Steelers vs. Jets, Finnegan vs. Johnson among Week 15 storylines
There's no denying Week 15 in the NFL is rife with an abundance of intriguing subtopics. There's Johnson-Finnegan II in Nashville. The doll-eyed Mike Shanahan perhaps going full-blown Child's Play cuckoo by starting Rex Grossman over Donovan McNabb. There's a Snow Day in Minneapolis, a You're Fired Bowl in Ohio and marquee quarterbacks fighting to get on the field despite serious injuries.
But at the core of the weekend's stories are playoff berths. That's what it's all about, and everything will become much clearer by Monday night. Five division leaders have the potential to clinch. Several first-round byes also can be clinched. Altogether, with the right wins and the right things happening, after this week's matchups no fewer than eight teams can clinch and join the New England Patriots in the postseason tournament.
This week's storylines must start in Pittsburgh, where a couple of teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations are trying to get well. The Jets' condition certainly is much more severe than the Steelers, who can clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win. But intrigue, story twists and possibilities abound at Heinz Field
• With Troy Polamalu unlikely to play because of a lower leg injury, Jets QB Mark Sanchez must feel a little better about his chances. Still, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows how to harass and frustrate a struggling quarterback and Sanchez is all of that. Jets coach Rex Ryan has thought of benching Sanchez, who has thrown five picks and completed just 43 percent of his passes in his last three games.
• Polamalu isn't the only key Steeler hurting -- tight end Heath Miller still is suffering from post-concussion syndrome and is doubtful. Then there is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has a lingering ankle issue, is still recovering from surgery for a broken nose that doctors said looked like "corn flakes" and who can't get the Steelers offense going. The Steelers have not scored a touchdown on a drive that started in their own territory since Nov. 28. They rank a dismal 27th in the NFL in red-zone scoring. That won't cut it in the playoffs, particularly if Pittsburgh is eyeing an AFC title-game trip to New England.
• There won't be better cornerback-receiver matchups anywhere in the league than at Heinz Field, with Hines Ward testing Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes returning to Pittsburgh, where he became a Super Bowl legend. Roethlisberger says he won't shy away from throwing in Revis' direction. That's usually a risky proposition, but Ward is embracing the challenge against the former Aliquippa High and Pitt Panthers star. On the other side, Holmes, the 2009 Super Bowl MVP for the Steelers, admittedly is holding a grudge against the team that traded him for the NFL equivalent of a bag of rocks (fifth-round draft pick). Holmes has promised a big day, including a punt return for a touchdown at his old stomping ground.
Almost everywhere in Week 15, the games will be meaningful and the storylines significant:
6) Has Redskins coach Mike Shanahan completely lost his mind? Or is benching one of the league's best quarterbacks all part of the grand Redskins 2011 And Beyond plan? The 'Skins are done this year, no doubt. But with news Friday that Mike Shanahan and son Kyle have decided to bench Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman, rest assured the Cowboys are thrilled. And Shanahan once again is setting himself up for harsh -- and deserved -- criticism if this thing blows up in his face.