Desperation sets in for many teams
Seahawks, Bears, Lions and Raiders among those facing do-or-die games
Tim Tebow has proved in his eight-game stretch as a starter that he can put a team in position to make the playoffs.
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Sunday's home game against the New England Patriots is the best test. Despite inconsistent passing during the first three quarters of games, Tebow has put together five fourth-quarter comeback victories in his 7-1 record as a starter. He's beaten a lot of average quarterbacks and a few good ones, but he hasn't faced anyone as good as Tom Brady.
Unlike the other quarterbacks, Brady should put points on the scoreboard early. Slow starts by other offenses have helped Tebow. His opponents have allowed the Broncos to hang around in close games.
That gives him the chance to work his fourth-quarter magic. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tebow has the highest QBR, an ESPN S&I measure of what he does on the field, of any quarterback in the final seven minutes of games since taking over as the Broncos' starter. He ranks second for yards (691), is tied for fourth for touchdowns (5) and is fourth in yards per attempt (8.6). His QBR is 96.3, 13.3 points better than Brady's.
But Brady pressures defenses in every quarter, something Denver would experience in the playoffs. Tebow has dealt well with low-scoring games against good or average teams. A playoff team usually has an elite quarterback, so this game will give Tebow a test of what playoff life would be like.
1. Desperation Matchup 1: Seattle at Chicago: At 6-7, the Seahawks may look like pretenders, but their faint hopes for a wild card will remain alive if they can beat the Bears and then the Cardinals. The real story at Soldier Field, though, is whether management erred in having Caleb Hanie as the backup to Jay Cutler. Since Cutler's right thumb surgery, Hanie has lost three starts and the Bears are averaging 11 points a game. A fourth loss would all but knock them out of the playoffs because they would fall behind the Seahawks and just about everyone else for that NFC wild-card spot. The Seahawks enter Soldier Field with a hot running back -- Marshawn Lynch, who's averaged 117.6 yards and is the best yards-after-contact runner since Week 9 -- and a tough defense. Marion Barber gained more than 100 yards replacing the injured Matt Forte last week, but he cost the Bears a game by running out of bounds in the final minutes against Denver and by fumbling in overtime.
2. Desperation Matchup 2: Detroit at Oakland: Weeks ago, Raiders coach Hue Jackson was sitting on top of the world. The Raiders were in first place in the AFC West, and the Carson Palmer trade was looking good. Disaster sets in if the Raiders lose this home game to the Lions on Sunday. Jackson gambled away the future by giving up prime draft choices for Palmer and others to make a run at the playoffs. Losing the division to Tim Tebow and the Broncos wouldn't make him look good when the organization sorts itself out this offseason. In road losses the past two weeks, the Raiders have been outscored 80-30. Palmer's four-interception game against the Packers had Jackson wondering whether Jason Campbell was healthy enough to help out. Palmer has 13 interceptions in seven games, and his completion percentage has dropped to 56.2. It doesn't look as though Darren McFadden is coming back soon, not with rumblings he has a Lisfranc foot injury, which would shut down a runner for the season. Expect plenty of flags in this game: The Raiders average 10 penalties a game and have 1,116 penalty yards. The Lions average eight penalties a game and have 894 penalty yards.
3. Desperation Matchup 3: New York Jets at Philadelphia: The Eagles will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. Their 5-8 record means they'll probably be eliminated once the result of the Giants' game comes in. For the Jets, Rex Ryan has resulted to trickery to go on a three-game winning streak against the Bills, Redskins and Chiefs in which the Jets averaged 33 points a game. In the past two weeks, the Jets tried 10 Wildcat plays in which Shonn Greene, Jeremy Kerley or LaDainian Tomlinson took direct snaps. In Week 14, they lined up offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse for 17 plays as a tight end in a jumbo formation that featured six offensive linemen. Because they passed only one time out of that formation, the Jets were pretty predictable and didn't get many running yards out of the jumbo set. The Jets play the Giants in Week 16 in the ultimate desperation game for both teams. They can't let this be a trap game and lose to the Eagles. Thanks to the Bengals' loss last week to the Texans, the Jets have the best chance at the No. 6 seed if they keep winning.
4. Desperation Matchup 4: Cleveland at Arizona: After a horrible start and quarterback Kevin Kolb's turf toe, Cardinals fans didn't dare think of playoff chances. Although hopes are remote, the Cards aren't officially eliminated and a win would put them at 7-7. The Cards have adjusted to the Steelers-type defense installed by defensive coordinator Ray Horton. In the first six games, the Cards were giving up 26.1 points and 390.7 yards a game. Those numbers have dropped to 17.5 and 324 in the past six. The Browns come to town offering the chance to lower those numbers even more. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy is still bothered by the concussion he suffered last Thursday and probably will miss the game, leaving Seneca Wallace as the starter. Kolb, meanwhile, is shaking off his own concussion problems but hopes to play.
5. Ultimate Desperation Matchup: Baltimore at San Diego: The Chargers kept faint playoff hopes alive with blowout victories over Jacksonville and Buffalo. If the Broncos lose to Tom Brady and the Patriots, a Chargers victory could keep their hopes of winning the AFC West alive. The futures of head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith might be determined by this game. Turner looked to be a goner with a 4-7 start.
6. Beware the trap game: The Giants' secondary and the Cowboys' play calling surely can't screw it up going against 4-9 teams this week. Or can they? The Giants face the Redskins, and the Cowboys have a Saturday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys have been their own worst enemy. They've blown five fourth-quarter leads for losses and lost three games in which they led by more than 10 points. Jason Garrett's decision-making and the team's defense have come under scrutiny the past few weeks. Poor clock management and conservative play calling prompted Cowboys fans to ask Jerry Jones whether Garrett's job was on the line. Jones said Garrett was safe. The Giants ended a four-game losing streak by beating the Cowboys last week, moving back into first place in the NFC East. Tom Coughlin has to make sure the Giants' intensity doesn't drop. Next week the Giants clash with the Jets, which could be a playoff elimination game for the loser. The Redskins do have a tough defense, and if Rex Grossman doesn't turn over the ball three times or more, they might make a game of this.
7. Can Big Ben tough it out? Don't write off Ben Roethlisberger's chances of playing despite a high ankle sprain. Sure, Sam Bradford suffered a similar injury, missed two games and then missed another after he returned and hurt the ankle more. All Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said is that Roethlisberger has to practice at some point before Monday night to be cleared to play. His left ankle is the problem. Were this his plant foot -- the right -- Roethlisberger might be out several weeks. The torque is harder on the plant foot because a quarterback makes a hard plant after dropping back three, five or seven steps. The left ankle doesn't bear as much impact, so Roethlisberger might be able to manage throwing. Bradford said Monday that any quarterback with a left high ankle sprain has a hard time following through. If Roethlisberger plays, he'll make more arm throws, which will affect his accuracy. He may not try too many deep throws. He probably won't run out of the pocket much, either. If he does play, though, the Steelers have a chance to beat the 49ers. The 49ers' offense seems to have peaked. They settle for too many field goals, as David Akers is on a record-setting pace with 36 field goals in 42 attempts. The 49ers have only 25 offensive touchdowns, and they have only nine touchdowns in 45 trips to the red zone.
8. Staying alive because of the schedule: After losses in Week 14, the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals hit soft spots in their schedules. The Titans face the winless Colts this week and the Jacksonville Jaguars next Saturday. The Bengals get the hopeless St. Louis Rams on Sunday and then come back to face the 6-7 Arizona Cardinals on Christmas Eve. If both teams win these winnable games, they will be 9-6 going into tough season-finale games within their divisions. Because both teams are fighting for the same wild-card spot in the AFC, they have to keep winning. The Titans finish the season at Houston; the Texans already have clinched the AFC South. The Bengals host the Ravens in their season finale.
9. Checking out new coaches: Todd Bowles of the Miami Dolphins and Romeo Crennel of the Kansas City Chiefs will have three-game auditions as interim coaches. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse for both. Their schedules are tough, and their quarterback situations are messy. Bowles' schedule starts easy with a game against the Bills on Sunday but closes against the Patriots and Jets. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will get a chance to see how well Bowles can coach in the AFC East. If he can go 2-1, Bowles could end up with the job. Unfortunately, starting quarterback Matt Moore, who has played well, suffered a concussion last Sunday and his status is uncertain. Bowles might have to win with J.P. Losman. Crennel benched Tyler Palko to go with Kyle Orton, who is playing with a badly dislocated right index finger. If Orton struggles throwing, Crennel might use Ricky Stanzi, a rookie. Either way, it's a tough task for Crennel because the Chiefs host the perfect Packers on Sunday. After that, Crennel takes on two playoff contenders in the division -- the Raiders and Broncos.
10. Ten-win teams playing out the schedule string: Now that the Saints and Texans have made the playoffs, they can ease off the pedal. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, perhaps the most important hiring of the offseason, is taking a couple of weeks off for a surgical procedure. His absence could give the Carolina Panthers a chance to get their fifth win. Cam Newton could give the Texans' defense big problems without Phillips' steady play calls from the sidelines. In one season, Phillips turned one of the worst defenses in NFL history into the league's No. 1 defense. The Saints shouldn't have any trouble with the Minnesota Vikings, whom they faced two years ago in the NFC Championship Game. Brett Favre has retired, and as bad as the Vikings' defense is playing, management might start shipping some defenders out to work on Favre's farm. Quarterback Christian Ponder struggled last week with a hip problem and had too many turnovers. Gregg Williams' blitzing defense should make it tough for Ponder all day.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.