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BillyC 12-19-2003 09:57 AM

Saints looking for playoff help

Sheldon Mickles: Saints looking for playoff help

Advocate sportswriter

The New Orleans Saints are in the NFC playoff chase going into the final two games of the season for the third consecutive year.
But thanks to a sluggish and nightmarish 1-4 start, there is a distinct difference this time around.

At this time the last two seasons, the Saints were in complete control of their postseason fate.

Apparently, they weren't too comfortable with that position, dropping the final two games each time to blow their shot.

Actually, their late slides were worse than that. The Saints, who won the NFC West title, lost four consecutive games to end the 2001 season and three in a row to slide out of the playoff picture in 2002.

So, they're looking at it in a different way this year. The 7-7 Saints must win their final two games -- on Sunday at the Jacksonville Jaguars and on Dec. 28 in the Superdome against the Dallas Cowboys -- and hope for a lot of help from other teams to continue playing into January.

Obviously, the Saints' chances are slim as they stand two games behind the Cowboys and one game behind the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers in the race for the fifth and sixth playoff spots in the NFC.

But they're still breathing, and before you start laughing, think back to how the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons made the playoffs last year in the NFC. Or how the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, both 7-7 with two games remaining, got into the AFC dance.

The Giants were on the verge of elimination before they won their final four games and the Falcons should have been out when they dropped their final game to the Browns.

But when the Saints fell to the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons walked in the back door.

The Jets occupied the AFC East cellar with two games left, but were the division champs two weeks later thanks to the Miami Dolphins, who, like the Saints, have made December collapses an art form. The Browns also won their final two games and got some help to get in as a wild-card.

With that in mind, let's take a look at how the wild NFC playoff race is winding down.

Division leaders

PHILADELPHIA (11-3) -- San Francisco, at Washington. Comment: The Eagles have won eight straight games and don't appear to be slowing down. They've already clinched the NFC East title and can wrap up a first-round bye with a win on Sunday.

ST. LOUIS (11-3) -- Cincinnati, at Detroit. Comment: They're the second-hottest team in the conference right now with six wins in a row. The NFC West champions can also earn a first-round bye with a win this week, and will fight the Eagles for the home-field advantage.

CAROLINA (9-5) -- Detroit, at N.Y. Giants. Comment: The Panthers clinched the NFC South crown last week and are still in the running for a first-round bye, but they're likely to be playing only for the No. 3 seed after losing five of their last nine.

MINNESOTA (8-6) -- Kansas City, at Arizona. Comment: They've completely wasted a 6-0 start and could be headed to a bigtime crash if they don't beat the Chiefs on Saturday. Still, they control their own destiny if they can win out.
Wild-card contenders

DALLAS (9-5) -- at N.Y. Giants, at New Orleans. Comment: Last week's victory over the Washington Redskins helped them get out of a downward spiral. But they're not out of the woods yet, especially if they can't beat the lowly Giants on Sunday.

SEATTLE (8-6) -- Arizona, at San Francisco. Comment: This team can't win on the road, so they appear to be headed to a 9-7 finish. Like Carolina, Minnesota and Dallas, they're pretty much limping to the end of the season after a 5-1 start.

GREEN BAY (8-6) -- at Oakland, Denver. Comment: With four wins in their last five games, they're heating up at the right time. They just need a little help to win the NFC North title.

NEW ORLEANS (7-7) -- at Jacksonville, Dallas. Comment: If they beat the Jaguars and the Cowboys lose to the Giants, they'll have a real shot. Even if the Cowboys win, the Saints can still hope to get into a three- or four-team tie for the final spot -- if they win their last two.

TAMPA BAY (7-7) -- Atlanta, at Tennessee. Comment: Left for dead a few weeks ago, the defending Super Bowl champs have crawled back into the mix. But like the Saints, they have to win their final two and hope other things happen.

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