Thursday, December 15, 2005

The games they wish they had back

It's like a *soap* opera. Get it?

The postseason hopes of the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs took an iceball to the face last weekend when both teams lost, dropping them into a three-way tie with Pittsburgh for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. In Dallas, the Chiefs lost a heartbreaker to the Cowboys when their kicker pushed the ball wide as time ran out. Across the country in sunny Southern California, the Chargers sleepwalked through the first 58 minutes against Miami before faking a comeback in the final 2.

Both teams are now in high danger of getting locked out of the playoffs. But when they go home to review their seasons and waggle their heads over what could have been, the events of Week 14 will be eminently more painful for the Chargers than for the Chiefs. That seems paradoxical. After all, Kansas City came close enough to spit in the face of fate not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times in the fourth quarter before ultimately losing. The Chargers, meanwhile, spent the entire afternoon with their pants around their ankles. When the final gun sounded, it was a relief.

What makes the difference is that the Chiefs lost on the road to a desperate team that needed this game as much as they did, while the Chargers lost at home to a 5-7 team whose best postseason scenario involved a meteor striking Massachusetts. There's pain, but no shame, in losing to a worthy opponent as the Chiefs did. But losing to a team that you are clearly superior to -- or at least one that you fancy yourself clearly superior to -- is both painful and shameful. And that's why a Chief will look back at Week 14 of 2005 and say, "We came so close ... " while a Charger will look back and say, "What the hell were we doing?"

That said, the Chiefs would not have been forced into that must-win situation in Dallas had they not laid a foul-smelling egg of their own four weeks earlier in Buffalo. That inexcusable 14-3 loss in Week 10 came at the hands of a Bills team that had been thoroughly outplayed by the New Orleans Saints and lost by three touchdowns to the Raiders.

This is the time of year when the playoff bubble is taking on its final shape (round?). Some teams are perched safely in the middle of that bubble (Indianapolis and Seattle). Some sit a tad farther from the center but are still well-situated (Cincinnati and Chicago, for example). Then there are those teams sliding about on the soapy surface of the bubble, hoping to get inside by hook or by crook. Most teams on the bubble will have a game, like San Diego's loss to Miami, that they desperately wish they could have back. That's why they're on the bubble. Even some teams safely in the playoffs are looking back over the schedule and pining for another crack at one or more of their opponents. If we'd have won in Week 3, they say to themselves, we'd be gunning for a division title now rather than a wildcard spot. Or we'd have a shot at a first-round bye. Or home-field advantage.

Call them What-a-Shame Games. They're games that a team should have won but didn't because it underestimated the opponent, or got caught looking ahead, or just read too many of its own press clippings. They generally aren't games between league powers or bitter division rivals. Most often, they pit an "underdog" in overdrive against a "favorite" coasting in neutral. These games aren't lost in the final minutes. They're lost before the coin flip. Down and Distance takes a look at the teams in the playoff hunt and identifies their What-a-Shame Games:

By my count, there are nine teams still alive in the AFC. One of them is undefeated Indianapolis, which has already wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Obviously the Colts don't have a What-a-Shame Game -- and won't have one, even if they lose their last three. This year's feel-good story, Cincinnati, also doesn't have one. They've beaten everyone they were supposed to beat, and their only losses came to playoff-caliber teams (Jaguars, Steelers, Colts). It's the same story with New England. The Patriots have been torn to shreds by injuries, but their only losses have been to the 9-4 Panthers, the 8-5 Chargers, the 10-3 Broncos, the 13-0 Colts and the 8-5 Chiefs. The games that haunt the other six AFC teams:

Denver. Dolphins 34, Broncos 10 (Week 1). Maybe it's a case of first-game butterflies. Maybe it's a matter of needing a couple of games to find out how all the new parts are going to fit into the machine. Whatever the reason, some highly touted, highly talented teams come out flat in the first game of the season. Like the 2005 Broncos. They didn't just lose to a Miami team coming off a 4-12 season, they got blown out. Denver's celebrated running backs could scrape together just 52 yards, and quarterback Jake Plummer threw two fourth-quarter interceptions that killed any chance of a rally. Fittingly, Plummer fumbled when sacked on the last play of the game, and Miami pinup Jason Taylor ran it in for a touchdown. After the loss, the Broncos won nine of their next 10. Denver isn't in great danger of losing the first-round bye, as they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Jacksonville -- but what little danger there is can be traced back to this game three months ago.

Jacksonville. Rams 24, Jaguars 21 (Week 8). The Jaguars opened the season 4-2 playing a brutal schedule that included five playoff teams from 2004, plus the resurgent Bengals. After a bye in Week 7, this game marked the beginning of a six-game stretch against the league's C-Squad: the Rams, Texans, Ravens, Titans, Cardinals and Browns. Perhaps the Jags downshifted too far, too early. On their opening drive in St. Louis, the Jaguars gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt. That proved to be the difference against a 3-4 Rams team playing with a backup QB who threw three interceptions. Had Jacksonville won, they'd be neck and neck with Denver for a first-round bye.

Pittsburgh. Ravens 16, Steelers 13 (OT, Week 11). The Steelers were forced to play this game with The Tommy Maddox Experience at quarterback. But they were playing a Ravens team that had lost, convincingly, to the Lions and Titans and hadn't scored a touchdown in more than two full games. Thanks to this game, the Steelers have two losses within the division, compared with just one for the Bengals. That gives the AFC North title -- and a home playoff game -- to Cincinnati.

San Diego. Dolphins 23, Chargers 21 (Week 13). Once in a while, a defense makes Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte look like a sharpshooter rather than the broken JUGS machine he usually resembles. The Chargers were that team this week. Coming into the game, San Diego was 8-4, and their playoff hopes rested on losing no more than one of their last four games. Miami was the opponent it never counted on losing to. Now it has to run the table on Indy, Kansas City and Denver. Not bloody likely.

Kansas City. Bills 14, Chiefs 3 (Week 10). In Week 9, the Chiefs beat the Raiders on the last play of the game when Dick Vermeil went for the winning touchdown rather than the tying field goal. (It seems like an even better idea now, considering what happened in Dallas.) Football fans cheered and expected, as I did, that the ballsy move would ignite a K.C. run to the playoffs. That run ran out of steam exactly a week later on the shores of Lake Ontario. Chiefs QB Trent Green threw three interceptions, while his Buffalo counterpart, J.P. Losman, played the last great game of his life: 9-of-16 for 137 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. (For Losman, that qualifies as a great game.) Like the Chargers, the Chiefs probably have to win out against three playoff contenders (Giants, Chargers and Bengals) for a shot at the postseason. Also not bloody likely.

Miami. Browns 22, Dolphins 0 (Week 11). The Dolphins make the list primarily because they are responsible for the Broncos and Chargers being on it. Had it not been for the disastrous trip to Cleveland, Miami would be 7-6 and would have a very real shot at playing New England for the division crown in the season's final week. Instead, they're 6-7 and on the brink of mathematical elimination. Yes, the Dolphins lost to both the Bills and the Jets early in the season, but that was before Miami had put its act together. The Browns game, however, was the nail in the season's coffin.

I count nine playoff-eligible teams here as well. With a two-game edge on the rest of the conference for home-field advantage, Seattle doesn't have any regrets. And with Tennessee and Green Bay still on their schedule, they probably won't have any in the future, even if they lose to Indy in the next-to-last game. I can name only one other NFC team without a What-a-Shame Game, and that team is, surprisingly, Minnesota. The Vikings are the team that the Colts were accused of being before Manning and Company throttled all comers: They've built an 8-5 record by beating bad-to-horrible teams (Packers and Lions twice each, Browns, Saints, Rams), getting blown out by halfway-decent or all-the-way-decent teams (Bucs, Panthers, Falcons, Bengals, Bears) and eking out a fluke W against a team (Giants) they had no business beating. If there's one team this year that definitely hasn't lost to an inferior opponent, it's the Vikings. Where the other seven NFC teams went wrong:

Chicago. Browns 20, Bears 10 (Week 5). Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears led this game 10-6. They'd completely stymied the Browns offense, intercepting Trent Dilfer twice and limiting Cleveland to two field goals -- one of which came off a Bears fumble deep in Chicago territory. Then, six minutes from a victory that would move them to 2-2, the Bears found the big, orange self-destruct button and punched it. A weak punt gave the Browns the ball at midfield. Dilfer hit Antonio Bryant for 33 yards, and the Browns were up 13-10. Kyle Orton fumbled on the next possession, Dilfer hit Bryant for 28 yards, and the Browns won 20-10. This would be the last game the Bears would lose for nine weeks, but it remains costly. Seattle has two conference losses; Chicago, only one. If the Bears had beaten Cleveland, they'd be 10-3 and only a game down in the race for home field.

Tampa Bay. Jets 14, Buccaneers 12 (Week 5) and 49ers 15, Buccaneers 10 (Week 8). Be glad you're not Jon Gruden's dog, because the Bucs are the only playoff contender with two of these inexplicable, inexcusable losses. In the Jets game, they lost to a team that had run through three quarterbacks in two weeks and had just hauled 54-year-old Vinny Testaverde up from the bottom of the barrel, where he'd been watching football on his couch since the start of the season. The Bucs could manage only four field goals against the Jets; it wasn't enough to win. Three weeks later, five field goals would be enough to win. Unfortunately for the boys in pewter, the team that kicked those five wonderful figgies was the dreadful 49ers. Because the Bucs (9-2 in all other games) couldn't beat the Jets and Niners (3-21 in all other games), Tampa has no shot at home field and only a very slim chance at a first-round bye.

Carolina. Saints 23, Panthers 20 (Week 1). Everything said about the Broncos above applies to the Panthers here. There isn't enough ink, pencil lead or blood in the world to print all the words written about how the Saints rolled into this game high on emotion. That's true, but it's equally true that Carolina came out flat, played flat, and staggered back into the locker room flat. They could have had the inside track for a first-round bye, even with their ugly loss to Tampa last week, but coulda don't pay the gas bill in the long, cold winter. The Panthers lost an early game to the Dolphins, too, but I don't have the heart to go to that well a third time.

New York. Vikings 24, Giants 21 (Week 10). Forget the overtime debacle in Seattle: Tough luck on the road in a hard-fought game between two contenders is not the formula for a What-a-Shame Game. Disgraceful play at home against a 2-5 team that manages only 95 yards of offense in the first 59 minutes of the game? Yup, that's the formula. Eli Manning nearly pulled this game out with one of those fourth-quarter comebacks for which he's already gaining a reputation. But there's a difference between engineering a late scoring drive to close out a seesaw slugfest -- the kind of drives that made Elway and Brady famous -- and leading a desperate comeback made necessary by the four interceptions you threw earlier in the game. Had the Giants won this one, they'd be in position to claim a first-round bye.

Atlanta. Packers 33, Falcons 25 (Week 10). Oh, we remember this one, don't we? After a week in which Atlanta fans took over the Internet demanding that more "props" be bestowed upon their team, the 6-2 Falcons spotted the 1-7 Packers a 14-point first-quarter lead, fumbled the ball six times, committed eight penalties and turned a scrub named Samkon Gado into a superstar. And they did it all at home! The Falcons are fading; this could be the game that KOs them for '05.

Dallas. Raiders 19, Cowboys 16 (Week 4). It's easy to forget this one. While the bulk of the attention in the NFC East was focused on the Giants blowing out the Rams on Eli Manning's four TDs, the Redskins dumping the Seahawks in OT, and the Eagles making a frantic comeback against the Chiefs, the Cowboys were in the Bay Area losing this tiresome battle of field goals. What happens in Oakland stays in Oakland! Except when it makes the difference between playing for the division title and playing for a wildcard bid.

Washington. Raiders 16, Redskins 13 (Week 11). The Redskins are 7-2 against the NFC and 0-4 against the AFC. The way they played against the excellent Broncos, the fine Chiefs and the good Chargers, they deserved to win, but they didn't. The way they played against the torpid Raiders, they deserved to lose, and they did. If Washington could have beaten just one of the AFC West teams, they'd be 8-5 and have a leg up on the rest of the 8-5 teams based on a better conference record. Instead they're 7-6 and talking nonsense about winning their last three against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. Even if they do, it probably won't be enough.

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