Mediocrity may mean playoffs in NFC

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

NEW YORK -- Going .500 gets fans upset, coaches in trouble and players released.

Except in this year's NFC, where a break-even mark is looking playoff-worthy. And a winning record makes you a Super Bowl contender.

When the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Carolina Panthers on Monday night, it created a four-way logjam for the two NFC wild-card berths between those teams, the New York Giants and Atlanta -- all at 6-6.

So while teams possibly headed for 10 wins in the AFC are wondering if it will be enough to get them into the Super Bowl chase, mediocrity -- not parity -- in the other conference might well be rewarded with a trip to the postseason.

"Well, it's a crazy year, so anything is possible," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We're just taking it one week at a time; we're not going to worry too much about getting into the playoffs or anything else."

History usually hasn't been kind to .500 teams. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, seven 8-8 clubs reached the postseason, with the 1985 Cleveland Browns actually winning the AFC Central. The other six were wild cards.

But recent history has been more positive for such posers, with two 8-8s making it in 1999 (Dallas and Detroit) and two more in 2004 (Minnesota and St. Louis). Indeed, even a 7-9 finish could be good enough in the NFC, which brings St. Louis, San Francisco and Minnesota -- all 5-7 and all decidedly average or worse -- into the equation.

Which raises the question whether the lack of artistry on the field by these teams is offset by the excitement created in cities where next April's draft would, by now, be the main NFL topic.

"That's the way the NFC is this year, and because of that every game is like a playoff game," said Philadelphia kicker David Akers, whose 25-yard field goal beat Carolina on Monday night and created the four-way tie at 6-6.

"It was a playoff atmosphere out there," Akers said. "Next week is going to be the same thing, because each game is so critical to win going down the stretch. You never can tell, and if you don't give up, maybe good things will happen for you."

Really good things, such as division championships and byes, definitely will happen to teams with more wins than losses in the NFC.

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