You fight to make the playoffs, and after you've made the playoffs, you fight to get home field advantage—that's the way it's supposed to work. In reality, once a postseason berth has been clinched, there's a noticeable letdown. It seems almost too much to ask a team to play at the same intensity level once the first goal has been reached (until the playoffs start, of course).
This Monday night we'll see for ourselves when the Eagles play the Dolphins. Philadelphia clinched a playoff spot with its victory on Sunday over Dallas. Now people are projecting the Eagles will meet St. Louis in the NFC Championship Game and generally conceding a Super Bowl spot to whichever team has home field advantage. It's all pie in the sky. Philly will face a desperate opponent in Miami, which is in decent shape for a wild card but can forget about the AFC East title. A Blizzard Bowl loss to the Patriots on Sunday took care of that.
You don't have to be a genius to figure out what the Dolphins will try to do. Practically everybody has run well against the Eagles this year; in the six games preceding the matchup with Dallas, five backs rushed for more than 100 yards against them. The Cowboys wanted to get a piece of the action, too, and at the half they had 105 yards on the ground and the score was tied. Then Quincy Carter threw an interception that set up a Philadelphia touchdown. Dallas had to play catch-up, but the wide receivers decided to take the rest of the day off, and the game slipped away.
Miami offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been known to come up with the unexpected, but I don't think he'll get cute against Philly. The Eagles are sturdy along the front four, but their linebackers are undersized, and I think they'll get a heavy dose of Ricky Williams, running behind 255-pound Rob Konrad, who is quietly establishing himself as one of the league's better blocking fullbacks. The game's in Miami, and unless they turn the ball over a few times, the Dolphins will earn the victory with their ground game.
The Cowboys are in the same boat as the Dolphins—front-runners for a wild-card spot, unless they get careless. For two months everyone loved Dallas, and now people are feeling sorry for the Cowboys. Have they run into some bad luck, or is this their inevitable collapse? Or maybe they have too many pass catchers who want to star downfield and not enough who can do the grubby work of the possession receiver. That job has been left to the second tight end, rookie Jason Witten, but he needs help.
Dallas plays at Washington this Sunday; it's a revenge game of sorts for the Redskins. In the first meeting the Cowboys knocked around quarterback Patrick Ramsey and generally roughed up the Washington offense. I don't think Dallas will cut back on its blitz package this time; it will continually test the Skins' offensive line. I'll give the victory to the Cowboys.
St. Louis-Seattle could have generated some excitement, but the Seahawks got blown out on Sunday against the Vikings. Now a team that has won only once on the road all year takes its shaky defense to the Eddie Dome to face a Rams squad that has won its six home games by an average of 19.2 points. St. Louis wins a high-scoring affair. When they visit Chicago, the Vikings could still be celebrating their big win over Seattle or looking ahead to the following week's game against the Chiefs. The Bears have indicated that they might get rookie quarterback Rex Grossman, their first-round draft pick, on the field. Everybody was wondering when we'd get a look at him, and this might be the right time, going against a defense that doesn't really terrify anyone. Chicago has been a spoiler this season, and an upset would seem logical, but I just have a feeling that Minnesota is back on track. The Vikings are the pick.
Finally, here are a pair of quickies involving AFC North teams: The Bengals return home after a three-game road trip to beat the 49ers, and the Ravens will knock off the Raiders on the West Coast.