The NFL suddenly has a vested interest in the final stragglers joining its playoff party.
The doomsday playoff scenario talked about in hushed tones at league meetings is likely to become a reality by Jan. 2, when one of the most bizarre regular seasons in the league's 85-year history concludes.
A widening disparity between the conferences has culminated in a madcap scramble for the NFC's final postseason berths - and the likelihood at least one playoff participant will enter with a losing record.
``The NFC playoff picture belongs on Comedy Central instead of ESPN,'' said former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, now an NFL analyst. ``The NFC is not dead ... it's just not deep.''
No team with a losing record has reached the NFL playoffs in a non-strike season. Five 8-8 clubs have made it, and in 1982 two 4-5 teams advanced to the postseason while playing a strike-shortened schedule.
The NFC is so beaten down this season, a club below .500 could win the West.
Seattle (7-7) closes with home games against Arizona and Atlanta, and the Seahawks showed little pulse at the Meadowlands on Sunday in a 37-14 loss to the Jets.
The 6-8 Rams host the Eagles and Jets, who are a combined 23-5.
Even the 5-9 Cardinals, who close at home against the Bucs, could conceivably win the wicked West.
``When we went to eight divisions of four, the fear was you could have a down division or two, where you might end up with an 8-8 or 7-9 champion,'' said Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co- chairman of the league's competition committee.
Solid AFC teams Baltimore and Jacksonville could be left out of the playoffs at 9-7, even as a 7-9 Carolina club prepares for the wild-card round.
With six interconference games remaining in the final two weekends, the AFC holds a commanding 39-19 advantage. The NFC hasn't been on the plus side of .500 since 1995, when the Cowboys were capping a run of three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span.
``There's no simple explanation,'' Bucs general manager Bruce Allen said of the AFC's recent dominance. ``The most important thing to remember is our system works. There has never been a debate about who the world champs are in a given season ... and there won't be a debate this year. This could just be a quirk.''
Statistical evidence supports the disparity.
AFC teams crowd the top of the board in three significant categories - rushing attempts, rushing defense and turnover differential.
Except for Atlanta, which benefits from the unique mobility of quarterback Michael Vick, the nine teams with the most rushing attempts hail from the AFC.
``While the AFC's dominance seems to be at its peak right now, history tells us it won't last forever,'' said Giants running back Tiki Barber. ``The whole AFC-NFC debate is cyclical.''
Barber's point can't be dismissed.
From 1985-97, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls. Now the pendulum has swung back to the AFC, with both a vengeance and a question mark.
``I have come to the conclusion that I have absolutely no explanation for it,'' said McKay, whose Falcons went 3-1 vs. AFC opponents. ``It's a story, and it's real, but I can't explain it. I have seen it go the other way, too.''
McKay acknowledged there has been some sentiment among NFL executives to choose the 12 playoff teams based strictly on record, rather than select the top six from each conference.
``There wasn't much support for the idea,'' he said. ``Conference boundaries are part of our tradition, and this is a league that ties itself to tradition. We're not looking to make a first down 11 yards.''
For this season, at least, the NFC has some explaining to do. Only four of its 16 teams boast a winning record, compared to nine AFC clubs.
Leave it to the NFL's resident philosopher, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, to provide some perspective.
``You put us in the AFC,'' Rice said of 5-9 Tampa Bay, ``and we would have been gone a long time ago.''
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