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On football

Playoff watch comes to a head

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 24, 2008
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Scoreboard watching isn't for everyone.

Two weeks ago, in the hours leading up to a home game that could have clinched them the AFC West championship, members of the Denver Broncos were tuned in to their division rivals, the San Diego Chargers. They liked what they were seeing.

The Chargers fell behind the Kansas City Chiefs, 21-3, and the excitement was building among players because a Charger loss meant the Broncos would win the division.

Yet as the Broncos took the field to face the Carolina Panthers, the unexpected unfolded, and the Chargers charged back to record a 22-21 victory. The sudden change seemed to jolt some Broncos and coach Mike Shanahan believed it contributed to the team's 30-10 loss that day.

Call it the perils of scoreboard watching.

So this past weekend, Shanahan made a preemptive strike, telling his players that the Chargers game wouldn't be on in the locker room before their contest against the Buffalo Bills, and that no Chargers scores would be flashed on the scoreboard at Invesco Field (the plan didn't work, as Denver lost again).

Fortunately, such clicker control doesn't apply to NFL fans or the writers covering the league, because this Sunday is shaping up as a six-hour slice of scoreboard-watching heaven: Patriots at Bills at 1 p.m., followed by Dolphins at Jets, and Jaguars at Ravens, both at 4:15 p.m.

The Patriots must win to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, then hope for help in the form of a loss by the Dolphins or Ravens.

With this in mind, here is a closer look at each game:

Patriots (10-5) at Bills (7-8)

A trip to Buffalo in late December always brings the elements into play, and the long-range forecast - always tricky in Western New York - indicates that snow could be part of the mix.

The Patriots have won the last 10 games in the series. The last two weeks, coach Bill Belichick has emphasized the importance of fast starts, and that figures to be the case again, because the Bills have been outscored, 105-46, in the first quarter this season. Only the Lions and Rams have been worse in the opening quarter.

If the Bills have something going for them, it's that J.P. Losman won't be at quarterback - he fumbled away a would-be win two weeks ago against the Jets while playing in place of injured starter Trent Edwards - and that their special-teams units can win games. The Bills have the NFL's top punt-return game and rank fourth on kickoff returns, which puts an onus on New England punter Chris Hanson and kicker Stephen Gostkowski and the coverage units for strong performances.

Buffalo's Dick Jauron could be coaching to save his job, adding another wrinkle to the game. Bills players seem to enjoy playing for him, so there could be a similar dynamic to the one that unfolded in Seattle this past Sunday - when Seahawks players wanted to send Mike Holmgren out with a win in his final home game as coach, and beat the Jets. After a 5-1 start, Buffalo has lost seven of its last nine.

Meanwhile, the Patriots' offense has been firing on all cylinders the last two weeks, although it's difficult to determine how much of the 96-point explosion was due to listless competition on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. The defense, still piecing together parts because of a string of injuries, hasn't been consistently tested of late, but a Bills running game averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry figures to do so.

Dolphins (10-5) at Jets (9-6)

If the Dolphins win, they will capture the AFC East championship and snap the Patriots' five-year title streak, while in the process matching the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history.

Know that clich?? that if a team doesn't turn the ball over, it betters its chances of winning? The Dolphins are living proof, as they have an NFL-low 12 turnovers, and are tied for the NFL's best differential (plus-14) with the Tennessee Titans.

Quarterback Chad Pennington has been the catalyst of the Dolphins' turnaround from a 1-15 campaign, and in a Hollywood-like script, he now faces his former team in a high-stakes game. Privately, the Dolphins have been thanking the Jets all season for delivering them Pennington, who was deemed expendable after the acquisition of Brett Favre.

The last few weeks have quickly turned into the Jets' worst nightmare. The New York press is already calling for coach Eric Mangini's dismissal after a remarkable collapse: The Jets were 8-3 after knocking off previously unbeaten Tennessee Nov. 23 but have lost three of their last four. Pass defense and a lack of pressure from the four-man rush have been major problems (237 yards allowed per game, 29th in the NFL).

As mistake-proof as Pennington has been for the Dolphins (7 interceptions), Favre has been at the opposite end of the spectrum for the Jets. He has chucked 19 picks, and his offense ranks last in the NFL in percentage of passes intercepted.

The Jets' running game - they rank third in the NFL at 4.8 yards per carry - will be a key matchup against a Dolphins team that ranks 19th against the run (4.2-yard average).

Jaguars (5-10) at Ravens (10-5)

The Jaguars have lost five of six, but their season began spiraling in the wrong direction five days before the opener when reserve offensive lineman Richard Collier was involved in a shooting outside a nightclub.

That set the tone for a disappointing season that was supposed to see the Jaguars take the next step after advancing to the AFC Divisional round last January. It hasn't helped that pricey offseason acquisitions Jerry Porter (receiver) and Drayton Florence (cornerback) have been major disappointments, and first-round draft choice Derrick Harvey (defensive end) was a holdout and never hit his stride. The team also never adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams's pressure-based scheme.

Starting guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams were lost to season-ending injuries in Week 1, and the Jaguars struggled to find their identity as a power-running and play-action passing club. They had hope at 3-3 but back-to-back losses to Cleveland and previously winless Cincinnati sent them into a tailspin.

While the Jaguars headed in the wrong direction, the Ravens (5-11 a season ago) have rediscovered their defensive mojo in an impressive turnaround under first-year coach John Harbaugh. They rank third in fewest points allowed (15.8 per game), and coordinator Rex Ryan brings pressure from all angles.

Offensively, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has been at the controls from the get-go for an attack that is defined by power running. LeRon McClain has assumed the lead duties (832 yards), with Willis McGahee (647) in a secondary role. The Ravens like to wear teams down, and their 149 yards rushing per game rank second in the NFL, which will be the top area to watch Sunday. Derrick Mason leads the team with 74 receptions, more than double any other Raven.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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