John P. Lopez: Playoff race, coach scrutiny lead Week 17 storylines - Sports Illustrated

Playoff scenarios, coaching scrutiny lead Week 17 storylines

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There is no shortage of similarities between the NFL's January jostling and that other tournament that happens every March. There are Cinderella stories -- step forward, Kansas City Chiefs. There are the usual, expected Duke-like dominant powers (New England, New Orleans). There are singular talents carrying teams (Michael Vick), sleepers dotting the bracket (Jacksonville), bracket busters (Minnesota, Dallas). And, of course, there is the ever-hot question of whether the Mid-Majors deserve a spot in the big ballroom. But we'll get to Seattle-St. Louis in a bit.

KING: Week 17 Game Plan

We must begin in Indianapolis, where it would have come as no surprise in the preseason to expect the Colts and Titans to brawl it out with high stakes on the line in the AFC South. How they got to this game, however, is another thing. And as for the stakes involved -- particularly with a Titans loss -- reflects the many unexpected twists of the 2010 NFL season.

Among the storylines to watch in Colts-Titans:

• To borrow from Judith Viorst, Peyton Manning has had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2010 season. Just ask any Colts fan. And yet by Sunday evening, Manning could well have his team in the playoffs for a record-tying ninth consecutive season, winning double-digit games for the 11th time in his career. And he will have done it for a team playing horrible defense, with more injuries and fewer complementary pieces available than at any point in his career. Oh, yeah, Manning is on track to finish with more yards and touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Drew Brees. Horrible? If Manning gets it done, it could be argued this was his greatest individual performance, ever.

• Exactly which Titans team will show up ... the one that looked like it quit in two of its last three games? Or the one that cared enough to wallop the Texans in Week 15? There is no question the Titans are more than capable of beating the Colts -- no matter if Tennessee already has been eliminated from playoff contention. The two things the Titans do best are run the ball and make plays on special teams. Those also are the two things the Colts defend the worst. Chris Johnson was snubbed by the Pro Bowl, and he often is at his best when he's perceived some kind of injustice.

• Tennessee is an absolute soap opera, from the owner's box down. Only Bud Adams knows if he already has made a decision on Jeff Fisher's future. Either way, the Titans are wrapping up a season of drama, beginning with Vince Young's quitting on his teammates and his very public showdown with Fisher. Will Fisher stay and VY go, or vice versa? Will Cortland Finnegan go out swinging, like he did versus Andre Johnson? And what about the makeup of a once-dominant team now searching for help on both sides of the ball? Stay tuned.

• If the Colts show prowess on the ground for a third straight week, this could become the scariest team in the postseason. Their rushing struggles have been well-chronicled all year. But with linemen getting healthy and Joseph Addai returning, the Colts have averaged 170 yards on the ground the last three weeks. If they keep it going and become a balanced team, they can beat anybody.

On to the other storylines that will determine the field for the 2011 playoffs:

2) Tom Coughlin's tale. In a season that could end with as many as eight head coaches losing their jobs, nobody reflects the flighty, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately life of an NFL coach more than Coughlin. From controlling his own destiny in every way going into the third quarter of the Philly game two weeks ago, Coughlin now controls nothing in terms of playoff berths and job security. When he announced after Friday's practice, "I love these guys" regarding his team, it was almost a feeling of resignation that his Giants career could be over no matter what happens at Washington.

3) Carson Palmer and the Bengals busted one team's dreams without T.O. and Ochocinco ... can they do it again? Argue the long-term merits of life without the two loud-mouthed wideouts all you want. The fact is, Palmer and the Bengals were vastly superior to any other point this season minus their two injured stars. They whacked San Diego's playoff dreams with Palmer throwing four TD passes. Do that again this week, and the Ravens will go from a potential No. 2 seed with a bye to the No. 5 seed and perhaps a road game at red-hot Indy.

4) Would a Tampa Bay win over the Saints shock anyone? Yeah, it probably would -- especially considering how easily the Saints handled Tampa in Tampa. Still, the Bucs face the Saints coming off a short week and emotional win over Atlanta, while the reeling Giants easily could lose and Green Bay faces division-winning Chicago. It's unlikely the Saints, Giants and Packers all lose to put the Bucs in the playoffs, but that's been the theme all year, especially for the young Bucs.

5) The Cleveland Browns have found a quarterback in Colt McCoy. Should they lose the head coach and really start getting better? This has been a transition year on every level for the Browns. With a win over rival Pittsburgh and possible ouster of coach Eric Mangini, Cleveland could be transitioning to a new era. Often in 2010, it's been as if McCoy's mobile, West Coast offense-styled game has been held back. Team president Mike Holmgren has to know McCoy is better-suited in another offense. In fact, a meeting between Mangini and Holmgren already has been scheduled for Monday. Never a good sign.

6) Yet again, Rex Ryan and the Jets have figuratively tripped over their own feet off the field. When will, or will it, affect the performance on the field? The biggest question the Jets should be answering this week is how much the banged-up Mark Sanchez (shoulder) will play against the woeful Buffalo Bills. He was listed as probable on Friday, by the way. But more pictures of Ryan's wife turned up, only hours after the NFL fined the Jets for Sal Alosi's sideline trip. No matter how much they say otherwise, constant distractions lead to lack of focus. That's just a fact in the NFL.

7) Could Jason Garrett be coaching for arguably the most prestigious coaching job in all of sports? Oh, yeah, he could be. This is Jerry's World, after all. One game could mean everything. Jones will watch his team face the Eagles in an otherwise meaningless game that may mean the world to the future of the organization. If Garrett responds to a dismal ending against Arizona by getting his Cowboys to play up to their potential, it could only help his chances replacing Wade Phillips. And one clip-and-save: Jones always has had a superb relationship with current Titans coach Jeff Fisher. If Fisher is fired, don't be surprised if he ends up in Dallas.

8) If two teams have no muscle, can a game between them really be, "flexed?" Oh, sure. NBC will put all the proper bells and whistles on Rams-Seahawks with the NFC West title on the line. But with the division winner potentially being 7-9 (if Seattle wins) in this not ready for prime time headliner, it's the proverbial lipstick-on-a-pig. Meanwhile, the Bucs could sit at home at 10-6, as could the Giants.

9) Will all those personnel experts who blasted Tim Tebow's abilities as a quarterback eat crow for the New Year? Or is premature Tebow-mania spreading far and wide. It will be only his third start Sunday against the rival Chargers. Yet Tebow remains an NFL story. That itself is good for the Broncos, who are in search of a new coach and their old winning ways. In reality, it will take at least another season to begin to gauge just what kind of player Tebow could become. But early returns are more than anyone expected. Another impressive performance Sunday would be perfect going into a crucial offseason.

10) One of the coaches in the Jacksonville-Houston game could get fired. And it may not be the one with a 5-10 team. A week ago, Texans coach Gary Kubiak appeared to be Dead Coach Walking, after his team dropped its seventh game in eight tries. But owner Bob McNair likes Kubiak. He still thinks things are headed in the right direction. And McNair got more than an endorsement from Houston icon and former Oilers coach Bum Phillips. Apparently, he got his son, Wade, to come in and save the pitiful Texans defense for 2010. Kubiak appears safe. Jack Del Rio? That could be another story.