the Panthers are looking to complete the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Jets are hoping to avoid turning a 5-0 start into a nonplayoff finish. The culprit for the slump has been an offense which has failed to top 17 points in seven of the past 10 games despite the presence of Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin.

New York will need to do better than that on St. Louis’ artificial turf, where the Rams average 21.6 points and are 5-2. However, the Jets can take heart from their 23.3-point average and 7-0 record against teams with losing records.

“I doubt very seriously we’ll win 14-10,” Jets coach Herman Edwards said. “We’re going to have to be in the 20s, maybe the 30s.”

While the Jets can qualify for postseason with a victory (or losses or ties by Buffalo or Denver), the Rams still need help even if they win. St. Louis would then win the NFC West if the Seahawks lose to the Falcons or make it as a wild card if the Vikings lose or the Panthers and Saints tie.

“After all the drama we’ve been through this year, to be in position to potentially get into the playoffs, how awesome is that?” said coach Mike Martz, whose Rams are 3-6 since a 4-2 start but stayed alive by beating Philadelphia (which rested many of its starters) last Monday thanks to quarterback Marc Bulger and rookie running back Steven Jackson.

Colts-Broncos — Denver has had its share of drama, too, while losing three straight AFC West games — two by a total of four points.

So the Broncos (9-6) must slow the NFL’s top offense — or hope that the Colts follow the lead of other division winners and rest record-breaking quarterback Peyton Manning and their other stars for at least half the game. Denver makes the playoffs for the third time in five years with: a victory; a tie coupled with Buffalo (9-6) losing to or tying Pittsburgh; or a Bills loss plus losses or ties by Jacksonville (8-7) and Baltimore (8-7). The Jaguars visit Oakland (5-10) while the Ravens meet Miami (4-11).

“It’s been the same mind-set the last two weeks,” Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said. “We’ve got a chance to win and be in.”

If the Jets clinch with a defeat of St. Louis, these teams would meet again next weekend in Indianapolis if Denver wins.

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