Must-Win Watch: Saints, Cowboys reach a fork in the road
And then there were 31 ...
The hapless Kansas City Chiefs became the first team eliminated from playoff contention when they lost to Denver last weekend. And thus began the NFL's annual post-Thanksgiving weening down of postseason contenders. Jacksonville could be the second team bounced from the proceedings this weekend, but there are several others (including Oakland, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Carolina) right behind.
Even with those teams walking the plank, however, the NFL's wild-card races have grown more unsettled. Four divisions could be decided this week -- and only two (NFC East, NFC North) really look like they're up for grabs, anyway -- but 15 teams remain within a two-loss radius of the No. 6 seed in both the AFC and NFC.
Will Week 13 thin the field at all? It depends on what happens to these teams that badly need a win ...
• Cincinnati Bengals (6-5, at San Diego Chargers): Pittsburgh's Week 12 loss was Cincinnati's gain -- the Bengals routed Oakland by 24 to pull even with the Steelers at 6-5. Should Indianapolis continue winning, the AFC North will be unable to repeat its three-team playoff showing from 2011, so the Bengals-Steelers back-and-forth could be key.
Those two teams plays in Pittsburgh in Week 16. There's a lot of ground to cover before that, however. For Cincinnati, the road starts Sunday at San Diego. A Bengals win plus a Steelers loss would leapfrog Cincinnati into playoff position. Desperation level: 2
• Seattle Seahawks (6-5, at Chicago); Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5, at Denver): Six of the top seven wild-card contenders in the NFC lost last week, so the 6-5 clubs in the conference are not yet up against the wall. A win by either Seattle or Tampa Bay in tough road environments would serve as a major statement to the rest of the conference's playoff-hungry teams. Desperation level: 4
• Minnesota Vikings (6-5, at Green Bay): The Vikings are right in that 6-5 spot with Seattle and Tampa Bay, but their outlook varies slightly. With two games left against the Packers (including Sunday's showdown in Lambeau), plus a Week 14 home game against the Bears, Minnesota still could rally to be a player in the NFC North -- neither Seattle nor Tampa Bay is currently within striking distance in their respective divisions.
The Vikings have lost three of four and are coming off a 28-10 smackdown in Chicago. At the very least, they need to give the Packers a run for their money on Sunday. Desperation level: 5
• Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5, at Baltimore Ravens): Two Sundays ago, the Steelers and Ravens were neck-and-neck in the AFC North and set to play twice in three weeks. But Baltimore took the first matchup in Pittsburgh, with Byron Leftwich starting for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, and the Charlie Batch-led Steelers then lost in Cleveland.
Now, Pittsburgh faces a decision: Hurry Big Ben back for this one and take one last stab at the AFC North? Or start Batch, essentially throwing in the towel for Week 13, with an eye toward the final four weeks and a wild-card spot? Desperation level: 6
The Dolphins' Week 12 win put them back into the AFC wild-card race, thanks to Pittsburgh's second straight loss. And, as unlikely as it may be, the AFC East title is still attainable, despite Miami trailing New England by three games. The main reason: Two of the Dolphins' final five contests of the regular season are against the Patriots, starting Sunday in Miami. Win 'em both and not only is a wild-card berth close within reach, but the division title may be too. Desperation level: 8
• Dallas Cowboys (5-6, vs. Philadelphia): One way or another, if the Cowboys hold serve against an imploding Eagles team Sunday night, Dallas will get a boost from Monday's Giants-Redskins result. Either the Cowboys will pull within a game of New York in the NFC East or they'll hop back in front of the Washington team that smoked them on Thanksgiving in the wild-card race.
Of course, a loss to 3-8 Philadelphia would be crushing -- especially with a brutal closing stretch forthcoming. Desperation level: 9
• New Orleans Saints (5-6, at Atlanta): Technically, the Saints could lose Thursday, run the table over their last four games and find a way into the playoffs. More likely, a loss to their rivals would just about end the Saints' shot at crawling back from 0-4 to make the postseason.
This is a big one for Atlanta, too -- the Falcons can clinch the NFC South this week with a win and Tampa Bay loss. That should provide them plenty of motivation, but you can bet Atlanta also would love nothing more than to severely damage the Saints' postseason hopes. Desperation level: 9.5• Any team with seven losses (or six and a tie): This is pretty easy to figure out. If 9-7 is going to be the absolute cut-off point for wild-card spots, then any team currently sitting on seven losses has to win out. The list this week includes Tennessee (vs. Houston), Buffalo (vs. Jacksonville), Detroit (vs. Indianapolis), Arizona and the Jets (playing each other in New York) and San Diego (vs. Cincinnati). The 4-6-1 Rams also fall into the same category -- 8-7-1 likely won't get them into the dance. Desperation level: "Stop, stop! He's already dead."