Are these four teams playoff-worthy? We'll soon find out
Four teams -- the Jets, Broncos, Bucs and Vikings -- had chances to enhance their playoff positioning in Week 16 and choked. Will they bounce back in Week 17? Jeffri Chadiha examines the good and bad about each team.
The one important lesson we can take away from Week 16 is that uncertainty continues to rule the NFL. We started this season with plenty of questions about how good some teams really were, and it looks like we'll end the regular season in exactly the same way.
Sure, we can safely believe in a handful of dominant teams, including the Giants, Steelers, Titans and Panthers. But it takes plenty of guesswork to assess everybody else vying for a playoff spot.
Take four of the teams that had control of their own postseason destinies when Week 16 started: Minnesota, Denver, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. It seemed a safe bet that at least half those teams would separate themselves from the pack with a strong victory. Instead, all four lost and put their playoff hopes in doubt. Even more surprising was the fact that three of those teams -- the Vikings, Broncos and Bucs -- were at home.
That's why it's worth focusing on the playoff chances of those four teams. After all, it's too easy to take the time to dissect how they fell apart. The more interesting option is to determine whether they can bounce back from their setbacks and whether they ultimately deserve to be in the playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings (9-6, tied with Chicago for first place in the NFC North)
What's to like: The Vikings had been riding a four-game win streak until Atlanta beat them Sunday at home. Adrian Peterson has been an MVP candidate. The defense sent four players to the Pro Bowl (including defensive linemen Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Jared Allen), and the team has seen quarterback Tarvaris Jackson bounce back from a benching earlier this season (seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past three games).
What's not to like: For starters, the Vikings handled the football like it was a live grenade in that 24-17 loss to the Falcons (they fumbled seven times and lost four of those). Pat Williams has a broken right scapula that could keep him sidelined for up to a month, a huge blow to Minnesota's vaunted run defense. And oh yeah, there's always the possibility that Jackson could implode at any time (he did fumble three times in that Falcons loss).
What's going to happen: The Vikings will face a Giants team on Sunday that already has wrapped up the top seed in the NFC playoffs; normally, that would be a good thing. But the Giants will be playing their starters as if this game matters, and that probably won't bode well for Minnesota. That said, the Vikings rebounded from a 1-3 start this season. They still control their fate, and they'll respond to this latest challenge.
Denver Broncos (8-7, first place in the AFC West)
What's to like: Jay Cutler is a Pro Bowl quarterback. Brandon Marshall is a Pro Bowl wide receiver. Two rookies (offensive tackle Ryan Clady and wide receiver Eddie Royal) have been impressive. This team also has continued to produce plenty of points and yardage despite a slew of injuries at running back.
What's not to like: This team never was that good in the first place. The defense ranks among the worst in the NFL in most major categories, and the Broncos have four losses in their past five home games. When you drop that many games in your own backyard -- including a 30-23 decision in Week 16 to a Buffalo team that is going nowhere -- you have problems.
What's going to happen: If the Broncos believe in karma, they're in trouble as they head into their regular-season finale with San Diego, a game that will decide the AFC West. Denver beat the Chargers earlier this season because of a lousy call by referee Ed Hochuli at the end of that game. You can bet the Chargers have thought long and hard about how that mistake affected their season. You also can be certain San Diego will get its revenge Sunday night.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6, third place in the NFC South)
What's to like: This team still has a talented defense. The Bucs currently rank fifth in the NFL in pass defense (190.1 yards a game), seventh in scoring defense (19.5 points a game) and ninth in total defense (304.1 yards a game). They also have received huge production from wide receiver Antonio Bryant (80 receptions, 1,171 yards), while quarterback Jeff Garcia has done an admirable job of leading a team that could have been run by Brett Favre, had coach Jon Gruden gotten his way during the preseason.
What's not to like: It's still hard to figure out how this team scores points on a weekly basis. Bryant has been the only consistent big-play weapon, and nobody was expecting him to shine this season. The defense also could use more pressure from a line that did nothing to harass Philip Rivers in that 41-24 loss to San Diego in Week 16. A three-game losing streak ain't helping matters, either.
What's going to happen: The Bucs can at least be happy about their schedule. They face 4-11 Oakland on Sunday, and there's no way they can lose that one at home. The problem is Tampa needs a victory and help from elsewhere (specifically, a Philadelphia win over Dallas) to make the playoffs. The bottom line: The Bucs should start thinking about their vacations.
New York Jets (9-6, third place in the AFC East)
What's to like: This team can be pretty impressive when it's hitting its stride. Remember, the Jets' five-game winning streak earlier this season had people talking about a possible Jets-Giants Super Bowl. Favre gave this team leadership, but the running game -- led by Thomas Jones and a revamped offensive line -- is what helped this team become a contender.
What's not to like: It's been a long time since anybody talked about the Jets as a trendy Super Bowl pick. The reason? Try three losses in their past four games and an 0-4 record on the West Coast. Sure, long flights might explain letdowns in a couple of those games. But you simply can't be taken seriously when you lose to bottom-dwellers like Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle.
What's going to happen: This is another team that's going to learn a lesson in karma. The Jets were so eager to trade for Favre that they dumped former starter Chad Pennington as quickly as they could in August. Now Pennington is leading a Miami Dolphins team that can claim the AFC East crown with a win over the Jets on Sunday. You think he'll be fired up? So will his teammates, who will go from a one-win season in 2007 to division champs this year.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.