Pro football outlook: Even struggling teams are in the thick of the NFL playoff race
There’s one week left in the NFL regular season, but plenty of football remaining. Here’s what to watch for next week:
Who will be the wild cards?: In the NFC, six teams are vying for the final two playoff spots, and at least five teams could be 8-8 at the end of next week. That sets up a slew of complicated tiebreakers to determine who plays after New Year’s Eve and who starts working on their golf games.
The New York Giants seemed assured of a playoff spot a month ago, but after a 2-6 stretch — including a 30-7 thumping by the New Orleans Saints on Sunday — they find themselves squarely in the middle of the conference.
Still, even with a loss next week they could squeak in at 7-9 if the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams and Green Bay Packers can’t reach 8-8.
In the AFC, a 9-7 record likely will be required for a playoff spot, but six teams are still alive for the two wild cards.
The Cincinnati Bengals could have clinched one on Sunday, but missed the opportunity when they missed an extra point late in the game at Denver and kept the Broncos’ hopes alive.
The New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars are fighting, too.
But the most surprising team still in the hunt is the Tennessee Titans, who lost their first five games and have gone 8-2 since, thanks to rookie QB Vince Young. They’ll face off against a New England Patriots team that has little to play for next Sunday.
Can the Colts get a bye?: The Indianapolis Colts were hands down the best team in the league for the first half of the season, and had sports writers again asking if they could go undefeated.
Since mid-November, though, they’ve lost four of six games, including an embarrassing last-second 27-24 loss to the lowly Houston Texans on Sunday. That defeat dropped them for now into the AFC’s third seed, which could force them into a first-round playoff game.
If the Baltimore Ravens beat the Buffalo Bills next Sunday, they’re assured a week off before they start the playoffs. If they lose, the Colts can still steal that No. 2 seed with a victory.
Either way, January will prove to be a much tougher test for Peyton Manning’s crew than next week’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
The Colts are 7-0 at home, but will have to play at least one road game if they don’t get that bye. They haven’t won an away game since Nov. 5, and all four of their road victories this season have been by less than a touchdown.
Will LaDainian Tomlinson get benched?: The San Diego Chargers’ Pro Bowl running back has already set the season scoring and rushing touchdown records this season. He has accounted for nearly 42 percent of his team’s offense, and he’ll be the key to the Chargers making a deep run into the playoffs.
Many other top players will get late-season rest next week, but the Chargers still will need Tomlinson to play at least a few downs to ensure a victory against the Arizona Cardinals that will clinch homefield advantage for San Diego throughout the playoffs.
The Chargers should enter the game as double-digit favorites, but the Cardinals have already posted victories this month against the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks and playoff hopeful St. Louis. A huge upset against the Chargers would give the team something to build on next year.
So expect Tomlinson’s league-leading total of 31 TDs to get a little larger next week before he gets a breather.
Can you feel the hate?: The last week of the season features four division rivalries, so even teams with no hope of January success will be excited about games that could ruin their neighbors’ winter plans.
The Washington Redskins will look for revenge against the Giants on Saturday night, with a chance to all but end New York’s season. The Panthers will travel to New Orleans with slim playoff hopes, while the Saints will be looking to wrap up a first round bye with a victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have traditionally been a nightmare for the Bengals, hope to kill Cincinnati’s playoff hopes with a victory on Sunday. The Bengals have a chance to send the Steelers home with a 7-9 record, only the second time in the last seven years they would have finished below .500.
Finally, the Packers-Bears tilt likely won’t feature any Chicago starters — the Bears have wrapped up the NFC’s top seed — but it will undoubtedly feature dozens of tributes to the ever-possibly retiring Brett Favre.
Green Bay fans would love to see their Canton-bound QB leave with a victory, but Chicago fans who remember his dominance over their team in the ’90s would love to see him step away with less fanfare and without any more highlights.