No team who thought they had a chance to reach the Super Bowl when the NFL season began back in September will be eliminated mathematically from play-off contention tonight, but more than a few could be psychologically finished by the end of the day. With five weeks left in the regular season, these are days of high stress and games of high importance. Win and you may not be in but lose and you know you are out, no matter what the mathematicians tell you.
The undefeated Indianapolis Colts (11-0) try to tie the all-time record of 21 consecutive regular-season wins at the expense of the NFL's in-form team, the Tennessee Titans (5-6). Everything is on the line for the Titans, who have won five games in a row, and little is at stake but pride and meaningless records for the Colts. Tennessee have the league's leading rusher in Chris Johnson, who claimed this week he can break the single-season rushing record set 25 years ago by Eric Dickerson of 2,105 yards. He has rushed for no less than 128 yards in each of his past six games, but would have to average 142 a game for the rest of the season to tie with Dickerson.
He will have to do something like that to beat the Colts, a defence against whom he ran for only 34 yards the first time they met. Peyton Manning threw for 309 yards and three scores in that game, but Tennessee were without three of their best defensive backs. They are back in the line-up and Manning has struggled lately, having thrown seven interceptions in his past four games after just four in his first seven matches, so the stage seems set for a more competitive struggle.
The Colts have repeatedly teetered on the edge of defeat of late, trailing in the fourth quarter in each of the past five games before eventually finding a way to win. Tennessee would love to get them in a similar position by running Johnson and limiting the amount of times quarterback Vince Young has to throw even though he is coming off the best passing game of his career; a 387-yard effort that was capped by a 99-yard drive to win last Sunday on a touchdown pass that was caught as time ran out.
Young started the season on the bench, but since replacing Kerry Collins has led the Titans to five consecutive wins. Facing a Colts defence adept at forcing turnovers,Young will have to be wary if he gives the ball away because the Colts will turn the Titans' season upside down. The New York Giants (6-5) face a must-win game against NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys (8-3) at a time when their defence is wilting. Their pass rush has gone and starting middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is out for the season.
That has resulted in the Giants conceding 31.6 points a game in their last six matches. Other than that they could not be any more ready to face the Cowboys because historically December has been a horrendous month for the Cowboys and their quarterback Tony Romo, who are 5-10 after November in the past three seasons. "This is this season," Romo said when asked about his disappointing post-November performances.
The Dallas offensive line has struggled for much of the year but now New York's defence is doing the same. Couple those problems with regular communication breakdowns in the secondary and that would seem to put Romo in a position to end his December jinx. The NFL's other undefeated team, the New Orleans Saints (11-0), must avoid a let down after destroying the New England Patriots on Monday night.
The lowly Washington Redskins (3-8) do not appear to offer much of a challenge unless the Saints are not ready to play. The "Skins" have back-ups starting at running back who keep turning the ball over (five times the last three games) and have struggled against teams far less devious than the Saints. The Philadelphia Eagles (7-4) must win to stay within range of the Cowboys and travel to the Atlanta Falcons (6-5), who must win to stay alive.
Meanwhile, the New England Patriots (7-4) will try to bounce back from a 38-17 loss to the Saints against the Miami Dolphins (5-6). This is Miami's last hope to stand a chance for the post-season. For that to happen they must get some offence and keep the Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady on the bench. Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting line-up for the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) against the lowly Oakland Raiders (3-8) after a concussion kept him out last week.
The Minnesota Vikings (10-1) travel to face the defending NFC champions the Arizona Cardinals (7-4) hoping to make a statement that they are ready to unseat them. The Houston Texans (5-6) travel to the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) in a fight for an AFC wild card play-off spot. @Email:email@example.com