NFL playoff picture: NFC East, postseason spot for Tim Tebow, records up for grabs

December 30, 2011

The NFL’s regular season wraps up Sunday with three playoff spots, postseason positioning and portions of the record book at stake.

The New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys play a winner-take-all game in the Meadowlands for the NFC East title. Tim Tebow tries to add a triumphant chapter to one of the sport’s leading story lines of the season with his bid to get the Denver Broncos into the postseason. Fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees of New Orleans, Tom Brady of New England and perhaps Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay get their final shots to rewrite history in what might be the sport’s most passing-friendly season.

The day ends with the Cowboys and Giants squaring off at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in the Sunday night game. The winner will capture the division title and host a first-round NFC playoff game next weekend. The loser will miss the playoffs.

“These are situations that you want to be in — at the end of the season, a chance to make the playoffs, win one game and you’re in the playoffs,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said at a midweek news conference.

The two teams are only three weeks removed from a Sunday night game in Arlington, Tex., in which the Giants rallied from a 12-point deficit in the game’s final six minutes to beat the Cowboys, 37-34. Manning led the Giants to two late touchdowns and the Cowboys had a would-be game-tying field goal try blocked in the final seconds.

Manning threw for 400 yards and wasn’t sacked in the game against the Cowboys. But he has struggled in the two games since, totaling one touchdown pass and four interceptions. The Giants followed their triumph in Dallas with a loss to the Washington Redskins but rebounded to beat the New York Jets last weekend.

The Cowboys are coming off a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which quarterback Tony Romo suffered a bruised throwing hand. Some continue to question Romo’s reliability in big games. But no one questions his toughness after he played earlier this season with a fractured rib. Romo said he expects this injury to be less burdensome on his play.

“I think when you play quarterback in the National Football League, you have to understand that you are going to have bumps and bruises throughout the way,” Romo said during a conference call with reporters. “Every week is important and you just have to go out and play.”

The Broncos have lost consecutive games after winning seven of Tebow’s first eight starts of the season. Tebow is coming off a three-interception performance in last weekend’s lopsided defeat to the Buffalo Bills — a fourth interception was later ruled to be a lost fumble instead — but he and the Broncos still can win the AFC West with a triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos are tied with the Oakland Raiders but hold the tiebreaker edge.

Tebow faces the quarterback he backed up earlier this season—Kyle Orton, who was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs after being released by the Broncos.

“Ultimately it’s why you play the game, to be in big situations with the awesome fan base behind you, which we’ll have on Sunday,” Tebow said. “It’ll be a rocking atmosphere and we’re going to be very excited as well.”

A wild-card playoff spot in the AFC also remains up for grabs Sunday, with the Cincinnati Bengals needing a victory at home over the Baltimore Ravens to secure it. There are playoff seeds to be determined as well. The Patriots can clinch the AFC’s top seed with a triumph over the Bills.

Brees already has broken Dan Marino’s 27-year-old NFL record for passing yards in a season, and he currently owns two of the three 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history. But Brady is only 103 yards from 5,000 and still could pass Brees’s newly established record. Rodgers is 357 yards from 5,000 and Manning is 413 yards shy.

It’s unclear how much Rodgers will play Sunday, with the Packers already the top seed in the NFC playoffs. His current passer rating of 122.5 is ahead of Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 121.1. Brees is completing 70.7 percent of his passes, ahead of his own NFL record of 70.62 percent in 2009.

And it’s not only the quarterbacks: Minnesota’s Jared Allen is four sacks away from Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22 1/2. Philadelphia’s Jason Babin and the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware are each 4 1/2 sacks from Strahan’s mark.

Brady said his focus Sunday won’t be on record-chasing.

“You don’t think about touchdowns or yards,” Brady said. “What I like to think about is our offensive production and if we’re getting the ball in the end zone, if we’re winning games, if we’re building on our performance week to week, if we’re getting better over the course of the season.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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