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NFL REGULAR SEASON ENDS

The Crawl of the Wild

Low-seeded teams get to party but are unlikely to stay long

January 02, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

They're partying in Pittsburgh, jubilant in Jacksonville, cheering in Carolina and wahoo-ing in Washington.

But, statistically speaking, they're all just Detroit dreamers.

When it comes to reaching the Super Bowl, history isn't on their side.

The Steelers, Jaguars, Panthers and Redskins have each made the playoffs as wild-card teams -- all but Jacksonville doing so with victories Sunday -- and all are seeded either fifth or sixth. Since the league's 12-team format went into effect in 1990, none of the 30 Super Bowl slots have been filled by teams seeded fifth or sixth. In fact, only two of those lower-seeded teams made it to conference championship games: the Indianapolis Colts in 1995 and the Jaguars in '96.

Of the 30 Super Bowl spots, 25 were filled by first- or second-seeded teams.

Owning the sixth spot doesn't mean you're deep-sixed, but it's a long and bumpy path to the top. The sixth-seeded Steelers, for instance, could be required to beat Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New England on the road to reach Super Bowl XL.

"If any team could do it, it's this team," Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu told reporters Sunday after the Steelers clinched a wild-card berth with a 35-21 victory over visiting Detroit.

Then again, maybe Pittsburgh is better off on the road, seeing as how the Steelers have lost four AFC title games at home.

The Steelers and Bengals will meet Sunday for the third time this season in a wild-card game at Cincinnati. The AFC North rivals split their regular-season meetings, with each winning on the road. The teams playing in the other three wild-card games are not as familiar with each other.

Despite the NFC's longest winning streak, five games, Washington needed a come-from-behind victory at Philadelphia to secure its first postseason appearance since 1999. An added bonus for the Redskins: Their victory snuffed the hopes of hated rival Dallas.

"Looking back to 5-6, we talked at that time that if we lost another game we'd be out," Washington Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Trying to win five straight is a tough deal, but our guys seemed to understand what it would take. We went back to the basics."

Now, his team has the chance to roll back the clock to November, and avenge a 36-35 loss to the Buccaneers at Tampa. Fullback Mike Alstott clinched that victory with a two-point conversion run in the final minute -- a dive that officials had to review to make sure he broke the plane of the goal line.

On Saturday night, New England begins its quest for an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory with a wild-card game against visiting Jacksonville.

The Patriots are led by quarterback Tom Brady, who is 9-0 as a starter in the postseason. Rest assured, he's plenty fresh after playing just one quarter Sunday in a 28-26 loss to Miami.

"I'd rather be out there," Brady said, but "it's the best I've felt coming out of the game in a long time. I don't think I got hit once."

The odds are stacked against Jacksonville, and not just because it's a warm-weather team playing in Foxborough, Mass., which typically is bitterly cold at this time of year. The Jaguars have health issues at quarterback and running back, and played a relatively soft schedule this season.

In an NFC wild-card game, the New York Giants play host to Carolina, which clinched a spot with a 44-11 pounding of the Falcons in Atlanta. The Panthers were 1-9 in the Georgia Dome over the last decade and had lost seven in a row there.

Now the Panthers will try to keep it rolling Sunday against the Giants at the Meadowlands. Experience-wise, Carolina has a significant edge. It will be the first playoff game for New York quarterback Eli Manning, while Carolina's Jake Delhomme is two years removed from the Super Bowl.

Sunday, Carolina left no doubt, shutting out the Falcons for more than 58 minutes.

"We match up with anybody," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "If they tell us to come out and play on the moon, we'll play on the moon. Everything we want to do is still ahead of us. We didn't win the division, but we're in. We took care of business."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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