Posted December 16, 2011

NFL Week 15 storylines: Wild-card races going down to the wire

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No fewer than five teams still have wild-card dreams in the AFC. The number is six in the NFC, where the picture gets more jumbled by the week.

Atlanta took a huge step toward claiming one of the NFC’s two wild-card spots Thursday, with a dismantling of Jacksonville. But Detroit, currently holding the No. 6 seed, can see several teams lurking in the rear-view.

It’s the same situation for the Jets in the AFC. One of the conference’s wild-card positions will be taken by the AFC North’s second place finisher (Baltimore or Pittsburgh), leaving New York, Tennessee, Oakland, Cincinnati and San Diego to wrestle for the other position.

Will Week 15 settle anything or just make the situation even murkier? A glance at what to watch this NFL weekend:

Can Dallas regroup on a short week?

The Cowboys let a chance to take an NFC East stranglehold slip away last Sunday night in a crushing loss to the Giants. Between the prime-time game in Week 14 and a Saturday trip to Tampa Bay in Week 15, the schedule didn’t exactly do Dallas any favors.

The biggest games left for Dallas come after this one — against Philadelphia and at the Giants. So long as the Cowboys don’t slip up against the Eagles (and the Giants go at least 1-1 in Weeks 15 and 16), they would head into the season’s last week in a winner-takes-all situation in the division. But a loss to the reeling Bucs, who have lost seven in a row, would put Dallas out of the wild-card race and on the brink of a total collapse.

Desperate times for Seattle and Chicago

Whichever team winds up on the losing end of Sunday’s Seahawks-Bears game in the Windy City probably can start planning for next season. Seattle’s only hope is to win out — that would give the Seahawks the tiebreaker edge over Chicago, Detroit and Dallas, so 9-7 could get them into the postseason.

Chicago needs some help, too, as the Bears sit a full game back of Detroit and 1.5 games back of Atlanta in the wild-card chase. There are a host of tiebreaker scenarios that still have to play out, but as it stands right now, none of them are very friendly for Chicago.

Will Houston keep its foot on the gas?

The Texans wrapped up their first-ever division title and playoff bid last week. Is that enough to satisfy them for the regular season? Or will they keep pushing toward a first-round bye and, possibly, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs? The motivation factor will be key Sunday, as Houston welcomes Cam Newton and Carolina to town. The Panthers would love nothing more than to pull an upset, so the Texans cannot afford to take a week off.

• Packers face final road test of the season

Well, we’ll use the phrase “road test” tentatively, given that Green Bay’s opponent this week is a 5-8 Kansas City team that fired its coach just a few days ago.

Romeo Crennel will make his debut as the Chiefs’ interim coach Sunday, and all he faces is a 13-0 Packers team that’s rolling toward a perfect regular season. Crennel will turn to Kyle Orton, whom Kansas City claimed off the waiver wire in late November.

Green Bay, meanwhile, is weighing the pursuit of 16-0 vs. keeping everyone healthy for the postseason. The Packers already lost Greg Jennings for at least a couple of weeks to a knee injury — they don’t want to add any other names to their injury list. If they can get through this one with a win, though, all that stands between them and perfection are home games with the Bears and Lions.

• Ndamukong Suh returns for a key game in Oakland

The Detroit Lions are back in control of their playoff destiny after surviving a Week 14 upset bid by the Vikings. They’re getting a big boost Sunday, too, as Ndamukong Suh will take the field for the first time since being suspended after Thanksgiving. How much Suh and his fellow Detroit D-linemen pressure Oakland QB Carson Palmer will go a long way toward deciding this one. Both the Lions and Raiders can ill afford a loss.

• “Tebow Time” meets Tom Brady

In what has to be one of the more anticipated games of the NFL’s regular season, New England travels to Denver Sunday afternoon for a crucial  showdown. The Patriots are on the verge of clinching the AFC East, while the Broncos, amazingly, are inching closer to doing the same in the AFC West.

How will Denver’s stellar defense deal with Brady and the potent New England offense? Will Tebow attack the Patriots’ league-worst pass defense through the air? What tricks does Bill Belichick have up his sleeve?

This one should be fascinating to watch, and a Denver win would make the Legend of Tebow grow to unimaginable proportions.

Jets hope to maintain momentum in Philadelphia

Thanks to three straight wins — and the general malaise of the rest of the AFC’s wild-card contenders — the Jets are back in playoff position. But a closing stretch that features road trips to Philadelphia and Miami, plus a home game against the Giants won’t make New York’s postseason quest all that easy to attain.

Sunday’s game against the Eagles looks dangerous, especially with Philadelphia rolling into Miami and routing the Dolphins last week.

Is it time for another San Diego surge?

In what’s become almost an annual event, the Chargers are playing their best football late in the season. However, facing a two-game deficit in the AFC West, it all may be too little, too late. San Diego could still claim a wild-card berth at 9-7, but first thing’s first: The Chargers must beat Baltimore Sunday night.

The Ravens have their own reasons for wanting a prime-time win. The AFC North leaders can claim the conference’s top playoff seed simply by winning out. But one slip-up, with the Steelers breathing down their necks, could drop Baltimore from a potential No. 1 spot all the way down to No. 5.

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty on the line Sunday night in San Diego.

What’s the status of Big Ben?

Speaking of the Steelers …

They’re on the road Monday night in a marquee matchup against the 49ers. But the game — and Pittsburgh’s chances of winning — could take a big hit if Ben Roethlisberger can’t play, a week after suffering a brutal ankle injury against Cleveland.

Either way, Pittsburgh’s defense will have to carry the load, which might be just fineSan Francisco quarterback Alex Smith has struggled over the past couple of weeks, and even with James Harrison suspended, the Steelers have the personnel and scheme to give him fits.

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