Surging and stumbling toward NFL playoffs
Some teams surge toward the playoffs. Look at Denver, Seattle, Washington and Green Bay.
Others struggle to stay in the mix: try the Steelers, Bengals, Giants and Bears.
This penultimate weekend of the schedule could propel a few of them and eliminate others.
Chief among the clubs that could go either way: the defending champion New York Giants, who have lost their last three road games by a combined 82-29 to fall to 8-6. Not even coach Tom Coughlin is sure what he has as they head to Baltimore.
"It would be easy for me to say I do, but the reality of it is we haven't been able to play to substantiate what I would say is the personality of this team," said Coughlin, whose club gets a wild card, for sure, by winning out. "So I'm definitely counting on the veterans to go ahead and prove this and do it with consistency.
"Last year we did it over a six-game run and, exactly, we're in that situation again."
Even though their opponent Sunday, the Ravens, already have sewed up a playoff spot, it's a critical game for Baltimore (9-5) to get back on track after three straight defeats — two at home and one a bit down the road in Washington.
"We dug this hole we're in," safety Bernard Pollard said. "We can't blame anybody but ourselves. We don't like losing three straight games. Nobody does. It's at the point right now where we have to get back at it, man. We dug the hole, now we've got to find a way to get out of it."
The action began Saturday night with Atlanta's 31-18 victory at Detroit. The Falcons (13-2) clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, while the Lions (4-11) lost their seventh straight game.
Also Sunday, it's Cincinnati at Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card showdown; Chicago at Arizona; San Francisco at Seattle; Washington at Philadelphia; New Orleans at Dallas; Minnesota at Houston; Indianapolis at Kansas City; Cleveland at Denver; Tennessee at Green Bay; New England at Jacksonville; St. Louis at Tampa Bay; Buffalo at Miami; San Diego at New York Jets; and Oakland at Carolina.
Cincinnati (8-6) at Pittsburgh (7-7)
A Bengals win, perhaps a long shot because second-year quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't beaten either the Steelers or Ravens yet, gives Cincinnati a second consecutive postseason berth. That hasn't happened since 1982 and never has occurred without involving a strike-shortened season.
The Bengals also can take the division by sweeping the final two games and having Baltimore lose twice.
Pittsburgh can win the division only if there is a three-way tie, but definitely gets a wild card with two victories.
Chicago (8-6) at Arizona (5-9)
Reeling and injury-ravaged, the Bears have dropped three straight and five of six. There's some discord in the locker room, coach Lovie Smith's job security has become shakier, and they no longer can win the NFC North.
Still, a wild-card spot is available if they win out, and even though the Cardinals routed Detroit last week, it was Arizona's first win in 10 games.
San Francisco (10-3-1) at Seattle (9-5)
The spotlight matchup, even though it won't decide the NFC West. San Francisco can take the division for the second successive season by beating Arizona in its finale even if it falls at what will be a rocking CenturyLink Field. The 49ers earned at least a wild card with their, uh, wild 41-34 victory at New England last weekend.
"Given my first four years, around this time, we probably wouldn't be playing for much, maybe a chance to win a game and maybe get in or waiting on three other teams to lose," star linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It feels good to know that you're playing for something. We have a playoff berth, but we want the division. And we also want to have that first-week bye, and we know we have to win this week first."
The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, have won five of their last six overall, and scored 58 and 50 points the last two weeks. They aren't likely to come close to that against the NFL's stingiest defense; the Niners have allowed 218 points, one fewer than Seattle.
Washington (8-6) at Philadelphia (4-10)
Credit Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff for one of the best jobs down the stretch. It helps when you have not one but two effective rookie quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.
The Redskins might beat the weak Eagles with Rex Grossman this week. But even if RG3 is back as expected, look for another key Washington rookie, RB Alfred Morris, to add to his 1,322 yards and nine TDs on the ground.
New Orleans (6-8) at Dallas (8-6)
Dallas is in the same situation as Washington. Win out and the Cowboys take the NFC East.
They've shown plenty of fortitude in winning five of six, rallying to beat the Bengals and Steelers in the last two outings.
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