Midseason Mediocrity Rules

At the halfway point of this NFL season, the hard reality of the profession is this:

Of the 30 teams still chasing the Super Bowl, 28 will not get there.

Pity the two that do.

Is the Super Bowl jinxed? With the Oakland Raiders 2-6 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4-4 after two more upset losses Sunday, the evidence continues to mount.

The NFC has not sent the same team to the Super Bowl in successive seasons since the 1996-97 Green Bay Packers. Since then:

* The Atlanta Falcons went in 1998, then finished 5-11 the next season.

* The St. Louis Rams went in 1999, won, then finished 9-7 and lost in the wild-card round the next season.

* The New York Giants went in 2000, then finished 7-9 the next season.

* The Rams went again in 2001, lost, then finished 7-9 the next season.

* The Buccaneers went in 2002, won, and now are stuck on a win-one, lose-one treadmill in 2003. Tampa Bay lost Sunday at home to the New Orleans Saints, 17-14, leaving the Buccaneers at .500 after eight games, 1-3 in home games and still in search of their first two-game winning streak of the season.

The last AFC team to reach consecutive Super Bowls was the 1997-98 Denver Broncos, overlapping the Packers out a door that has been ever-revolving ever since. Since then:

* The Tennessee Titans went in 1999, then couldn't get out of the divisional playoffs the next season.

* The Baltimore Ravens went in 2000, then lost in the wild-card round the next season.

* The New England Patriots went in 2001, then finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs the next season.

* The Raiders went in 2002, lost, big, and now are distinguishing themselves as pro football's worst team north of San Diego. Sunday, the Raiders lost to, of all teams, the Detroit Lions, 23-13, beginning the game with a quarterback making his first NFL start and ending it with a quarterback making his first NFL appearance in three years.

How far have the Raiders fallen?

Just follow the dropping quarterbacks -- from Rich Gannon to Marques Tuiasosopo to Rick Mirer, the Raider mop-up man in Detroit after Tuiasosopo sprained knee ligaments in the second quarter.

Rick Mirer. Two words that pretty much summarize this season so far for the Raiders, wallowing in the mire of their worst start since they opened 1-7-1 in 1964.

(Not to diminish the Kansas City Chiefs' 8-0 start, which has been impressive and entertaining, but the Chiefs' two main division rivals, Oakland and Denver, reached the season's midway point quarterbacked by Mirer and Danny Kanell. Kansas City, still quarterbacked by Trent Green, leads Denver by three games and Oakland by six in the AFC West standings.)

The Raiders are 2-6, and the only things separating them from 0-8 are a sloppy three-point victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 and an overtime triumph over the San Diego Chargers (now 1-7) in Week 4. Their four-game losing streak includes losses to Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit -- meaning that the Raiders have not beaten a good team all season, and are now losing to the bad ones.

In the process, Bill Callahan's stock has slipped from Al Davis' latest stroke of informed eccentricity to the next coach most likely to be fired. In Detroit, after losing to a 2-6 Lion squad that had previously lost 14 of 15 games, Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson told reporters that Callahan has lost the team and "everybody" on the roster agrees with him, even if they haven't yet put it on the record.

Callahan was Davis' response to Jon Gruden's bolt to Tampa Bay, and for one charmed season, or as long as the creaking Raider vets could hold off Father Time, it seemed an inspired countermove. But then Gruden's team crushed Callahan's team in the Super Bowl and Gruden became The One That Got Away ... for a few weeks, anyway.

Yes, Gruden defeated the Raiders in the Super Bowl, but he can't defeat New Orleans, anywhere. The Saints swept Gruden's Buccaneers in 2002 and are 1-0 in 2003 after John Carney's decisive 47-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining.

Beyond that, Gruden hasn't won consecutive games since that January postseason run. Tampa Bay won the first game on its 2003 schedule, followed by its third, fifth and seventh.

In those games, the Buccaneers have scored an average of 24.8 points and yielded an average of 5.8.

In the games that immediately followed those -- games Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 8 -- the Buccaneers have scored an average of 16.3 points and surrendered an average of 22.8.

Meanwhile, Tony Dungy, the man who preceded Gruden in Tampa, is 7-1 with Indianapolis after the Colts' 23-17 victory in Miami. In a season and a half, Dungy has added a defensive edge previously lacking in Indianapolis, with the Colts limiting Ricky Williams to 36 yards rushing.

Does that make Dungy the new One That Got Away?

At the season's halfway point, Kansas City and Indianapolis are the only teams with more than six victories. Minnesota, which was 6-0 eight quarters ago, followed a streak-ending home loss to the New York Giants with another home loss to Green Bay, 30-27, Sunday night.

Now 0-2 after 6-0, the Vikings are streaking again. Which streak represents the best indicator for the second half? The Vikings ought to be worried. Last season, three teams that started 6-2 -- the Broncos, Chargers and Saints -- failed to make the playoffs. The Chargers have yet to recover, the Saints are just now picking themselves off the floor and the Broncos are starting Kanell at quarterback.

Fighting words for the season's second half, provided by Washington linebacker Jessie Armstead after the Redskins' 21-14 loss at Dallas:

"It's bad now. But it can always be worse."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction Pro football -- It was incorrectly reported in a Sports article Monday on Week 9 in the NFL that the Baltimore Ravens lost in the wild-card playoff round in the 2001 season. The Ravens defeated Miami, 20-3, in a wild-card game, then lost to Pittsburgh, 27-10, in a divisional playoff game.
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