Must-Win Watch: Bears, Giants feeling the heat in the NFC
The Steelers, currently clinging to the No. 6 spot in the AFC, lost last week. So did the Bengals, right behind them in seventh place. Over in the NFC, Chicago dropped its second straight to fall to 8-5 and into that conference's second and final wild-card spot.
Thanks to those Week 14 miscues, playoff races on both sides of the ledger remain absolutely wide open -- a dozen teams in each conference still, mathematically, have a chance to reach the postseason.
That number will be whittled down further this Sunday and Monday, but we'll head to Week 16 with no fewer than 16 total teams n the hunt. Who's most in need of a victory? The Must-Win Watch has the answer:
• Houston Texans (11-2, vs. Indianapolis): In light of their Week 14 beatdown in New England, the Texans really would prefer a playoff rematch with the Pats to take place in Houston. Since the Texans have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England, they may need a 3-0 close to secure the AFC's No. 1 seed. They'd also like to get the AFC South wrapped up, which they can do with a win over the Colts Sunday. Desperation level (out of 10): 3
• Indianapolis Colts (9-4, at Houston): The Colts would lock up a playoff spot with a win here, but they have their sights set on an even bigger prize: the AFC South title. Despite being two games back of Houston, Indianapolis controls its destiny since these teams also play again in Week 17. Desperation level: 4
• Seattle Seahawks (8-5, vs. Buffalo in Toronto): The Seahawks still have visions of an NFC West title -- next week's game vs. San Francisco could loom large -- but they, first and foremost, need to make sure they're in the playoffs. Seattle cannot clinch a berth this week ... but it could make life a lot trickier in Weeks 16 and 17 with a loss to the Bills. Desperation level: 5.5
• Cincinnati Bengals (7-6, at Philadelphia); Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6, at Dallas): The big one for these teams is next week, when Cincinnati visits Pittsburgh. But a loss by either this week -- and especially by the Bengals, who trail Pittsburgh in tiebreakers, on Thursday night -- could change the outlook slightly. One of these two teams likely will claim the AFC's final wild-card spot, though the Jets are closing.
There's also an outside chance that the Bengals or Steelers could sneak up and steal the AFC North. If the Ravens lose to Denver, the Giants and then Cincinnati to close the season, a 10-6 mark would take the crown. Desperation level: 6
• New York Giants (8-5, at Atlanta): Are the Giants capable of winning in Atlanta and Baltimore on back-to-back weeks? If not, then holding onto the NFC East lead -- and, subsequently, a playoff spot -- will be difficult. The Giants do not hold the tiebreaker over Washington, so this one-game cushion they currently have has to stay intact. A loss this week would have the Giants sweating heading into Week 16. Desperation level: 7
• Washington Redskins (7-6, at Cleveland); Dallas Cowboys (7-6, vs. Pittsburgh): Is there room in the playoffs for two NFC East teams? Either way, the looming Week 17 Cowboys-Redskins game could have massive implications, especially if the Giants stumble once or twice more. As it is, neither of these teams have much room for a slip-up -- and both will have their hands full Sunday. Desperation level: 7.5
• Chicago Bears (8-5, vs. Green Bay): While the Packers would love to have this one, it will take a monumental collapse for them to miss the playoffs and they would still hold first in the NFC North with a loss.
Chicago, on the other hand, is in a tough spot. While a win would keep the Bears alive in the division chase, a loss likely would mean they would have to finish 2-0 (at Arizona, at Detroit) to reach the postseason. Carrying a three-game losing streak into that season-ending road trip would put Chicago in a very precarious spot. Desperation level: 8
• Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at St. Louis Rams (6-6-1): An elimination game -- the Rams could be officially bounced from playoff contention with a loss, while Minnesota would be down to its last gasp. The winner might actually be in decent shape, if the pieces fall right elsewhere.
If the Rams can get to 9-6-1 and everyone else settles at 9-7 or lower, that tie could be their ticket to the postseason. Desperation level: 9
• New York Jets (6-7, at Tennessee); Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7, at New Orleans): Two teams absolutely clinging to life in the postseason picture. And two teams headed in opposite directions.
The Jets, for all their obvious warts, have won two in a row to climb back within a game of the AFC's final wild-card spot. They close at Tennessee, vs. San Diego and at Buffalo, so stretching their win streak to five is far from out of the question. That said, this all could come crashing down if the Jets lose Monday -- that result, plus Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis wins would eliminate Rex Ryan's bunch from the race.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have dropped three straight, including a killer last Sunday against Philadelphia. They, too, could be eliminated this week. Even if they're not, there are a handful of teams between them and the final wild-card spot in the NFC. Desperation level: 9.9
• Any team with eight losses: For the record, that list includes Buffalo, San Diego, Cleveland, Miami and New Orleans. The four AFC teams at 5-8 have a teensy bit more hope, since Pittsburgh holds the No. 6 seed at just 7-6 ; New Orleans is three games back of a wild-card spot with three to play. Everyone here is in win-out-and-pray mode. Desperation level: Total panic