Texans suddenly in tough spot
Here's how damaging losing two of their last three games has been to the Houston Texans.
If they fail at Indianapolis today, they could go from the AFC's top seed, with home-field advantage in the playoffs to the third-ranked team with no bye.
Houston has the same 12-3 record as Denver, but has beaten the Broncos, and is one game up on New England. The Patriots earned one of those victories against the Texans this month and have the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record.
So, a victory at division rival Indianapolis, which is set as the No. 5 seed with a wild card, becomes vital. And Houston never has won in Indy.
"We know we have a huge challenge," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Tough place to play, and historically a tough place to play for us. We are going to have to play a lot better, so we are kind of focused on ourselves trying to get better."
The Colts get back Chuck Pagano, who last coached them in September before undergoing treatment for leukemia. Interim coach Bruce Arians was 9-3 filling in.
"I asked the players one thing, 'If (Pagano) couldn't come back for this week, let's make sure we extend the season until he could come back,'" Arians said. "That meant one playoff game, two playoff games, whatever it took and our guys bought the cause.
"Professional athletes are funny cats. When you get them to play for something more than a paycheck, they will do some funny things."
Kansas City (2-13)at Denver (12-3)
When the Broncos fell at New England to drop to 2-3, they couldn't possibly have envisioned not losing again and having a shot at the AFC's top seed. A win over the wretched Chiefs gets them 11 in a row. That and a loss by the Texans makes them No. 1 in the conference.
"It was just a matter of time until it started clicking, and so when it started clicking, we had that confidence to keep it going," defensive end Elvis Dumervil said. "You never want to lose, but it was a growing pain. We're a different team, a lot of guys have gotten better."
Kansas City is in the running with Jacksonville for another, uh, distinction: the top overall draft pick next April.
Miami (7-8)at New England (11-4)
The Patriots must have believed a bye was beyond reach when they were beaten two weeks ago by San Francisco. Instead, they would move up to No. 2 in the AFC should they take the Dolphins for the sixth time in the last seven meetings at Foxborough while Houston loses.
They could even get the top seed if both Denver and Houston fall.
Miami would be riding quite a high by finishing off a .500 record with a victory at New England.
Baltimore (10-5)at Cincinnati (9-6)
A potential warmup for the wild-card round, but only if the Patriots lose to Miami and the Ravens win. The Bengals are locked into the sixth seed in the AFC.
Baltimore struggled on both sides of the ball for nearly a month until it blew out the Giants last Sunday. The Bengals picked up what could become a signature victory by taking down the Steelers in Pittsburgh to clinch their second straight playoff spot.
Just like against the Steelers before last weekend, Bengals QB Andy Dalton has not defeated the Ravens in three tries.
Dallas (8-7) at Washington (9-6)
It doesn't get simpler than this: The winner of the prime-time affair takes the NFC East.
Dallas has been in this position twice before against the other division opponents, losing to the Eagles in the 2008 and to the Giants a year ago in the finale with the East crown on the line. The Cowboys have displayed moxie in winning five of seven, but also lost to the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day.
"You live for games like this," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
Only if you win them. And with the way Washington is performing, from rookie sensation Robert Griffin III at quarterback to emerging playmakers elsewhere, getting that victory will be extremely difficult.
"I think they get used to the pressure," coach Mike Shanahan said of his relatively inexperienced team. "Over the last six weeks, they knew every game was do-or-die, and they're used to that scenario."
Green Bay (11-4)at Minnesota (9-6)
Philadelphia (4-11)at New York Giants (8-7)
Chicago (9-6) at Detroit (4-11)
In addition to the Packers securing a first-round bye, these games matter in the NFC wild-card chase.
Minnesota is in the best spot, if you want to call it that considering the quality of the opposition. A win and the Vikings are in, regardless of whether Adrian Peterson gets the 102 yards rushing he needs for 2,000 — or the 207 required to equal Eric Dickerson's all-time single-season mark.
"This is everything. All the chips are in now," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We wanted this. We asked for it. Let's go. Let's not be scared of it, because there's nothing to lose at this point."
If the Vikings do lose, and Green Bay has won four in a row and nine of 10, they need losses by Dallas, Chicago and New York.
The defending Super Bowl champion Giants have fallen apart the last two weeks against playoff-bound opponents. Now they get the Eagles in what almost certainly is Andy Reid's finale after 14 seasons as Philadelphia's coach.
Michael Vick, who also figures to be gone from Philly, returns as the starting QB with Nick Foles sidelined by a broken right hand.
Reeling Detroit has the league's longest slide with seven consecutive losses and will be hard-pressed to challenge Chicago. The Bears are very banged-up, but the defense got back to making plays and scoring touchdowns a week ago at Arizona.
Arizona (5-10)at San Francisco (10-4-1)
St. Louis (7-7-1) at Seattle (10-5)
After the beating the Seahawks put on the 49ers, clinching a playoff berth, they are soaring with confidence. They probably aren't thinking about stealing the NFC West, knowing the odds of the Cardinals winning at San Francisco.
Still, their closing burst of six wins in seven games, including 150 points in the last three outings, must make potential opponents shudder.
"We've been playing well for quite a while and I can feel it in the room and the guys can understand it and all," coach Pete Carroll said. "But that doesn't mean anything unless we can do it again."
San Francisco must fix a suddenly leaky defense, which might not be an issue against the impotent Cardinals but will be in the postseason. The Niners also can grab back a bye with a victory and a loss by Green Bay.
Cleveland (5-10)at Pittsburgh (7-8)
So strange to see the Steelers as an also-ran with a week remaining. They need to rediscover their big playmakers.
They struggled in close games, previously a strength, going 3-5 in games decided by three points or less.
"We've been in a lot of close football games and we just consistently haven't made the necessary plays to win those games," coach Mike Tomlin said. "You have to make the critical plays down the stretch in those games if you want to be a consistent winner. We haven't done that ..."
Cleveland, out of the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year, will undergo plenty of changes in the offseason under new owner Jimmy Haslam.
Tampa Bay (6-9)at Atlanta (13-2)
With home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs in their possession, the Falcons could rest some folks today. But they also have a bye upcoming, so getting stale could be an issue.
Plus, they've been on a roll the last two weeks and would like to keep sharp heading into the postseason, where they are 0-3 under coach Mike Smith.
Tampa Bay's players haven't given up the way they did for Raheem Morris a year ago. They also have played poorly, albeit against mostly decent teams, while dropping five straight.
Oakland (4-11) at San Diego (6-9)
Likely the final game for Norv Turner as Chargers coach, but the team has won its last two road games. San Diego has allowed only three more points than it has scored, an indication this might not be too dire a situation for someone else to tackle.
Oakland? That might be hopeless. The Raiders are better than only three teams in points and have yielded more than everyone except Tennessee and Buffalo.
Jacksonville (2-13)at Tennessee (5-10)
Two coaches with short resumes that could be marred by losing their positions.
Mike Mularkey has done nothing to improve Jacksonville's offense — to be fair, his best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, has appeared in only six games. His first season with the Jaguars could be his last.
Mike Munchak, who spent three decades with the Tennessee franchise, was given an ultimatum by owner Bud Adams to upgrade the Titans' performance. It hasn't happened.
Carolina (6-9)at New Orleans (7-8)
This season won't end the way the Saints hoped. At least they can put behind the bounty scandal and look ahead to getting back coach Sean Payton — depending on his contract situation with the team — and contending next year.
The Panthers might have saved coach Ron Rivera's job with a surge. They've won three straight and four of five.
New York Jets (6-9)at Buffalo (5-10)
The mess at the Meadowlands that has been the Jets' season mercifully concludes with Greg McElroy at quarterback trying to avoid another beatdown. Bills defensive end Mario Williams, who's had his own disappointing year, must be salivating after seeing San Diego get 11 sacks last week.