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pakowitz 11-05-2003 05:53 PM

Burning Questions
Which sub-.500 team has the best shot to still make the playoffs?


In the NFC, there are more possibilities. But the list should start with New Orleans (4-5), which has turned things around quickly, winning three of four after a stultifying 1-4 start. The Saints trail second-place Tampa Bay (4-4) by a half game, but that's where their upset of the Bucs on Sunday in Tampa could come in mighty handy.

If New Orleans can hold serve and beat Tampa Bay in the Superdome on Dec. 7 -- and the Saints have won three in a row overall against the Bucs -- then it will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Saints will only have to finish even with the Bucs to finish ahead of them, maybe for the NFC's last wild-card berth.

The other NFC team to not forget about just yet is the unpredictable 49ers (4-5). But in comparing the remaining schedules for New Orleans and San Francisco, you have to give the edge to the Saints.

New Orleans' final seven games include just two teams that currently have a winning record (the Eagles and Cowboys), and their remaining opponents are a combined 24-36 (.429). The Saints get the Falcons, Bucs, Giants and Cowboys at home, and travel to the Eagles, Redskins and Jaguars.

San Francisco has it tougher. The 49ers play three teams that currently have winning records -- Ravens, Eagles, and Seahawks (what's with the bird theme?) -- and their remaining foes have a combined record of 28-28 (.500). San Francisco has four tough road trips -- Green Bay, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia -- to go with its easier home schedule (Pittsburgh, Arizona and Seattle).

Here's the irony in all this: After blowing almost certain playoff berths with their late-season collapses of 2001-2002, the Saints are the 2003 losers who look most likely to finish in a rush.

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