Playoff spots, jobs on the line in Week 17

The Giants may not be playing for only a playoff berth; they may be playing to save Tom Coughlin's job. That's just one of the intriguing subplots of Week 17, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: December 28, 2006
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "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 York Giants at Washington Redskins

Something Wild
Only the Broncos and Jets control their own playoff destiny. Win and they're in as wild-card teams. So what needs to happen for the rest of the wild-card contenders? Here's the breakdown. Wild card scenarios
Tom Coughlin sits on the hottest seat in the NFL.

With one week to go, he demoted offensive coordinator John Hufnagel, giving Kevin Gilbride the chance to turn around struggling quarterback Eli Manning. That's the ultimate sign that Coughlin knows his job is on the line. If the Giants beat the Redskins Saturday, he has a fighting chance to keep his job. If not, well, the internal politics begin.

The Giants have lost six of their last seven games and Manning has regressed. Considering the organization traded what have turned out to be three Pro Bowl players to get Manning, Giants ownership might not look favorably on Coughlin. The Giants could try a Hail Mary and go after Notre Dame's Charlie Weis or look around the NFL at a top offensive head coach candidate.

The last thing in the world the Giants need is a coaching change, though. Coughlin is disciplined and produces winners. With Manning struggling at the end of last season, Coughlin captured the NFC East title in his second year with the Giants.

Tom Coughlin
Rich Kane/US PresswireNew York Giants coach Tom Coughlin may need a win to save his job.
Coughlin will always have the ownership support of John Mara, and that will help. But getting into the playoffs and maybe winning a game would help even more. The challenge starts against a Redskins team that is trying to find its way with Jason Campbell at quarterback.

Campbell is 2-4 as a starter, but the Redskins have been in every one of the games. Their biggest loss since he replaced Mark Brunell was by 10 points. Week by week, Campbell is showing progress.

Coughlin wishes he could say the same thing about Manning. No one can figure out why Manning has hit this midseason funk. It goes beyond the injuries to wide receiver Amani Toomer and left tackle Luke Petitgout.

Earlier this year, Manning made great strides in improving his short passes. He's always been pretty good on the long throws. But the short passes improve one's completion percentage, and Manning is barely over 51 percent during this seven-game stretch.

Manning needs to cross the 60 percent completion mark this season, but he's dropped to 58.3 because of this seven-game slump. His quarterback rating is 77.4.

The pressure is on. If the Giants lose, the odds of all the other wild-card contenders losing and allowing New York to back into the playoffs are slim. So Tiki Barber might be playing his last game. General manager Ernie Accorsi could be pulling out of the office for the final time on Monday. Making the playoffs at 8-8 might not have been what was in mind early in the season, but a win against the Redskins all but assures the Giants a spot in the playoffs. And right now, that sounds pretty good to them.

And 10. Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
Jim Mora may not have as much luck as Tom Coughlin. At least Coughlin has a fighting chance of keeping his job if the Giants win and get into the playoffs. If that happens, though, the Falcons are playing for nothing Sunday, leaving Mora only with a chance to salvage an 8-8 season. Will that save his job? Probably not. Weeks ago, owner Arthur Blank said 8-8 was not what he had in mind for the Falcons. Mora read a list of the good things he's done since being with the Falcons. In three years, the Falcons have won more division games than any other team in the NFC South. He's been to an NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. But Blank wants more, so Mora could be coaching his final Falcons game in the same city where he also coached the biggest game of his career. The Eagles can clinch the NFC East with a victory. What an amazing story. Since the loss of quarterback Donovan McNabb to a knee injury, the Eagles have followed a balanced offense and great leadership by Jeff Garcia to win four of five games. They are arguably the hottest team in the NFC. No one expected them to sweep their three consecutive NFC East road games with Garcia at the helm. By beating the Cowboys Saturday, the Eagles clinched at least a playoff berth. Against the Falcons, the Eagles can seal up another division championship. Think about this. The rest of the division brought in Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin to wrestle the NFC East away from Andy Reid. Now, in the most unlikely year, the Eagles could end up back on top. Amazing.

9. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears

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Green Bay Packers

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
571 322 3475 17 17 72.9
If the Giants lose Saturday night, NBC made the best gamble of the week moving the NFC wild-card drama to Sunday night. Although drama for an 8-8 playoff team might not be the right word. This is the NFC after all. NBC went for the double billing. It could mean a playoff trip for the Packers, or it could be Brett Favre's last game. Of course, it could be neither. Everyone expects Favre to return next season, so don't throw any going-away parties yet. At 7-8, the Packers have bounced back to a small degree. Sure, they had an easy schedule. The reason they would lose the tiebreaker to the Giants for the last wild-card spot is strength of victory. The Giants are 2-8 against teams with winning records. The Packers are 0-6. The Packers have won games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .314. Lovie Smith wants to treat this like a normal game, figuring the Bears were a little flat entering the playoffs last year after sitting players. Rex Grossman might play only a half, and Smith will be quick to sit or remove players who show any sign of injury.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals lost control of their playoff destiny like Brad St. Louis lost control of that extra point snap in the final seconds of Sunday's loss to the Broncos. Now, to reach the playoffs, the Bengals need to beat the Steelers and have either the Jets lose or have Denver lose and Kansas City win. The Bengals entered the season tied with the Giants for the league's toughest schedule. They paid a price. Their offensive line has been patched with young players all year. The defense rebounded in the second half of the season, but the Bengals didn't get many breaks in the schedule. They were 3-5 against teams with winning records. Last year, they were 3-4. That one extra loss was the difference in being a wild-card or a non-playoff team. Still, Marvin Lewis did great things with this season. To think Carson Palmer could be so effective coming off a January knee injury is amazing. Odell Thurman's drug suspension hurt. Lewis dealt with numerous injuries at the linebacking corps and battled problems in the secondary. Still, because of Lewis and Palmer, the Bengals are playoff contenders for years to come. But this season, they need a break to get in.

7. New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans
Bill Belichick can't go all out on this game because it's not out of the question he has to come back the following Saturday and play a wild-card game. So those who start for the Patriots might not finish the game. The Titans, meanwhile, are all about the finish. Vince Young is red hot. He's 8-4 as a starter and the Titans have won six straight. Making the playoffs will be tough because the Titans are pretty far down as far as the tiebreakers, but Young could lock up Offensive Rookie of the Year with a victory. The good news is this is a home game for the Titans. The winning streak started with Young missing the team plane to Philadelphia and having to buy his own ticket. Travis Henry missed last week's flight to Buffalo and had to pay his own airfare. At home, all these players have to do is be on time for meetings and if they're a little late, at least they won't have to buy a plane ticket.

6. San Francisco 49ers at Denver Broncos

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Denver Broncos

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
105 60 703 8 4 89.8
Oh, here's a surprise. Snow is expected in Colorado. More than two feet of snow was dumped in the Denver area last week, and they are talking about a similar pounding Friday. By game time, the major roads should be fine, but some fans still might be waiting for the snow plows to open the residential streets. I'm still trying to figure out how I got my rental car out of one snow drift Sunday -- my thanks to the three joggers, two drivers who stopped and one television director who pushed me out. Getting to the game, the Broncos should have no trouble with this one. If they win, they lock up the No. 5 seed. They should win. Jay Cutler looks like the real deal at quarterback. The 49ers are just running out of bodies because of injuries, a thin defense and Antonio Bryant's four-game suspension.

5. Oakland Raiders at New York Jets
Forgive me for including the Raiders in First and 10, but it was a mandate. The Jets need to beat the Raiders to get into the playoffs. That makes it an important game for historical purposes. As a consolation, I omitted the Lions-Cowboys game because the Lions don't deserve First and 10 consideration. As for the Raiders, first and 10 is usually two plays before Shane Lechler is called on to punt. Fill in those two plays with either a sack or an interception. The Jets' biggest task was going down to Miami and getting a victory against a stingy Dolphins defense. The rain made it harder, but the Jets got over the hump and now have a chance to claim their 10th victory and a playoff berth. Chad Pennington has held up all season as the quarterback after coming back from two major shoulder surgeries. He should be the Comeback Player of the Year. Eric Mangini has proven to be a bright, creative coach who defied the odds to win nine games. He has the easiest path to clinch a playoff spot. He faces the Raiders.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs
This is a pretty good game most likely made meaningless by the outcomes of other games. Both teams can be eliminated from playoff contention no matter what the outcome of this game is. The Jaguars and Chiefs each have good running games, and the winner will finish the season at 9-7. While the winner will have a look and feel of a wild-card team, it will probably have to be content with the consolation prize of finishing with a winning record. The Chiefs missed the playoffs on tiebreakers last season after finishing 10-6. This year, Herman Edwards turned the offense into more of a power running attack and greatly improved the defense. But while the defense improved from No. 25 in the NFL last season to No. 15 this season, the offense slipped from No. 1 in 2005 to No. 16 in 2006. The killer for the Chiefs was a road loss to the Browns in Week 13. No one saw that coming. A home loss to the Chargers in Week 15 also hurt. The Chiefs just don't lose at home in December very often. This game will likely be more about pride than the playoffs.

3. Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
John Fox has his fingers crossed. First, he needs the Redskins to beat the Giants on Saturday to make Sunday's game meaningful. If that happens, Fox will go to work and try to get the Panthers to 8-8 and hope the Packers lose Sunday night to the Bears. Jake Delhomme should be back after missing three games with a torn right thumb ligament. It's been a disappointing year for the Panthers. They lost two starting offensive linemen in the opener and never got their running game going. They seem to have lost a little of their physical personality on offense. The Panthers probably need to add a pass-catching threat at tight end during the offseason and get more depth on the offensive line. This was supposed to be a Super Bowl year for the Panthers. The Saints have already locked up the No. 2 seed and will be just tuning up for the playoffs.

2. Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are still playing for seeding, but more importantly, they are trying to get some confidence, especially for their run defense. The unit made progress against the Bengals in Week 15. But it dropped the ball against the Texans Sunday, giving up 153 yards rushing to Ron Dayne. Cleo Lemon gets the start for the Dolphins, so look for Nick Saban to try to pound the ball on the ground with Ronnie Brown. After the game, Saban might need his offensive line to block for him. Alabama won't leave him alone and might try to pay him a visit in the day or two following the season. Of course, the way the Dolphins' line blocked this year, Saban might have some problems fighting Alabama off.

1. Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens plan to play their starters the entire game because they would lock up a bye with a win and could even secure home-field advantage (if the Chargers lose). The NFL did a good job moving all the AFC games (Bills at Ravens, Dolphins at Colts and Cardinals at Chargers) that could impact byes and home-field advantage to the afternoon. That way none of them will know the outcomes of the other games before they play. They will have to scoreboard watch to see if they have any chance to rest starters. The Chargers are in the same boat. They could lock up home-field advantage if they beat the Cardinals, but they play at the same time as the Ravens. It's been a great year for Brian Billick and Steve McNair. McNair proved he is still an elite quarterback and leader. Billick made the controversial move of firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel to take a bigger role in the offense. Billick got input from the players on what they felt comfortable with, and he called those plays. The Bills have showed promise for next season with J.P. Losman at quarterback and would love to finish 8-8.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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