FOXBORO--Two down and one last chance to go for the New England Patriots.
All they had to do to clinch an NFL playoff berth was win one of their last three regular-season games. But they lost to Cincinnati and San Francisco. Now the defending AFC champions must play Miami in the Orange Bowl next Monday night.
"We knew it was going to come down to Miami one way or another," Patriots' center Pete Brock said. "Losing today [Sunday] doesn't make it any easier."
New England led San Francisco, 17-16, entering the fourth quarter. But a fumble recovery and interception led to 10 points as the 49ers rallied for a 29-24 victory that helped them clinch at least an NFC wild-card berth.
"We shut them down," New England cornerback Raymond Clayborn said. "Unfortunately, they adjusted and went to other things. They had a lot of perserverance."
It's a quality that came in handy for the Patriots throughout their rocky history in the Orange Bowl. They lost 18 consecutive games there before breaking the streak with a 31-14 victory in last season's AFC title game.
"I think we'll demonstrate what kind of character we have next week," offensive guard Ron Wooten said.
The Patriots, 10-5, may earn a wild-card spot even before Monday night's game. That can happen if two of three teams--Kansas City, Seattle and Cincinnati -- lose during the weekend. The only way New England can win the AFC East title and get a week off before its first playoff game is by beating Miami.
Squish the Fish
"We don't have to rely on anybody else to win for us," wide receiver Stanley Morgan said. "We just have to do the job next week."
It won't be easy.
Cincinnati had the NFL's second-ranked offense when it played the Patriots. San Francisco had the league's third-rated attack before it played them. And Miami will take the NFL's most productive offense into its game with New England.
"We knew we had to keep [49er quarterback Joe] Montana and company off the football field," Morgan said. "We wanted to score early and keep the pressure on them and hope they'd make some mistakes."
Patriots Coach Raymond Berry hopes his players will take advantage of what could be their final chance to reach the playoffs.
"It's still basically in our hands and we can do something about it," he said. "We've earned that right going into the last game of the season and we can still do it."