NFL: Plenty still at stake as regular season concludes
AP Football Writer
How boring is the NFC, with all six playoff participants already decided? Well, the conference is pretty spicy, actually, with the East crown about to be decided in Dallas, the Vikings capable of being seeded second, third or fourth, and the top-ranked Saints suddenly struggling.
The AFC already has all four division winners and has concentrated its frenzy on the wild-card race, which has seven teams still in the scramble. The Ravens and Jets are in control, but if either slips, the Broncos, Steelers, Jaguars, Texans and Dolphins remain possibilities. Denver has 10 scenarios by which it can get a wild card, half of those not even requiring the Broncos to win Sunday against Kansas City.
Most intriguing are the Eagles (11-4) at the Cowboys (10-5) and the Bengals (10-5) at the Jets (8-7).
Dallas won 20-16 at Philadelphia on Nov. 8, seemingly taking charge of the division. But the Cowboys went 4-3 after that, while Philly went 6-1 to take the NFC East lead. Sunday's winner gets the title and perhaps a bye in the first round of the postseason.
"It's a perfect picture right now," Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins said. "I think it was set up real great. We're in a good situation to go in and show everybody what we're made of. Doing it (against the Eagles) is even better. We're in a great situation."
Of course, they were in the same situation a year ago in the wild-card race, went into Philadelphia and got routed 44-6.
An Eagles victory earns them that bye. Dallas needs a win and losses by Minnesota and Arizona to get the week off.
Most people, including Jets coach Rex Ryan, thought the Jets would have the postseason off after a loss to Atlanta two weeks ago. Then everything New York required to remain viable for the playoffs happened last weekend — including the Colts waving an unbeaten season goodbye by sitting nearly every starter in the third quarter of a close game. The Jets rallied to hand Indianapolis its first loss, and with a victory Sunday night over the AFC North champion Bengals, who also might rest their regulars, New York gets in.
"We had a lot of tough games this year, a lot of tough losses, games that we thought we would win and we ended up coming up short," running back Thomas Jones said. "For us to have an opportunity to even get in the playoffs at this point in the season says a lot about our coaching staff, says a lot about Rex and the commitment that they have to us. It says a lot about the character of our team and guys not giving up."
It also says a lot about having a favorable schedule at the end of the season.
In other games Sunday, it's Baltimore at Oakland, Pittsburgh at Miami, New England at Houston, Indianapolis at Buffalo, New Orleans at Carolina, Jacksonville at Cleveland, the New York Giants at Minnesota, Washington at San Diego, Green Bay at Arizona, Chicago at Detroit, San Francisco at St. Louis, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, and Tennessee at Seattle.
Baltimore (8-7) at Oakland (5-10)
Like the Jets, the Ravens began the year 3-0, then fell to 3-3. Unlike the Jets, they've remained in the playoff conversation throughout the schedule. They could have secured a wild-card berth by beating Pittsburgh last Sunday, and now face a potential spoiler in the Raiders.
Of Oakland's five victories, four came against winning teams: Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh (8-7) at Miami (7-8)
How badly will the defending Super Bowl champions be kicking themselves if they win this week, finish 9-7 and get left out of the postseason parade? A five-game slide, including losses to Kansas City and Oakland, will become the identity marker for 2009 — at least for those who have short memories and overlook what happened back in early February.
Miami won the AFC East a year ago by riding the wildcat and protecting the ball. The wildcat pretty much has disappeared and the Dolphins are a minus-7 in turnover differential.
Kansas City (3-12) at Denver (8-7)
If Pittsburgh is lamenting what might have been, what about Denver, which once was 6-0? The Broncos have stumbled so badly that San Diego surged into control of the AFC West by early December. That stingy Denver defense has crumbled down the stretch.
Kansas City's first season under coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli has been all about building a foundation, so the record is not surprising.
New England (10-5) at Houston (8-7)
Another team that might rest key players is New England; does Bill Belichick care all that much about being a No. 3 or No. 4 seed? The Patriots must play in the wild-card round regardless, and they aren't likely to fear any potential opponent.
Houston never has been to the playoffs and hasn't had a winning season since entering the NFL in 2002. With the right results, the Texans could sneak in and face the Patriots again next weekend. They've won three in a row.
Indianapolis (14-1) at Buffalo (5-10)
Peyton Manning always starts, never missing one since he joined the Colts 11 years ago. Whether he is on the tundra in Orchard Park for more than one series is another matter. If Indy was willing to sacrifice the shot at a perfect record last week, why would any key players make more than a cameo appearance in this one?
Buffalo was hoping to close well under interim coach Perry Fewell, but is 2-4 since he replaced Dick Jauron.
New Orleans (13-2) at Carolina (7-8)
The Saints own home-field advantage throughout the NFC and decided on Saturday to start Mark Brunell at quarterback in place of Drew Brees.
How much work the Saints' other starters get depends on whether coach Sean Payton wants to smooth out some rough spots after two straight losses. New Orleans hasn't played lights out on offense or defense since November.
If the Panthers finish at .500 after starting 3-0 and then being 5-8, it should help John Fox keep his coaching job.
NY Giants (8-7) at Minnesota (11-4)
On Oct. 11, these teams were a combined 11-0. The Giants plummeted so far that they already have been eliminated from contention, their defense a shell of the unit that helped win a Super Bowl less than two years ago.
The Vikings waited until December to go into their dive, losing three of four and wasting an open road to a playoff bye. Most troubling is a defense that suddenly has sprung leaks, allowing 92 points in the three defeats.
Jacksonville (7-8) at Cleveland (4-11)
Three straight losses dropped the Jaguars from control of the AFC wild-card dash to needing lots of help. They needed to close the way Cleveland has with three wins in a row, at least raising the possibility Eric Mangini will be retained as coach by new team boss Mike Holmgren.
Washington (4-11) at San Diego (12-3)
Jim Zorn's final game as Redskins coach. Norv Turner once coached in Washington, too, and he's headed into the postseason with the AFC West champion, the league's hottest team. San Diego has won 10 straight, but figures to sit its regulars for much of this game.
Green Bay (10-5) at Arizona (10-5)
These teams could meet in the wild-card round next weekend, too. The Cardinals have a shot at a bye, needing a victory and losses by Minnesota and Philadelphia. Arizona showed last winter how dangerous it can be in the playoffs, and this is a better team than the one that lost to Pittsburgh in the final minute of the Super Bowl.
Green Bay is locked into playing in the wild-card round after winning six of its last seven.
Chicago (6-9) at Detroit (2-13)
Detroit can't look at this year as successful, but at least it's not 0-16. The Bears looked like a contender in their Monday night overtime victory against the Vikings. So where was that all season?
San Francisco (7-8) at St. Louis (1-14)
Six straight losing seasons for the Niners could end if they handle the dreadful and banged-up Rams. St. Louis earns the No. 1 overall draft pick if it completes the eighth 1-15 season in league history.
Atlanta (8-7) at Tampa Bay (3-12)
When the Falcons joined the league in 1966, who would have imagined they'd go 43 seasons without consecutive winning records? They can end that ignominious string by beating Tampa Bay, which comes off a stunning upset of the Saints.
Tennessee (7-8) at Seattle (5-10)
The Titans want to finish off their remarkable turnaround from 0-6 with a .500 record and a nice boost for next season. Seattle merely wants to finish another injury-ravaged flop.