Winner needs help to make playoffs

A playoff spot is on the line -- maybe -- when the Saints and Panthers square off on Sunday.

Originally Published: December 29, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 17.

First … New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: Seven of the eight division titles have been wrapped up, so coaches face the tough choice of "playing to win" or treating this weekend's games as an exhibition to save their top players for the playoffs.

That's not the case with the Panthers and the Saints. Weeks ago, both teams were given up for dead. The Panthers were in San Francisco with a 1-7 record trailing the 49ers, 17-3, at halftime. The Saints were 4-8 and reporters were scrambling to see if coach Jim Haslett would lose his job.

Unlike a good portion of Sunday's unusual schedule when every single one of the 32 teams are in play, the Panthers-Saints game is a battle for a wild-card spot. Or so they think. The winner would be at 8-8, but still might not know its playoff fate until later in the day (complete playoff scenarios).

Still, when the ball sails into the air Sunday a little after 1 p.m. ET, both the Saints and Panthers will be playing for three hours knowing that basically their only shot to get into the postseason is to win.

However, even if neither team makes it, the pursuit of a playoff spot over the last month-plus was beneficial to both. The Panthers learned how to fight through adversity. They had lost 14 players to the injured reserve list, including nine since the beginning of the season. They lost four halfbacks, including featured backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. They lost their best playmaking receiver, Steve Smith. They lost their most dominating defensive player, tackle Kris Jenkins.

But coach John Fox has a formula for winning. He runs the ball and keeps extra blockers in on passing plays to protect quarterback Jake Delhomme. His defense plays hard. Despite the losses on offense, Fox never deviated from his plan and the team started to win.

Nick Goings
Nick Goings has been a big contributor to the Panthers' success.
Nick Goings has done the dirty work in the running game. Delhomme continues to evolve as the NFC's least appreciated quarterback. He's completed 59.2 percent of his passes and has 27 touchdowns. He's also connected with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad for a number of big plays. Muhammad, headed to the Pro Bowl, has 87 catches for 1,310 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The offensive line has been patched. The team doesn't have much of a threat at tight end. But it has tenacity.

Tenacity wasn't the word being associated with the Saints during the first part of the season. They underachieved. Haslett had trouble figuring out ways to get this talented team to reach its potential.

Finally, things are coming together. The defense is playing better during the team's three-game winning streak. Deuce McAllister is hot again and needs only 66 yards to top 1,000. Aaron Brooks is finally having the December everyone has been waiting for.

There is no guarantee that either of these teams will be making the playoffs. Still, the winner will feel as though the stretch run could carry momentum into next season. This game is their playoffs.

And 10. New York Jets at St. Louis Rams: Coach Mike Martz is complaining that the Edward Jones turf is too hard and is becoming dangerous to the players. That's just adding to the tension that already exists going into this game. Both teams face the possibility of missing the playoffs. The Jets need a win to make life easy and clinch the AFC's No. 5 seed. But a loss could cause them to miss the playoffs because of tiebreakers and face an incredible collapse from a 5-0 start. Even if the Rams win, they could fall short if the Seahawks beat the Falcons because they lost to the Saints and Panthers. There is a lot of heat going into this one. Critics are ganging up on Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, whose contract expires after this season. Last week, they took apart quarterback Chad Pennington, who's still struggling as a result of the shoulder injury that sidelined him this season. The Rams have their own powder kegs. There is the Kyle Turley incident in which he became heated over Martz's comments and was bounced from the facility. Martz hasn't reacted well to question about his job being in jeopardy. His job is secure, but the Rams' playoff position isn't. The Rams have halfback Steven Jackson with a banged up knee, but he plans to play. The Jets won't have defensive end John Abraham because of a knee injury. This one should be wild.

9. Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks: Coach Jim Mora didn't like what he saw of his Falcons during a 26-13 loss to the Saints last week. He rested injured starters, including Michael Vick, T.J. Duckett and Alge Crumpler, and didn't like the feel of losing. So, he says he'll play all his starters and will try to play to win against the Seahawks. Vick, of course, better not get hurt because this game is nothing more than a preseason contest for the Falcons. The Falcons have the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye and that's not going to change. Still, Mora wants some momentum heading into the playoffs. He wants Vick to try some things on offense. The Seahawks, meanwhile, know they are in the playoffs, but it's vital for them to win to secure a home game. They will know whether they have to win before kickoff because if the Rams lose, the NFC West title belongs to the Seahawks no matter what. It could be a preseason type game for them, too, and that wouldn't be bad because of a long list of injuries. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck missed last Sunday's game against Arizona because of an elbow injury but he plans to return. Shaun Alexander, who has 1,616 rushing yards, will try to wrap up the league's rushing title.

8. Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos: The Broncos, like the Jets, control their own destiny and would clinch a playoff spot with a win. What they don't know is what to expect from the Colts. Coach Tony Dungy says the Colts will play their starters, but no one can say how long. The Colts have secured the third seed in the AFC, start the playoffs the following week and might have to play the Broncos. First, do the Colts want to show the Broncos a lot in a meaningless game like this? Probably not. Second, it would seem implausible for quarterback Peyton Manning to play too much in the second half and risk injury. The Colts already have a long list of injured players they won't use in this game. The Broncos plan to pound the ball with their running game and hope that Jake Plummer continues to provide good leadership. Plummer was great last week against the Titans. He's thrown 20 interceptions this season, but also has 25 touchdown passes and has only been sacked 14 times. The Broncos defense could also get a boost if defensive end Trevor Pryce can play a little, though he may only be used in pass-rushing situations. Pryce has gained back some of the strength from his early-season back surgery. This could be a good test to see how effective he could be during the playoffs. Pryce, when healthy, is one of the league's most dominating defensive linemen and could give the Broncos much needed strength in their four-man rush. That has been missing all season.

Ben Roethlisberger
Quarterback
Pittsburgh Steelers
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
295 196 17 1 11 98.1
7. Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills: Steelers coach Bill Cowher and Bills general manager Tom Donahoe didn't part on great terms when Donahoe was let go by the Steelers years ago. Donahoe naturally was bitter. He's a Pittsburgh guy who had to go to Buffalo to work and now he has the Bills on the verge of making the playoffs. Cowher would love to win this game and prevent the Bills from being a playoff team, but he can't risk losing players to injury. He has home-field advantage through the playoffs and has an extra week to get players healthy. Ben Roethlisberger is expected to miss the game with a rib injury, and Jerome Bettis probably won't play because of a sore ankle. In some ways, this is a perfect game for the Steelers. They can get back some of their injured players, including cornerback Chad Scott, halfback Duce Staley and linebacker Kendrell Bell. There is no pressure on the Steelers so those banged up players can test themselves in a playoff-caliber game and get focused on the playoffs. Former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has turned around the Bills with an offense that is one of the hottest in the league. The recent hot run by rookie wide receiver Lee Evans is opening up big plays for the running game and the passing game and could make the Bills a dangerous playoff team if they qualify.

6. Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins: Even though they are on the road for a game they need to win, the Vikings received a break. Halfback Clinton Portis, linebacker LaVar Arrington and possibly cornerback Fred Smoot will miss the game because of injuries. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs bases his offense around the running game first and tries to make it easier for throws for the quarterback, who is forced to make a lot of tough adjustment calls at the line of scrimmage. The interesting battle will be the Redskins aggressive blitzing packages against Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper plays well against the blitzes, and few in the league have as many big-play type receivers. The Vikings need a win to secure a wild-card berth. Even though coach Mike Tice doesn't have job worries for next year, the Vikings need to win this game and end the stigma of not making the playoffs that started last year. A year ago, they lost a chance to go to the playoff because of a last-second play against the Cardinals, a team with a losing record. The Redskins are a more talented team than that Cardinals teams, so this game might be tougher. It's important that Vikings win it.

5. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers: For the rest of the league, it's a good thing that the Chiefs started so poorly. Their offense is on fire and nobody wants to face them. They are scoring 31.1 points a game, and Trent Green can't be stopped no matter how many receivers are missing from the offense. They are running the ball well with Larry Johnson. The great part about this game is the matchup of tight ends Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs and Antonio Gates of the Chargers. Gates set the tight end touchdown record with 13. Gonzalez has 88 catches and needs 12 to get to 100. The Chiefs want to win this game to get to 8-8 and set up momentum for next season. A victory ends any chance of Dick Vermeil retiring, but those thoughts pretty much ended when the Chiefs went on their four-game winning streak. Vermeil is already making plans for next season, and a victory to end the season will make the offseason that much better. The Chargers don't have anything to lose or gain with this game. They are the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs and probably have the Saturday game next week to open things up.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars at Oakland Raiders: The Jaguars blew it last week. They lost to the Texans, 21-0, and put themselves on the outside looking in for the playoffs. The Jags need the Bills and Broncos to lose to have any chance of making the playoffs. They will know by kickoff whether or not they will have a chance to play. It's more than likely they will be eliminated from the playoffs before they have their first offensive play. Fred Taylor's absence last week was huge. His knee was too sore to play and even if he did, he would have had to have worn a brace. Byron Leftwich suffered a concussion last week and wasn't himself. Face it, the Jaguars have had a great season. Coach Jack Del Rio got just about all that he could out of them. To be 8-7 was a great accomplishment, but their playoff run is more set for next year. Owner Wayne Weaver has to worry a little about LSU, who would love nothing better than to replace Nick Saban with Del Rio. Del Rio has three years left on his contract but LSU would offer more money than he's currently making. No meetings are scheduled, but the thought of LSU lurking around could be a distraction for the Jaguars.

Brett Favre
Quarterback
Green Bay Packers
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
527 337 28 0 17 90.4
3. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears: In some ways, the Packers have their first game in a long time that doesn't have much pressure. For two years, they've gotten off to slow starts and had to scramble to make the playoffs. The third seed is locked up. The pressure is off. All the team needs to do is get ready for the playoffs. That might give Brett Favre a break. Though he will start, Favre might get a break after the half. Sure, the Packers would love to avenge an early-season loss to the Bears in Green Bay, but it's not that important. Being healthy for the playoffs is important. The Bears have the league's worst offense. Their 238 yards of offense a game is 31.5 yards worse than the next closest team. They are scoring only 14.5 points a game. Home field doesn't mean much to the Bears, either. The Bears have won more games on the road (three) than at home (two).

2. Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens: Although they are still mathematically in the race, the Ravens basically let their playoff chances slip away last week. Talk about an offense that needs an overhaul. Poor Kyle Boller has been forced to do his best with a skeleton crew at wide receiver. Coach Brian Billick usually only keeps three wide receivers active, and none of them consistently catch the ball. Jamal Lewis' sore ankle has taken away the strength of the offense. And the Ravens defense seems to be suffering the longer the game goes without much offensive support. The Ravens are a playoff-caliber team that simply lost out because of the lack of talent at wide receiver. The Dolphins want to give interim coach Jim Bates a good going away present. The players like Bates. Some wanted him to be their head coach, but those thoughts ended when Nick Saban was hired last Saturday. Bates is leaning against staying as defensive coordinator and working for Saban, so this is probably his last game with the Dolphins.

1. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: Talk about two teams going in different directions. Coach Bill Parcells can't shake the thought of what his offense would look like without Vinny Testaverde. He's already gone on the record saying he needs another running back. He's not sure if Testaverde will be back next season, and who knows about Drew Henson. He seems to be about as buried as Chad Hutchinson was a year ago in Dallas. The Giants are getting better play from quarterback Eli Manning and worse play from the veterans on offense and defense. There is no speed at wide receiver and players are grumbling about playing for coach Tom Coughlin. No wonder. They are on an eight-game losing streak. That's two straight years of long losing streaks by the Giants. Even owner Wellington Mara is wondering what's going on.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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