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Getting there in spite of it all

December 31, 2007|Christine Daniels | Times Staff Writer

The Washington Redskins are 9-7, the last NFC team to clinch a playoff berth this season, bound now for a Saturday encounter at the site where they lost their most recent postseason game, Seattle.

On the surface, they sound like just another wild-card story: squeezed their way in with a victory over a top-seeded opponent playing not to get hurt and set up a probable repeat of the game they lost to the Seahawks, 20-10, in January 2006.

Except that on Nov. 27, the Redskins defensive leader and two-time Pro Bowl safety, Sean Taylor, died of wounds suffered when he was shot by an intruder in his Palmetto Bay, Fla., home.

And on Dec. 2, the Redskins were 5-7 after losing at home to Buffalo on a last-second field goal after Coach Joe Gibbs was penalized 15 yards for calling consecutive timeouts in a confused-about-the-concept attempt to "ice" the Bills' kicker.

And on Dec. 6, the Redskins lost their starting quarterback, Jason Campbell, who was forced out of the game against Chicago because of a dislocated kneecap.

And after Chicago, the Redskins were scheduled to close their regular season against the playoff-bound New York Giants, the playoff-hopeful Minnesota Vikings and the NFC's top-seeded Dallas Cowboys.

Despite enough adversity to avalanche most teams and despite having to turn their offense over to a quarterback who went a decade between starts, the Redskins advanced -- clinching the NFC's No. 6 seeding with a 27-6 victory over Dallas.

Todd Collins, summoned from the bench to bail out the Redskins against the Bears, oversaw Washington's fourth consecutive victory by completing 22 of 31 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys (13-3), who played without Terrell Owens and removed quarterback Tony Romo from the game in the third quarter.

In the other conference, another quarterback named Collins helped Tennessee wrap up another wild card. After Vince Young injured his right quadriceps in the third quarter, Kerry Collins came in to complete 10 of 13 passes for 106 yards and lead the Titans to three field goals that were the difference in a 16-10 triumph over Indianapolis.

With the victory, the Titans (10-6) earned the league's 12th and final playoff spot, setting up the following matchups for wild-card weekend:

AFC: No. 5 Jacksonville (11-5) at No. 4 Pittsburgh (10-6) on Saturday, followed by No. 6 Tennessee (10-6) at No. 3 San Diego (11-5) on Sunday.

NFC: No. 6 Washington at No. 3 Seattle (10-6) on Saturday, followed by the No. 5 Giants (10-6) at No. 4 Tampa Bay (9-7).

After these games are played, the league will get on with the serious business of seeing if anyone can stop the New England Patriots.

Bulletin dispatched from East Rutherford, N.J., late Saturday night: The league is in with a chance.

The Patriots completed the first 16-0 regular season in history but had to rally from a 12-point third-quarter deficit to do it. Overcoming four touchdown passes by Eli Manning -- re-read those last seven words carefully -- New England defeated the Giants, 38-35, in a game watched by 34.5 million viewers tuned in to either CBS, NBC or, less likely, the NFL Network.

The Patriots are 16-0, but for a moment, take the logo off the helmet, remove the names from the jerseys, pull the sweatshirt hood over the coach's head and pay attention only to these fourth-quarter scenarios:

Week 12: Playing at home against the last-place team in the NFC East, the Patriots trailed with 7 1/2 minutes to go, 28-24.

Week 13: Playing the last-place team in the AFC North, they trailed with 45 seconds to go, 24-20.

Week 15: Playing at home against a team that would finish the season 4-12, they led by a touchdown with 3 1/2 minutes to go, 17-10.

Week 17: Playing a team quarterbacked by Eli Manning, they trailed with 11 1/2 minutes to go, 28-23.

Does this sound like a surefire Super Bowl champion? Or a bunch of wild-card hopefuls trying to scrounge up some momentum before scuffling into the first round?

During the last six weeks, the Patriots had to overcome fourth-quarter deficits against the Philadelphia Eagles (had to win their last three games to finish 8-8), the Baltimore Ravens (lost nine in a row before finishing 5-11) and the Giants (did not beat a team with a winning record all season, although the Patriots will not be interested in a rematch any time soon).

They also struggled against a New York Jets team that needed a 13-10 overtime victory Sunday over Kansas City to avoid finishing tied with St. Louis (3-13) for the second-worst record in the league.

On Saturday, New England's aging defense appeared to have wandered into a game against the wrong Manning. Eli threw for three touchdowns in the game's first 36 minutes. He wound up completing 69% of his passes for four scores and a season-high 118.6 passer rating.

The performance lent new insight into the AFC and NFC playoff pictures. The AFC now has the look of a fair fight, and Giants no longer have the look of one-and-done in the NFC.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh is a rematch the Steelers would have preferred to avoid. In Week 15, the Jaguars appeared better equipped for Pittsburgh winter conditions than the Steelers, rushing for 224 yards in a 29-22 triumph that represented the Steelers' lone home defeat this season.

Tennessee at San Diego is another rematch. In Week 14, the Chargers defeated the Titans in Nashville, in overtime, 23-17, on a 16-yard touchdown run by LaDainian Tomlinson.

Despite rushing for more than 77 yards only three times in the Chargers' first 12 games, Tomlinson earned his second consecutive NFL rushing title with 1,474 yards. Tomlinson had only 43 yards in a Week 2 loss at New England, but that was a different Tomlinson and a different Chargers team then.

Apparently, it took Norv Turner some time to rummage through Marty Schottenheimer's old desk and find the good LT plays.

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