Must-Win Watch: Steelers, Seahawks clinging to final wild-card spots
The pretenders are about to start dropping like flies.
Thus far, only three teams have been eliminated from NFL playoff contention -- Oakland, Jacksonville and Kansas City. At least seven more could fall by the wayside in Week 14.
The AFC, in reality, has seven teams fighting for six spots, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati currently tied for the final wild-card berth. By contrast, the NFC is in utter chaos, with three divisions and five playoff spots up for grabs (Atlanta has clinched). Four teams sit one game behind Seattle for sixth there, with the 5-6-1 Rams technically one loss behind as well (though two wins back, due to their tie).
Which teams will be feeling the heat in Week 14? Here are a baker's dozen that need a victory ... some much worse than others:
• New England Patriots (9-3 vs. Houston): The Patriots are headed to the playoffs, will open at home and may even enjoy a first-round bye. If they are to land the AFC's top seed, though, they have to win Monday against the 11-1 Texans. A Houston win and the conference almost certainly will go through Texas en route to the Super Bowl. Desperation level (out of 10): 1.5
• San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1 vs. Miami): San Francisco's first appearance on our Must-Win Watch comes because the Seahawks are now just 1.5 games back in the division. The 49ers also have a very difficult road swing coming up -- at New England in Week 15, then at Seattle the next Sunday. Lose to Miami this week, and the 49ers might have to start worrying about simply getting into the playoffs. Desperation level: 3
• Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5 vs. San Diego); Cincinnati Bengals (7-5 vs. Dallas): Barring a dismal next two weeks from one of these teams, the Steelers and Bengals will head into a Week 16 matchup in Pittsburgh with the winner likely claiming a playoff spot.
But an added wrinkle to this race was added last week, when Pittsburgh upset Baltimore. The Steelers' surprising win dropped the Ravens to 9-3, leaving the door open ever so slightly in the AFC North race. A Baltimore loss in Washington this week could leave both the Steelers and Bengals just one game back with three games to play. Desperation level: 4
• Seattle Seahawks (7-5 vs. Arizona): The Seahawks did themselves a huge favor in Week 13, pulling off a dramatic overtime win in Chicago. Believe it or not, the Seahawks are nipping on the 49ers' heels in the NFC West, and they host their division rivals in two weeks. First thing's first: Seattle must take care of business at home (where it's 5-0 this season) to keep a step ahead of a bevy of 6-6 teams. Desperation level: 5
• New York Giants (7-5 vs. New Orleans): The Giants missed a chance to blow the NFC East open, instead losing to the Redskins. Now New York's division lead is down to one game -- and Big Blue heads to Atlanta and Baltimore after Sunday's game with the Saints, before finishing the season up against Philadelphia. A 10-6 mark is not out of the realm of possibilities for the Redskins. Can the Giants keep pace? Desperation level: 6
• Washington Redskins (6-6 vs. Baltimore): Why is Washington in better shape than the Cowboys? Well, aside from having a win in Dallas in their back pockets, the Redskins' final three opponents (including that same Dallas team) boast a combined record of 13-23. There is a definite buzz in the nation's capital right now, and the Redskins are in prime position to carry that excitement into the playoffs. Desperation level: 6.5
• Dallas Cowboys (6-6 at Cincinnati): The Cowboys are in the worst shape of the three NFC East teams with playoff life -- mathematically, the Eagles are not eliminated, but at this point, they're the division's version of the "I'm not dead" guy from Monty Python. Dallas does not have any games left with the Giants and lost at home to the Redskins (those teams play in Washington in Week 17).
You won't find a much tougher closing stretch than the one Dallas faces. After this Sunday trip to Cincinnati, the Cowboys host Pittsburgh and New Orleans, before wrapping up with that road rematch against the Redskins. Finishing 3-1 to stay in the hunt will be difficult; it would be downright improbable with a loss this week. Desperation level: 7
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6 vs. Philadelphia): Want to make the playoffs? Don't lose to the Eagles. Even though Philadelphia stepped up its game last week in Dallas, this remains a team in total flux. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back losses and, at 6-6, may need to win out to reach the playoffs. Considering the Bucs head to New Orleans next week and to Atlanta in Week 17, falling at home this Sunday could be a dagger. Desperation level: 8
• Minnesota Vikings (6-6 vs. Chicago): The wheels on the bus are falling off ...
Minnesota has lost four of its last five and learned this week that Percy Harvin would not return until 2013. Thanks to Seattle's win last Sunday, the Vikings also now sit a full game back in the wild-card race and play at Seattle, against Green Bay and at Houston, following their showdown with Chicago. It is hard to see this ending well. Desperation level: 9
• Every non-New England team in the AFC East: The Patriots have the division locked up, but Miami (at San Francisco), Buffalo (vs. St. Louis) and the Jets (at Jacksonville) all remain in the hunt for a wild-card spot. And all three, currently 5-7, probably need to win out to even be in the postseason discussion. Desperation level: Whatever the Jets' QB situation rates as