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  Posted: Wednesday January 02, 2002 4:59 PM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three questions that matter to fans:

 1  1. Who stacks up where in the all-important momentum department heading into the postseason? 

  Jon Gruden Jon Gruden
Tom Hauck/Allsport

We'll grade each team using a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing a full head of steam as the playoffs approach. First in the AFC (including the three teams competing for the final two berths), then in the NFC:

Pittsburgh (12-3): With an NFL-best seven-game winning streak before last Sunday, the Steelers would have been tops on anyone's peaking-at-the-right-time list. Then Cincinnati happened. The loss didn't cost the Steelers the AFC's home-field advantage, but it did do considerable damage to their aura of invincibility. Momentum reading: 8.5.

New England (10-5): Guess who's tied with St. Louis for the league's longest current winning streak at five games? That's right, Mr. Bill's boys, those plucky Patriots. And you can expect that number to grow to six after Sunday's finale at Carolina. The Pats are a team nobody wants to face about now. Momentum reading: 9.5.

Oakland (10-5): With three losses and two ugly wins in their past five games, the Raiders are like an Indy car running out of gas two laps from the finish line. It's painful to watch and has to be tormenting Jon Gruden. Remarkably, a No. 2 seed is still within reach and that could make up for some of the recent self-inflicted wounds. Momentum reading: 6.0.

Miami (10-5): The Dolphins are 4-3 in the season's second half, with a pair of shutout losses and a disappointing showing at New England in their game of the year. Anybody see any reason to believe Miami is primed for a deep playoff run? We don't either. Momentum reading: 6.5.

Baltimore (9-6): Speaking of teams headed in reverse at the wrong time of the year, we give you the defending Super Bowl champions. Last year at this time they were working on a six-game winning streak that would grow to 11. But these Ravens have been handled in three of their past six games, and twice in three weeks. Momentum reading: 5.5.

N.Y. Jets (9-6): If they even make the playoffs, that would be momentum enough after the debacle against Buffalo. Oh, and nice clock management guys. Momentum reading: 5.0.

Seattle (8-7): The Seahawks have gone win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win in their last seven games. Their momentum has been only momentary. Momentum reading: 4.5.

St. Louis (13-2): The Rams have won their past five games by an average margin of 17.2 points. They've scored under 34 points just once in that span, and that was in their 27-14 conquest of San Francisco. And if they keep winning, they stay inside until August. Momentum reading: 10.0.

Chicago (12-3): The Bears are 6-1 in the second half and have lost only to Green Bay since opening day. Even more encouraging, their offense has started to pick it up as the playoffs approach. Momentum reading: 8.5.

Philadelphia (10-5): They've won seven out of nine after a 3-3 start, but it somehow doesn't feel like it. Their huge win over the Giants on Sunday should stoke things up, but how do you factor in this weird doubleheader of sorts with Tampa Bay? Momentum reading: 7.5.

Green Bay (11-4): The Packers have shown a tendency to play down to their opponent in the season's second half, but the flip side of that is that they get up for the big games. Guess what? All playoff games are big games. Momentum reading: 8.5.

San Francisco (11-4): Losing at St. Louis in December is forgivable. Losing at Dallas is not. The 49ers likely cost themselves a first-round home game, and that spells a cold trip to Green Bay or Chicago -- and an early playoff exit. Momentum reading: 6.5.

Tampa Bay (9-6): If it's late in the season, the Bucs must be rolling. By now it has become a rite of winter. A five-out-of-six run delivered another playoff berth, and now it's just a matter of how much hay Tampa Bay can make on the road as the No. 6 seed. Momentum reading: 8.0.

 2  Which teams are in for the most turbulent offseason? 

  Dennis Green Dennis Green
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

Our three best guesses are: Minnesota, Washington and Tampa Bay.

The Vikings, of course, specialize in turbulence and have done so for years. But this time around they could be facing some or all of the following:

  • The departure of head coach Dennis Green after what is expected to be a showdown post-season meeting with owner Red McCombs;
  • the potentially messy exit of wide receiver Cris Carter, who is leaving with less than good tidings for all;
  • the firing of two more coordinators if Green and McCombs patch things up;
  • the addressing of the festering Randy Moss problem;
  • and the filing of a $100-million-plus wrongful death suit by Korey Stringer's widow and parents.

    As for the Redskins, Dan Snyder's merry band of brothers shouldn't take a back seat to anyone in terms of potential melodrama. On the horizon is a potential power struggle if Snyder does indeed install a high-profile general manager above head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Names like Ron Wolf, Bobby Beathard, Bruce Allen and Bill Polian are reportedly candidates.

    Schottenheimer may accept such a partnership and see his power base shrink considerably, or he may balk and revert to his original nationally televised stance of refusing to work for the Redskins owner. In that case, Washington could be in the market for its fourth head coach in a 13-month span. The Redskins also have a starting quarterback search to conduct, and may face the retirement of defensive end Bruce Smith, if he fails to win partial exemption from Schottenheimer's notoriously tough training camp regimen.

    In Tampa Bay, there could be heck to pay if the Bucs don't make a deep playoff run. Left twisting all season, look for head coach Tony Dungy to force the issue with Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer and sons soon after his team's final game. His message? If you want me, let's start extension talks. Otherwise, hire Bill Parcells and let me get on with my life and career.

    Should the Dungy era survive, the Bucs may still be looking at yet another offensive coordinator search, in light of Clyde Christensen's rocky first season on the job. Not to mention the potential purge of some high-priced veterans who have failed to deliver a championship.

  •  3  Which teams that won't be winners this season appear well-positioned for success in 2002? 

      Dave McGinnis Dave McGinnis
    Jeff Gross/Allsport

    In the NFC, we'll take Arizona. The Cardinals (7-8) have played hard all season for head coach Dave McGinnis and are 5-2 in the second half. Arizona got its quarterback problem solved this year with Jake Plummer's bounce-back season, and it looks like he's got some big-time offensive talent around him for a change. Wide receiver David Boston and guard Leonard Davis both had dominating seasons and could be perennial Pro Bowl picks.

    Leaving the weak NFC East for the new NFC West -- where they'll join St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle -- won't do the Cardinals any favors. But with improvement on defense, they could climb to wild-card contention next season.

    In the AFC, you can count on Tennessee (7-8) being back with a vengeance after this season's letdown. But in terms of a true turnaround team, Kansas City looks like a solid early bet. The Chiefs (6-9) in the past four weeks have gotten the hang of Dick Vermeil's offense, scoring 26, 26, 20 and 30 points in winning three and losing narrowly at Oakland.

    Kansas City stumbled upon a franchise back in Priest Holmes, and with a year under his belt, quarterback Trent Green still may prove worthy of the first-round pick the Chiefs gave up to get him. If K.C. can get things settled with tight end Tony Gonzalez's contract, there's a pretty good offense coming together at Arrowhead.


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