Must-Win Watch: Dolphins-Bills kicks off critical week for struggling teams
For all the constant talk about parity in the NFL and the exciting stories of upstart teams like Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Minnesota, here's the real nitty-gritty: If the playoffs started this week, nine of the 12 teams involved would be repeat qualifiers from last year's postseason. And five of the combatants would be making at least their third consecutive playoff trip.
So, in other words, the cream has started rising to the top again.
That's not to say things won't flip-flop over the season's final seven weeks, but teams like New England, Denver and Atlanta are in pretty terrific spots as we turn for home. The pressure is on, then, for those teams hoping to upset the apple cart and break into the NFL's elite level.
Here's a look at the teams in the most dire situations heading into Week 11:
• Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3, vs. Baltimore): An unusual inclusion here, I'll grant you. The Steelers' record gives them a two-game cushion in the AFC wild-card race, and their final four games are very manageable (San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland).
This, though, will be a telling matchup in the AFC North race. If the Steelers are going to snatch the division crown off Baltimore's head, they need a win on Sunday night at home -- with Byron Leftwich starting at quarterback. Waiting for Pittsburgh in two weeks is a return engagement against the Ravens, this time in Baltimore. Going 0-2 in their two meetings with Baltimore would kill the Steelers' divisional dreams and make their road to the postseason much more treacherous. Desperation level (out of 10): 3
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4, at Carolina): This is a must-win borne more out of the opponent than the situation. Tampa Bay sits just a half-game back of Minnesota and Seattle (both idle) in the race for an NFC wild-card spot. So, losing this week would serve as a setback ... but not a deadly one.
The bigger issue is Tampa Bay's remaining schedule, which includes two games with 8-1 Atlanta, plus trips to Denver and New Orleans. With those foes looming (plus Philadelphia and St. Louis), the Buccaneers cannot overlook the 2-7 Panthers. Desperation level: 4.5
• Dallas Cowboys (4-5, at Cleveland): The NFC East has devolved into such a mess that both the Eagles and Redskins are still alive in the division hunt. Dallas landed a huge victory at Philadelphia last week. The Cowboys also play exactly one team with a winning record in the last seven weeks. Losing to Cleveland would hurt, but the Giants' struggles have left the rest of the NFC East with renewed life. Desperation level: 5
• Cincinnati Bengals (4-5, at Kansas City): The Bengals finally ended a four-game slide with an upset win over the Giants last week. Unfortunately for them, they now play four of their next six on the road. This is the easiest of those matchups, though, and considering that next week brings Oakland to Cincinnati, the window is open to grab some momentum. Desperation level: 6
• Miami Dolphins (4-5, at Buffalo): The AFC East-leading Patriots have won three in a row, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh have taken command of the wild-card race, and the Dolphins lost by 34 at home last week to Tennessee. So, yeah, they need this one.
Their opponents, the 3-6 Bills, do have one of the easier schedules remaining, so a wild card run for Buffalo isn't totally out of the question. But a Bills win Thursday night probably means only one AFC East team gets to the postseason. Desperation level: 7
• New Orleans Saints (4-5, at Oakland): Don't look now, but the Saints legitimately are back in this thing. The next three weeks (San Francisco, at Atlanta, at the Giants) will make or break Drew Brees and company's playoff push, probably regardless of what happens Sunday. Still, losing to the Raiders after winning four of five would be a firm slap in the face. Desperation level: 8
• Arizona Cardinals (4-5, at Atlanta): The Cardinals are included here more as a courtesy than a nod toward reality. Sure, their 4-5 record, technically, keeps the Cardinals in the NFC wild-card race. But with five consecutive losses and a brutal final six weeks waiting, a quick turnaround feels pretty unlikely. Desperation level: 8.5/does it matter?
• St. Louis Rams (3-5-1, vs. the Jets): If not for a baffling delay of game penalty, the Rams would have pulled off a stunner in San Francisco last week. Instead, they settled for a tie, which does little to help them at the moment in the playoff race.
Except that, instead of being two losses back of the final wild-card spot, the Rams face just a one-loss gap. They'll need to make up for that missing win at some point -- Seattle, the current No. 6 seed in the NFC, has six victories. But all is not lost, especially with a game against the Jets this week and a trip to reeling Arizona in Week 12. Desperation level: 9
• Detroit Lions (4-5, vs. Green Bay): Are the Lions already too far gone? The standings say: not quite. The general aura surrounding this team, however ...
Detroit is in last place in the NFC North after losing for a second time to Minnesota. And, despite having five of seven at home to close the year, faces the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the league -- their opponents left have a combined 39-15 record, and the Lions still have to play three division leaders (Houston, Atlanta, Chicago). With the Texans coming to town on Thanksgiving, the Lions have to get back to .500 in Week 11. Desperation level: 9.5
• Any team with six losses: Five teams fit under this heading (Buffalo, the Jets, Philadelphia, Washington and Oakland). We've already covered that the circumstances are a tad different for Philadelphia and Washington -- meaning that if the Giants, you know, lose out, the nature of that division race would change.
The Eagles and Redskins play each other in Washington. The winner, incredibly, will still be in the thick of the NFC East chase.
But seven losses probably will be the absolute maximum for a wild-card team, and last year, just one team made the dance at 9-7. So, the loser of the Eagles-Washington scrap will be on its death bed. Same goes for Buffalo (vs. Miami), the Jets (at St. Louis) and Oakland (vs. New Orleans), should any of those teams stumble. Desperation level: 10• San Diego Chargers (4-5, at Denver): This is it. Through all the Chargers' gaffes over the past six weeks, their Week 11 trip to Denver stood as the one chance to turn things around and stay in the AFC West hunt. If the Broncos win here, this division race is, for all intents and purposes, over. San Diego also plays three straight against the AFC North after this -- and already lost to Cleveland -- so it's now or never. Desperation level: Infinite