Lowly Giants still in with a shout at playoff contention

AP , NEW YORK

Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 19

The New York Giants have lost six of their last seven NFL games and have played uninspired football for the entire second half of the season. Yet if they win on Saturday against the Washington Redskins, they will almost surely make the playoffs.

That's because the Giants control almost all the tiebreakers among the five 7-8 teams vying for the NFC's last wild-card spot. They are tied with Green Bay for the best conference record at 6-5 and their strength of victory and strength of schedule is prohibitively better than the Packers.

The scenario is simpler in the AFC, where the Denver Broncos and New York Jets (both 9-6) just have to win and they get the fifth and sixth spots. Both are at home to San Francisco Bay Area teams -- the Jets to the dismal Oakland Raiders (2-13), and the Broncos to the improved but still building San Francisco 49ers (6-9).

Mediocrity

Because of all that mediocrity, 20 teams are alive going into the last weekend of the regular season, the most since 1970, when the NFL merged with the old AFL. Nine teams have clinched and 11 more are in the running for three berths, although some are real long shots.

No team with a losing record has made the NFL playoffs during a non-strike season.

The NFC is a mess, in large part because the so-called "good" teams -- the Giants, Carolina Panthers and defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks -- have been anything but, especially in the last weeks of the regular season.

Among those three they have lost 11 of their last 15 games, and one of the wins was by New York over the Panthers. Seattle (8-7) is in the playoffs, backing in as champions of the West division last weekend when San Francisco lost to the Arizona Cardinals. But the Seahawks, who play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, have lost three straight, not the kind of momentum you want to take into the postseason.

Scenario

The New York Giants' scenario for the playoffs is simple. Beat Washington, then wait until Sunday for the right result in any one of 10 other games. The chances of all 10 going against the Giants are astronomical.

The simplest would be the most obvious: A win by the Dallas Cowboys (9-6) over the Detroit Lions (2-13) at Texas Stadium. That would make it impossible for Green Bay to get the "strength of victory" edge even if it beats Chicago in a game that is meaningless for the Bears (13-2), who already have clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

The Cowboys will play hard because they still have a chance to win the NFC East if the Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) lose to the Atlanta Falcons (7-8).

If the Giants lose, that opens it up to the other 7-8 teams. Green Bay leads that group in tiebreakers, followed by Carolina, which is at the NFC South winner New Orleans Saints (10-5); Atlanta; and the St Louis Rams.