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Inside the NFL / Schedule strength becomes key for bottom-dwellers

Division and conference records are the tie-breakers NFL fanatics obsess about this time of year in watching the race to the finish for playoff berths.

There's a big tie-breaker at the other end of the NFL spectrum -- strength of schedule.

That's what decides the order for the NFL draft among teams that finish with identical records. The weaker the schedule, the sooner you pick. Head-to-head results mean nothing in breaking draft-order ties. As usual, the strength of schedule has some big implications this season.

The New Orleans Saints and New York Jets are running neck and neck for the right to take the first quarterback in the draft, and they're in a virtual dead heat according to the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker.

Houston (1-12) has the inside track to earn the right to take Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush with the No. 1 pick, presuming Bush turns pro a year early. San Francisco (2-11) drafted its quarterback, Alex Smith, first overall in April. The Saints, Jets and Packers all stand 3-10. The Packers don't need a quarterback.

The Saints put themselves in the QB draft derby this week when they benched Aaron Brooks in favor of 33-year-old Todd Bouman. It's apparent that Brooks, who has thrown 12 TDs and 17 interceptions, is on his way out after five years as the Saints' starter. They're playing Bouman to see if he can be the No. 2 next year.

The Jets will be in the market for a QB because they don't know if Chad Pennington can fully recover from a second shoulder surgery in two years. The Saints' opponents have compiled a win percentage of .527. The Jets' foes are at .533. Of course, strength of schedule changes with each week's results.

The Bills have one of the weaker strength-of-schedule numbers. Their foes have a win percentage of .479. The Bills entered the weekend as one of seven teams at 4-9, and they have the second easiest schedule of those clubs. So if the season ended last week, they would have picked seventh. Tennessee had the easiest schedule of the 4-9 teams, at .462.

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Boller's struggles

As if Brian Billick hasn't done enough to foul up Kyle Boller, he now wants to get inside his head. In so many words, Billick said he's considering hiring a sports psychologist to help Boller through what could be called anxiety during games.

"There might be a couple of things that I have in mind -- I'm not going to go into that now -- that I think could help put Kyle or any of our quarterbacks in a more productive mental state as they prepare for the game," Billick said. "There's only so much of it (you can do) from the football side. To approach it from another vantage point might be of value. . . . He has to calm his mechanics down. When he does, he's pretty darn good."

In six starts, Boller has nine interceptions and seven fumbles.

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Run on empty

Arizona may be forced to use another high draft pick on a running back in the wake of their dismal rushing season. The Cards are last in the league in rushing, averaging only 68.8 yards a game on the ground. If that number holds for Arizona, the Cards will have the third-worst rushing season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The top two are the 2000 Chargers (66.4) and the 2000 Browns (67.8).

The Cardinals drafted running back J.J. Arrington in the second round but he hasn't lived up to expectations. He lost his starting job early in the season to Marcel Shipp. Arrington has gained 309 yards on 90 carries, a 3.4 average. For much of the season, he's been tentative. Some in Arizona wonder if a hellacious hit laid on him by Dallas' Roy Williams in preseason left him a tad intimidated.

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Quotable

There was speculation in St. Louis that Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would be a candidate to succeed Mike Martz. Williams, the former Bills coach, commented before the 'Skins played the Rams.

"I'm going to be a head coach (again) some day, there's no doubt about that," said Williams. "But my job right now is to coach the best defense I can and get things going with the Redskins. I really like what I'm doing here. At the end of the season, we'll cross those bridges if they come up."

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Dome noise

Amid recent reports that the Indianapolis Colts illegally pump up crowd noise inside the RCA Dome, Minnesota coach Mike Tice revealed Wednesday that the NFL sent a warning to teams not to pump in crowd noise.

"Everybody got a memo," Tice said during his weekly conference call. "Someone must be breaking rules."

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Number of week

Thirty-one. That's how many consecutive quarters in which Indianapolis has scored. The Bills' longest streak this year is seven straight quarters with a score.

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Onside kicks

Since their Super Bowl appearance following the '02 season, the Raiders are 13-32 -- the same record as the lowly Browns and Houston Texans.

Texans owner Bob McNair brought in Dan Reeves, the former Broncos, Giants and Falcons coach, to be a consultant and assess the talent on the Houston squad. That move signals the end for General Manager Charley Casserly, who is sure to be gone after the season, along with head coach Dom Capers. Both Casserly and Capers have a year to go on their contracts. There's speculation in Houston that Reeves, 61, will conclude he's the best man for the job and take over next season.

Tom Modrak, the Bills' assistant general manager, says Bush is the best running back he ever has scouted.

It was good to see ex-Bill Ross Tucker get picked up by the Patriots. New England has serious health problems on the line. It looks like left tackle Matt Light isn't coming back from his broken leg. Rookie Nick Kacur, his replacement, has been playing banged up, too.

The Giants' Tiki Barber has just one fumble in 313 carries this season. Barber has 1,577 rushing yards and Saturday broke the franchise record of 1,518 yards he gained last season.

In his two starts, the Browns' Charlie Frye is 29 of 44 for 364 yards, three TDs, one INT and one TD scored, with a 104.7 passer rating.

Cleveland's Reuben Droughns last week presented 13 diamond watches (valued between $3,000 and $5,000 each) to all nine offensive linemen, two fullbacks and two tight ends. It was a thankful gesture for helping him break the 1,000-yard rushing drought Cleveland endured for 20 years.

If the Jets' Ty Law makes another interception, his seven picks would be the most by a Jets corner since Johnny Sample's seven in 1968. Law is still going to be released before his $11 million bonus is due in March.

Long-snappers never can be taken for granted. The Chiefs' stellar deep snapper, Kendall Gammon, is on IR because of a broken leg. A poor snap from his replacement, former Dolphin Ed Parry, was low and to the side, causing Lawrence Tynes to miss a 41-yarder that would have sent last week's 31-28 loss to Dallas into overtime.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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