Pack of teams, including the Ravens, vies for final NFL playoff spots

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

It is the time of the year for scoreboard-watching in NFL stadiums, with the playoffs nearing and the postseason possibilities for so many teams dependent on how games are going in faraway cities. The pastime apparently is not limited to fans in the stands. Even the starting quarterback participates, in some cases.

"If you are looking up at it, you're going to catch them," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said after his team's triumph over the Chicago Bears last Sunday in snowy Baltimore. "So obviously as a player and a fan, you see the scores. And what happens, happens."

This NFL season has been, in some ways, unusual for its lack of parity. The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints became the first teams ever to start 13-0 in the same season. But the Saints' chase for an unbeaten season has ended and now, with two Sundays remaining in the regular season, the mad scramble is on as clubs try to claim the remaining available postseason spots.

Two of the six playoff spots remain up for grabs in the NFC, and the Saints have yet to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after losing to the Dallas Cowboys last Saturday. Things are crazier in the AFC, where four of the six postseason berths have yet to be wrapped up. The Colts have secured the top playoff seed, but there remains plenty of intrigue in the conference's wild-card chase, in which five 7-7 teams are chasing two 8-6 clubs, the Ravens and Denver Broncos.

The Ravens won a lopsided game last Sunday in the aftermath of the huge snowstorm that pummeled the East Coast and kept the Bears from getting into Baltimore until late Saturday night. That wasn't the only good fortune of the weekend for the Ravens, whose closest postseason competitors were so busy losing that Flacco and his teammates suddenly found themselves in the AFC's top wild-card slot and needing only to win their final two games to ensure themselves of a postseason berth.

But that won't necessarily be easy and it begins Sunday with a road game in Pittsburgh against the defending Super Bowl champions, who are among the AFC's 7-7 teams that are trying desperately to move into playoff position. Flacco said the Ravens must keep in mind the most important part of the scoreboard-watching ritual: What happens elsewhere is secondary to a team taking care of its own on-field business.

"We need to win games, anyway," Flacco said. "It doesn't matter."

The one team that doesn't necessarily need to win any more games, at least during the regular season, is the Colts. They're two victories from joining the 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season. Jim Caldwell, their rookie head coach, has yet to lose a game.

Yet the Colts have made it clear that chasing a Super Bowl triumph is far more important to them than chasing history, and it was a bit of an upset when Caldwell kept front-line players such as quarterback Peyton Manning, tailback Joseph Addai, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the field nine days ago in Jacksonville throughout a narrow win over the Jaguars.

The Colts host the New York Jets, another of the AFC's 7-7 clubs, on Sunday. Jets Coach Rex Ryan began a midweek news conference by saying he would start with the injury report, then announcing that Manning, Clark, Addai, Wayne, Freeney, Mathis and Gary Brackett, the Colts' middle linebacker, wouldn't play Sunday.

"Oh, hold up," Ryan said. "That was my wish list for Santa Claus."

Caldwell said early in the week that his lineup decisions would be based on players' health, just as he said in the days leading up to the Jacksonville game.

Caldwell also said at a news conference this week: "We're gonna prepare the same way we've been preparing all along. I think that's a very, very important part of what we do. I think that's why our guys have been able to stay sharp and function and stay focused and keep our edge, I think, and that's not going to change."

There's no such decision to be made by Saints Coach Sean Payton, with his team 13-1 and being pursued by the Minnesota Vikings, who are 11-3, for the NFC's top playoff seed. The two top NFC contenders looked imposing for much of the season, but both lost last weekend and suddenly seem a bit wobbly.

In Minnesota, there was talk of friction between Coach Brad Childress and veteran quarterback Brett Favre after Childress considered removing Favre from last Sunday night's loss at Carolina because of the punishing hits that Favre was absorbing. There were reports during the week of Childress considering taking Favre out of games earlier in the season because of Favre's propensity to change running plays to passing plays with audibles.

The Saints, too, look vulnerable after falling far behind the Cowboys last Saturday and then failing to complete a late comeback. The Saints get a chance to right themselves by hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 2-12, at the Superdome.

"There's no judicious about it," Saints Coach Sean Payton said at a midweek news conference. "We're playing full speed to win. We have a lot to play for still, to give ourselves the best opportunity in the postseason, and that would be to get the [number] one seed. That's the focus we're taking."

Things are a bit more orderly in the NFC than in the AFC with the Giants, who are 8-6, trying to catch the wild-card-leading Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, both at 9-5. The Giants, coming off Monday night's convincing victory over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, host the Panthers on Sunday in their final scheduled game at Giants Stadium. They and the Jets move into a new stadium next season.

"This is a huge game for us," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said during the week. "The last one was big. We knew coming into these last three games that they are all going to be important. We need to win all of them. Carolina is playing well. . . . We have to keep playing with the same energy and go out there and play our best game."

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