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More Strange Plays in Theater of Absurd

Ricky Williams, Deuce McAllister and the reigning Super Bowl champions are out.

Dwayne Rudd, Wayne Chrebet and a team that lost three of its last four games are in.

It had to figure, considering the absurdity of the 17 weeks that produced this playoff field, which seems to missing one dominant team, one Super Bowl favorite, the 2001 AFC and NFC champions and, really, a whole slew of people who once expected to be there, including:

* The top six rushers in the league. Miami’s Williams (who finished with 1,853 yards), San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson (1,673), Kansas City’s Priest Holmes (1,615), Denver’s Clinton Portis (1,508), Buffalo’s Travis Henry (1,438) and New Orleans’ McAllister (1,388) all failed to qualify for the postseason. What was that again about having to establish the running game?

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* Drew Bledsoe, midseason consensus MVP and Pro Bowl selection, who needed a 27-9 victory over the 2-14 Cincinnati Bengals to end a 2-5 Buffalo slide and even the Bills’ final record at 8-8. There’s a reason they hand out the big awards after 16 games, not eight.

* The New Orleans Saints, who started the season 6-1 and went 5-0 against first-place teams, only to go 0-3 against last-place teams, including back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Carolina during the regular season’s last two weeks. By losing, 10-6, at home to the Panthers, New Orleans finished 9-7 and a half-game out of the running in the NFC.

* The Miami Dolphins, who opened 5-1, got a league rushing championship out of Williams, dominated Oakland in Miami two weeks ago and led New England by 11 points with 4:59 remaining Sunday. The Dolphins blew that lead and eventually lost to the Patriots in overtime, 27-24, dropping them to 9-7 and out of the playoffs. And they still owe New Orleans their first-round pick in 2003 to complete the Williams trade.

* The Patriots, who thought they’d saved their season with the comeback against Miami, only to watch the archrival New York Jets rout Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, 42-17, which gave the Jets the AFC East title on tiebreakers and ended New England’s hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champion.

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These playoffs also will proceed without the reigning NFC champion St. Louis Rams, eliminated weeks ago; the San Diego Chargers, whose 31-28 overtime loss to Seattle completed a 2-7 swoon that left the Chargers 8-8; and the Denver Broncos, popular preseason Super Bowl picks whose 37-7 defeat of Arizona was ultimately meaningless. Since winning the 1999 Super Bowl in John Elway’s last game, the Broncos have missed the playoffs three times in four seasons.

Because the Dolphins, Chargers, Broncos and Bills spent so much of November and December backsliding, second chances were granted to the perpetrators of the two most blockheaded plays of the season, Cleveland’s Rudd and the Jets’ Chrebet.

Rudd was nearly run into Lake Erie by irate Brown fans after his premature helmet spike cost Cleveland a season-opening victory over Kansas City. That play hounded Rudd for four long months, hanging heavier with every last-minute Brown defeat -- and there were six, all told, this season, each inching Rudd closer to a very long and bitter winter.

But Sunday, with their playoff hopes barely flickering, with Michael Vick’s Atlanta Falcons inches away from the Cleveland end zone late in the fourth quarter, Rudd stopped Warrick Dunn for no gain on third down, highlighting a goal-line stand that preserved the Browns’ 24-16 victory.

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After that, Rudd and the Browns had to sit and wait for the final results in the AFC East. When the Dolphins, Patriots and Jets all finished 9-7, and the Dolphins and Patriots were eliminated on tiebreakers, the Jets claimed the division title and the AFC’s last wild card fell to the Browns.

Rudd, whose name no longer is mud, is playoff-bound.

So, amazingly, is Chrebet, whose foolhardy attempt to hurdle four Chicago Bears on a desperate downfield run two weeks ago resulted in a fumble and a 20-13 loss that appeared to snuff out the Jets’ playoff aspirations. After Wayne’s whirl, the Jets’ only path to the postseason was this: Sweep the Patriots and Packers while the Dolphins went 0-2 against the Vikings and Patriots.

Miami did its part, losing its fourth and fifth consecutive road games, both on late field goals.

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More improbably, the Jets routed the Patriots in New England, then overwhelmed a Packer team playing for the top seed in the NFC -- with Chrebet catching two scoring passes.

The Jets are in, but more than that, they are champions of the AFC East, meaning they will host AFC South runner-up Indianapolis (10-6) in a wild-card game Saturday. The winner probably will travel to Oakland for a second-round game.

Cleveland will play at AFC North champion Pittsburgh (10-5-1) on Sunday. The Steelers swept the Browns this season and another victory would send Pittsburgh to Tennessee in the second round.

Atlanta’s loss to the Browns was the third in four games for the Falcons, who wound up 9-6-1. That should have been more than enough to finish them, but New Orleans backpedaled even faster down the stretch, going 3-6 -- including an incredible 0-3 against Minnesota, Cincinnati and Carolina. At 9-7, the Saints allowed Atlanta to back into the NFC’s final wild card.

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Green Bay (12-4), which slipped from No. 1 to No. 3 in the NFC with its loss to the Jets, will host the Falcons on Saturday. In the other NFC wild-card game, San Francisco (10-5 entering tonight’s game against St. Louis) will host the New York Giants (10-6) Sunday.

Both NFC wild-card games are rematches of season openers. In Week 1, the Packers beat the Falcons, 37-34, in overtime and the 49ers edged the Giants, 16-13.

Of course, what happened in September means nothing now. As the Dolphins, Saints, Patriots and Chargers learned the hard way.


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