N.F.L.’s Playoff Chases

When the N.F.L. backloaded its schedule to ensure that even the most dominant teams would play meaningful games in December, it had weekends like this one in its sights. WithNFL Team nine games between division opponents, including Monday night’s showdown between the Jets and the New England Patriots, and with no division led by more than one game entering Sunday, the N.F.L. had the late-season tension it craved.

What it did not expect was that the muses who inspired the scheduling shift have struggled so much that it was a nonconference game that had the season-hanging-in-the-balance feel. The Indianapolis Colts — whose late-year rest for Peyton Manning in previous years provoked ire among fans and league executives alike — lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 38-35, in overtime. He threw four interceptions, the last of which set up the winning field goal.

The Colts may not have to worry about Manning being hurt before the playoffs this year, because they might not be going at all. The loss dropped the Colts one game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in the A.F.C. South — the Jaguars buried the Titans behind a 258-57 edge in rushing yards — and put them in a precarious spot. At 6-6, the Colts will probably have to win the division to get into the playoffs, because with only four weeks to go, it seems likely that the A.F.C. wild-card teams will be the Ravens, who lost to the Steelers on Sunday night, and the loser of the Jets-Patriots game.

Strangely, Manning — who has had four interceptions returned for touchdowns in the last two weeks, including two Sunday — found himself vowing not to get gun-shy when the Colts play the Titans on Thursday night and insisting that he does not have an injury that might be contributing to his uncharacteristic slump.

“I really don’t have a great explanation,” he said. “I made poor decisions, poor throws. They’ve been very costly. To put our team in the hole, I don’t make any excuses. I’ll keep throwing. I hope I throw it to our guys.”

This was the first time since 2000, the N.F.L. said, that the league entered Week 13 with no chance for a team to clinch even a wild-card spot. And only one team built on its lead Sunday. The Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) beat the Denver Broncos, 10-6, and after the Chargers’ 28-13 belly-flop in their powder blue throwback uniforms against the Raiders, the Chiefs’ lead in the A.F.C. West is now two games. Kansas City has a chance to extend it further in what could be an elimination game against the Chargers next Sunday.

The Chiefs’ victory was far from resounding — the game came down to the last play — but little about the N.F.L. has been definitive this season. The Chargers, after all, had not lost in the month of December for 18 straight games until being physically overwhelmed by the wildly erratic Raiders, who are tied with the Chargers for second at 6-6 and are 4-0 in the A.F.C. West. The Chargers seem to go through topsy-turvy runs almost every year, and Coach Norv Turner sought to play down how critical Sunday’s results were.

“It’s one game we lost,” Turner said after the game. “I told them in the locker room, we have an opportunity to play a game next week, and we’ll do everything we can to get ready for Kansas City.”

The N.F.C. is even harder to forecast. Every division remained exactly as it was when the day started, with the top two teams in each division winning. The Cincinnati Bengals bungled a chance to upset the New Orleans Saints, but the Atlanta Falcons retained a one-game lead with a come-from-behind victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs (7-5) are fading in the playoff picture after two straight losses and have still not beaten a team with a winning record.

But the Falcons (10-2) and the Chicago Bears (9-3) are making statements about their playoff readiness. They would be the top two seeds in the N.F.C., although the Bears had a tougher-than-expected victory over the Detroit Lions, proving that even for a team that has won five in a row, the lowliest of division rivals could provide a roadblock on the playoff path. Last spring, that was exactly the sort of uneasiness the N.F.L. wanted to create for December.

“I think every game we’ve played has been difficult,” Bears Coach Lovie Smith said. “There’s parity in the league. They had New England down, 14-3, the last time they played. You look around the league today, there aren’t any runaway games or anything like that. You’ve got to go into every game, respect an opponent, and just assume that it’ll be a dogfight.”

EXTRA POINTS

The N.F.L. Players Association will probably file a collusion charge against team owners this week. The union has been gathering information for the case, and is expected to accuse owners — it is unclear how many will be named — of conspiring to depress player salaries and movement in this uncapped season. Because of the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, the number of unrestricted free agents was severely slashed last off-season, and the union has been concerned that owners engaged in a concerted effort to slow the market further. The deadline for a case to be filed is Thursday. A collusion charge would be seen as another volley in the public-relations campaign linked to the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. But the sides met again last Friday.

Published by: JUDY BATTISTA

 

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