With the NFL's postseason tournament beginning in just one week and a full 10 games figuring in on playoff berths or positioning, consider Week 17 the mad scramble before the madness.
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.
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: