Such is the nature of life in the National Football League that one of the two hottest teams in the league stands a good chance of not advancing to the playoffs, an irony that has not been lost on Mike Holmgren, the first-year coach of the Green Bay Packers.
"It really has been kind of a strange year," said Holmgren, whose team has merely won its last six games but needs help to advance.
"Maybe it's because there were so many new coaches, so many changes from a year ago. I don't think anyone expected the kind of season we've had on this team. I'm not sure I did. San Diego made great strides, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, the Colts. If people had predicted that at the start of the year, they'd have gotten a lot of funny looks."
Holmgren was an assistant coach on a 10-6 San Francisco 49ers team that failed to make last season's playoffs despite winning their final six games. But as this season heads into another final weekend of ifs, ands or buts concerning the postseason picture, this much is obvious: While the 49ers seem the obvious pick for Super Bowl glory, no one could possibly be surprised if any number of NFC teams -- including the defending champion Washington Redskins -- challenged their supremacy.
The AFC? They've lost the last eight Super Bowls. And, with the exception of Buffalo's 34-31 win over the 49ers in Week 2 and their triumph at New Orleans on Sunday, the record of the top AFC contenders against the NFC's best teams has been spotty at best.
NFC domination is no longer a trend, it's a fact. The 49ers will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and as Dallas Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson said last week, "that's always a huge advantage." But the 49ers are hardly unbeatable, as the Eagles found out in Candlestick three weeks ago when they fell an inch short on a bad fourth-down spot of the ball deep in San Francisco territory as they were driving to what could have been the winning score.
The Cowboys, who clinched the NFC East with a 41-17 victory over Atlanta Monday night, might have the best young talent in the NFL. But they've only won one playoff game under Johnson, a first-round victory last year against a deteriorating Chicago Bears team, and were then embarrassed and eliminated a week later by the Lions.
At the start of the season, the Eagles were talking trash and predicting 16-0. Three months later, they've managed to scrape into the playoffs after a season of controversies -- among them the benching of Randall Cunningham and Seth Joyner's public criticism of his teammates and Coach Rich Kotite. The Eagles also are operating under a sense of urgency. With free agency coming and many key players talking about leaving town, there is some thought that it's now or never for this team and its coach.
The Saints have the sort of defense that wins Super Bowl championships, but a nagging history in postseason. In three previous trips to the playoffs, they've lost in the first round each time. Their conservative offense also is suspect.
The fading Vikings might have gone as far as either Rich Gannon or Sean Salisbury can take them at quarterback and seem primed for an early exit. And Green Bay, with one of the best passing combinations in the league -- Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe -- might not get the chance to keep playing unless they win and either Washington or Philadelphia loses this weekend.
In the AFC, Buffalo has been there before and should get there again, particularly if they can clinch home-field advantage with a victory at Houston on Sunday. No one wants to go to Buffalo for a January football game, particularly a hot team from a hot town like the San Diego Chargers.
San Diego, which started off 0-4, has won 10 of its last 11 and six straight, but the Chargers have also played a last-place schedule to get this far. Against quality opponents, they've lost twice to Kansas City and split with Denver. Despite the presence of all-world linebacker Junior Seau on defense, this is not a team that strikes fear into many hearts around the league, particularly if they play in bad weather.
The Steelers also made a stunning turnaround under first-year coach Bill Cowher. But with Barry Foster hurting with a bad back, and Neil O'Donnell still out with a fractured shin bone, the Steelers will be hard-pressed for offensive success in the playoffs. If the Chiefs performance against the Giants Saturday was any indication, they'll be out quickly too.