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http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A29490-2003Dec2?language=printer

Same Language, Different Dialect

By Leonard Shapiro

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 3, 2003; Page D04

It's that time of year when NFL jargon changes -- the operative words now are: tiebreakers, common opponents, head-to-head competition and the dreaded point-differential formula. With four weeks left, only five teams have been eliminated from postseason play -- Jacksonville, Oakland, San Diego, Arizona and Atlanta -- with several more expected slide off the bubble this weekend.

A year ago after 12 games, only one team had clinched a division title -- Green Bay in the NFC North. This week, five teams can clinch either a division title or at least a wild-card playoff spot in the 12-team postseason tournament.

• In the AFC East, New England (10-2) can clinch the division title with a victory over Miami (8-4).

• In the AFC West, Kansas City (11-1) can clinch the division title with a win or a tie at Denver (7-5). The Chiefs also can get at least a wild-card spot if the Dolphins or Indianapolis (9-3) loses.

• In the NFC East, Philadelphia (9-3) can clinch a wild-card berth with a victory over Dallas (8-4) or a tie against the Cowboys and a Packers (6-6) loss or tie and a New Orleans (6-6) loss or tie.

• In the NFC South, Carolina (8-4) can clinch the division title with a victory at Atlanta and a Saints loss.

• In the NFC West, St. Louis (9-3) can clinch a wild-card berth with either a win at Cleveland and a Saints loss or tie.

The conferences would be seeded like this, going by records today:

AFC: 1. Kansas City; 2. New England; 3. Indianapolis; 4. Cincinnati; 5. Tennessee; 6. Miami.

NFC: 1. Philadelphia; 2. St. Louis; 3. Carolina; 4. Minnesota; 5. Dallas; 6. Seattle.

By the way, since the NFL expanded its playoff formula to 12 teams in 1990, 38 of the 40 teams that had 10 victories have made the playoffs. Every team with at least 11 victories also has made it to postseason.

NFL coaches, of course, always insist they're not looking down the road, only focusing on the game at hand. Said St. Louis Coach Mike Martz, "You start looking at what might be and pretty soon you get hit in the side of the head."

Does the Bus Stop Here?

Jerome Bettis, one of the most popular and productive players in Pittsburgh Steelers history, knows this may be his final year with the team, even if he keeps moving up on the NFL all-time rushing chart with 468 yards in a part-time role.

Bettis, 31, is scheduled to make $3.8 million on his contract next season, and unless he takes a dramatic restructure and pay cut, he could be playing in another uniform. "My future is in question," he said last week, "but I can't worry about it. All I can do is go out and play 110 percent and let the chips fall where they may."

Bettis's 62 yards in Sunday's loss left him with 12,000 rushing yards, No. 10 on the all-time rushing list. He needs 65 yards to pass Thurman Thomas for No. 9, 110 to pass Franco Harris for No. 8, 233 to pass Marcus Allen at No. 7 and 302 yards to pass Jim Brown at No. 6.

Distress Signal

San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer admitted the other day that "I'm as miserable as I've ever been in coaching." But before his team lost to the Chiefs on Sunday to go 2-10, Kansas City Coach Dick Vermeil offered words of encouragement and a vote of confidence.

"I finished my first year with the Rams with five wins, my second year with the Rams with four," Vermeil said last week. "I lost eight straight one year with the Rams. We had to win three of the last four my first year here [in Kansas City] to get six wins. I don't think any coach is immune to that if you look at the history of the NFL."

Schottenheimer is 10-18 with the Chargers since he was fired in Washington after winning eight of his last 11 games for an 8-8 finish (after an 0-5 start).

Born to Run

The Dallas Cowboys under Bill Parcells have surpassed all expectations with an 8-4 record, but the road to the postseason gets considerably more difficult with three of their last four games on the road. This week the Cowboys play the Eagles, who lead the NFC East by a game, in Philadelphia.

If the Cowboys hope to have a chance, they have to get their mostly inept running game going against a defense that has had some difficulty stopping opposing running backs. The Cowboys' running game has produced more than 100 yards twice in the last six games, when the team has gone 3-3.

When the Cowboys run at least 30 times a game this year, they've been 7-0. The run is vital to help open up the field for the team's play-action offense, and allows its defense to stay off the field. On Thanksgiving day, Cowboys running backs gained just 42 yards on 12 carries in a 40-21 loss to Miami, and starter Troy Hambrick finished with three carries for two yards, with no second-half carries.

Against the Eagles, that clearly won't cut it, and Parcells's decision to stay with Hambrick as his starting running back most of the season is still baffling.

Callahan's Thick-Wittedness

Oakland Raiders Coach Bill Callahan had some explaining to do Monday, after saying Sunday "we've got to be the dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game."

Those remarks came after a 22-8 loss to Denver that included 11 more penalties and set off a firestorm of criticism from several players. Callahan's job could be in jeopardy after this dismal 3-9 season -- a year after taking his team to the Super Bowl.

On Monday, he tried to clarify his remarks, saying: "I totally respect our players and always have. My problem is not with our players, it's the way we play, it's how we play. It's the emotional discipline of doing what's right. I am not criticizing the intellect of our players. I'm not criticizing the intelligence of our players. I am criticizing how we play."

According to published reports, Callahan told his players his "dumbest team" comments were initially taken out of context, but as wide receiver Tim Brown said, "we're trying to stay positive and that kind of statement is not conducive to that. There could be a little separation happening."

© 2003 The Washington Post

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"I finished my first year with the Rams with five wins, my second year with the Rams with four," Vermeil said last week. "I lost eight straight one year with the Rams. We had to win three of the last four my first year here [in Kansas City] to get six wins. I don't think any coach is immune to that if you look at the history of the NFL."

Kinda puts things in perspective

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