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Playoff payoff for Parcells, Cowboys

Bill Parcells made history yesterday because the Dallas Cowboys made the playoffs. Fours were wild all over Dallas as the Cowboys pounded the hapless and hopeless New York Giants, 19-3, and with that victory Parcells became the first coach in NFL history to take four different teams into the postseason by leading the Cowboys back to the playoffs for the first time in four years.


Although few expected Parcells could transform a team that had been 5-11 each of the last three years into a playoff team in his first season in Dallas, he managed to do it in a way that has the Cowboys believing in themselves even if the rest of the world remains skeptical about their chances once the NFL's second season begins.

"One thing we did all season was listen to The Old Gipper," Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter said about Parcells after the game had been won. "We're back in the playoffs. I'll leave it at that. We're not [all the way] back until we win the Super Bowl."

It's not likely that's going to happen this season regardless of what one of the game's greatest coaches might come up with to help them, because the Cowboys remain one of the more flawed of the oh-so-many flawed teams that will reach the playoffs this season. But they do have the No. 1 ranked defense in the league and a coach who has led two teams to the Super Bowl, three to the conference championship game, and now four into the postseason, and that will count for something.

What they also have, courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers, is a chance to still win the NFC East and improve their playoff seeding considerably, because the Niners won their first road game of the year yesterday by upsetting the NFC East-leading Eagles, 31-28, in overtime.

That snapped Philadelphia's nine-game winning streak and left its record at 11-4, only one game ahead of the 10-5 Cowboys entering the season's final weekend. Philadelphia still has the advantage because it plays the Redskins, but that game is in Washington and anything could happen in what surely will be a poisonous atmosphere, because the Skins would like nothing better than to take the frustrations of their 5-10 season out on the Eagles.

Of more import to Eagles fans is that the loss to the 49ers hands control of who will have home-field advantage over to the Rams, who need only to defeat the Detroit Lions next Sunday to claim home field throughout the NFC playoffs. That is of particular significance to the Rams because their pass-first offense functions much better in a dome than in the kind of frigid weather that might be awaiting them in someplace like Philadelphia in late January.

On a day of madness around the NFL, the Cowboys were methodically efficient, chopping the Giants down with their defense after stinging them early with an unexpected long pass from Carter to Joey Galloway that made clear from the game's early moments that this would not be the Giants' day for an upset.

While the Cowboys were taking care of their business, the New Orleans Saints knocked themselves out of playoff contention in about as dramatic a fashion as one could ask for. The Saints scored with no time left on a 75-yard pass that required three laterals, making the score 20-19 Jacksonville, with only an extra point needed to push the game into overtime and keep the Saints' slim playoff hopes alive for a few more minutes at least and possibly for one more week.

Only problem was kicker John Carney butchered the extra point, pushing it wide to the right and ending the Saints' playoff dreams for the third straight year and perhaps the short, odd reign of coach Jim Haslett, who could be replaced by Tom Coughlin if Coughlin doesn't land the Giants' vacant job first.

"If I had to bet my life on that kick I guess I'd be dead right now," said Haslett, who looked as if he wished he was dead as he spoke.

Drama wasn't the sole property of the NFC, however. The Tennessee Titans, who are in a group with the Patriots, Colts, and Chiefs as most likely to win the AFC Championship, looked like they had blown any chance to win the AFC South when they fell behind the Houston Texans with just over a minute to play. But somehow quarterback Steve McNair did what he's done for them all season. He lifted them up, throwing a winning touchdown pass with time running out, which put the exclamation point on McNair's importance to the Titans.

Tennessee already had been assured of at least a wild-card slot when the Bengals were beaten by the Rams, but because of McNair they maintained their pace with division-rival Indianapolis by pushing their record to 11-4. They also served notice to the Patriots, who may well host them in their first playoff game, that they are as dangerous as any team they might play, right down to the last second.

The Patriots, Chiefs, Colts, and Titans now all are assured of playoff berths and the Baltimore Ravens are now in control of their future, because while they were hammering Cleveland, Cincinnati was unable to keep pace in St. Louis. That is really no surprise, since the Rams have now won 14 straight in their domed home, so if they can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Rams will be difficult for anyone in the NFC to overcome, including the Eagles.

Philadelphia knew its best chance to finally reach the Super Bowl after losing in the last two NFC Championship games was to have the advantage of dragging opponents into frigid Lincoln Financial Field in January. That's now something that they have no direct control over. Although the issue won't be settled until next weekend, because of Philadelphia's misstep yesterday St. Louis now has the upper hand, knowing that the winner on this point very likely may be the winner of the NFC.

Such is the thin difference between most teams that the same story is probably true in the AFC, as well, where the Patriots remain the top seed and could land home-field advantage with a win over the Bills next Saturday. That advantage, if they can collect it, could decide who represents the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII, because New England already has wins over the Titans (by 8), the Colts (by 4), and even the Denver Broncos (by 4), who are making a wild-card push. Thin as those margins of victory were, anything could happen, but when you have beaten two of the three top seeds, are on a confidence-soaring 11-game winning streak, and need only beat the collapsing Bills to force all your playoff opponents to come to you, any team in the league would be happy to trade places. That would include the team coached by Bill Belichick's mentor, the guy who once did in New England what he just did again yesterday in Dallas.

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 13 2 0 .867 317 238
Dolphins 9 6 0 .600 288 240
Bills 6 9 0 .400 243 248
Jets 6 9 0 .400 262 276
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