They are those sneaky, evil teams who pounce on the unsuspecting and leave their season, hopes and dreams in shambles. They are that team you do not want to face when your season is on the brink, teeter-tottering between a home-bound January or a playoff birth and potential trip to the Super Bowl.
They are the spoilers.
With three weeks left in the 2010 NFL regular season, the NFL playoffs are far from decided. The lone team with a playoff birth clinched thus far is the New England Patriots; another victory would lock up the AFC East for Brady and the Pats. Unfortunately for the rest, they are still vying for those coveted spots. Even if a playoff birth is certain, the divisional race hangs in the balance and will likely be a battle for most division leaders until the final week.
Standing in their way are the envious fan’s beloved favorites: the struggling and usually underachieving spoilers. For the fan of those teams eliminated from the playoffs, there’s nothing more they enjoy than watching their rival get bounced out of the playoffs by a lowly team like the Carolina Panthers helped do in 2009 to the New York Giants, whose massive second-half collapse in 2009 reached its peak in a 41-9 loss to the Panthers.
These are the games fans look at on the schedule and grin assuming they have a solid W in the books. You know what they say about assuming, don’t you?
Here are the five most dangerous spoilers heading into this last three-week stretch of the 2010 regular season:
I know, I know. You’re all sitting their scratching your heads. The Detroit Lions? The only season the Lions know how to spoil is their own.
The record doesn’t show it, but the Detroit Lions are a far better team than they have been in years. Of their ten losses this season, the Lions have only ever truly been blown out in three of them. Even then, the Lions played hard and kept the game close for a long time before each of their opponents, the Vikings, Patriots and Cowboys, were able to pull away.
Now the Lions come in off a huge 7-3 victory where their defense was able to match the Packers punch-for-punch even before Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers left the game with a concussion. They look ahead to two-straight games with the playoff contending Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins. Both teams are walking the line at the moment and a loss to the Detroit Lions could very well remove all hope of making it to the playoffs this season.
The key for Detroit will be their 13th-rank pass defense against two of the NFL’s lesser passing offenses. If the Lions can contain the ground game while putting some points on the board, something they’ve had no trouble doing this season, they could very well put an end to playoff aspirations for one, if not both of these teams.
The Cincinnati Bengals are foolish, mouthy, sloppy and indestructible. They are everything a coach wouldn’t want his team, yet that’s what Marvin Lewis has had on his hands for years; this year though, it’s fair to say it’s much worse than ever before. All this aside, this team is stacked with talent.
From Carson Palmer to Terrell Owens to the entire Cincinnati Bengals defense, they have the makings of a playoffs team. In fact, they were a playoff team just a year ago. The Bengals have the make up and the have the ability to trounce any team that stands in their way, but so far this season they’ve been unable to do so.
Cincinnati is scheduled for two big games in Weeks 16 and 17 with the San Diego Chargers at home and then the Baltimore Ravens on the road. San Diego has won five of their last six after starting 2-5 and they desperately need to win each and every game for the remainder of the season if they hope to make the playoffs, even despite their victory over the 49ers (5-9) last night. Meanwhile, the Ravens are in pretty good position for a playoff spot at this moment, but are still battling the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) for the AFC North crown. Their week 17 match-up could decide who heads into the playoffs as division champion as well as home-field advantage for at least one week in the AFC. With two shootout overtime victories for the Ravens over the Buffalo Bills (3-10) and most recently the Houston Texans (5-8), it’s possible that the Bengals’ firepower offense could be just enough to defeat the Ravens and leave them hurting, one way or another.
Somehow, I don’t think this is what Mike Shanahan envisioned for his first season as the Washington Redskins’ head coach. It’s been a mess since Shanahan stepped on the field with his team in training camp, starting with the never-ending drama between him and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The drama didn’t stop there as Shanahan sat Donovan McNabb in the final two minutes in a 37-25 loss to the Detroit Lions (3-10), citing “cardiovascular endurance” issues a day after saying he had a “gut feeling”. Rex Grossman, McNabb’s replacement, promptly fumbled on a big sack and Lions’ defensive tackle and rookie of the year nominee Ndamukong Suh returned it for a touchdown.
The Redskins have been anything but a true Shanahan team. Their defense is dead last in the NFL and their rushing game, what Shanahan’s offenses are renowned for, is 26th in the NFL averaging just 96.9 rushing yards a game. The halfback position has been a revolving door for the Redskins, not different from most Shanahan Bronco teams, but only Ryan Torain has really had success at the position this season. Lucky for the ‘Skins, Torain is back from injury and rushed for a career-best 172 yards against a good Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.
The rushing game will be key to the Redskins having a successful time playing spoiler for other teams. If the Redskins can finally get that going, it could open up the passing game for Donovan McNabb. McNabb has had a rough season in the face of a lot of adversity, but he can still perform when called on and is a threat to defenses throughout the league. With games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants, two teams who are far from sure playoff clinchers, the Washington Redskins have two big opportunities to ruin their plans for January.
McNabb has great career numbers against the New York Giants most notably, despite a tough 31-7 loss earlier in the season. Unfortunately for the ‘Skins, the Giants are on a seven-game winning streak against them and their ground game, as well as the Jaguars’ ground game, is a major threat to their 28th-ranked rushing defense.
The Oakland Raiders aren’t eliminated from the playoffs yet, but they’re on the outside looking in as the San Diego Chargers keep on winning and the Kansas City Chiefs grasp tightly to their AFC West division lead. The Raiders were this year’s surprising team. Unlike every other team on this list, the Raiders overachieved. No one expected them to jump into the playoff conversation, far exceeding their expectations for this season so you must applaud Head Coach Tom Cable for that. Likely eliminated from the playoffs, the Raiders have a solid opportunity to play spoiler to the Indianapolis Colts (7-6) and the Kansas City Chiefs (8-5).
The Colts’ rushing game is last in the league and their rushing defense is 29th. Colts say hello to the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have one of the league’s most stellar run games, ranking third in the league. Their run defense is quite the opposite, but that works into their favor with a team who cannot run the ball to begin with. The Raiders field a similar offense to that of the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5), a team the Colts lost 31-28 in Week 4. In that game, Jaguars’ running back Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 105 yards on 26 carries with a touchdown while quarterback David Garrard was near perfect. If the Jaguars can have similar success on offense while containing Peyton Manning and the ever-dangerous Colts passing game, the Colts could be sent home packing and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Then there’s the Kansas City Chiefs. The current AFC West leaders have wowed many as they’ve climbed to an impressive 8-5 thus far this season. They field the league’s best rushing attack and an underrated passing game. They are also 2-3 within the AFC West division, something that could trouble as they clash with the Oakland Raiders in week 17. The Raiders are the West’s strongest team thus far inside the division, recording a perfect 4-0 season as it stands.
The Raiders picked up an overtime victory in Oakland back in week nine of the season, 23-20, and gave the Raiders their best record through nine weeks since 2002. Receiver Jacoby Ford had a fantastic game for the Raiders, catching 6 balls for 148 yards, including the 47-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime and the 29-yard reception that set up the game-tying field goal in the closing seconds of regulation. Since that game, the Raiders are 1-3, but did manage to secure another divisional victory against the surging San Diego Chargers, 28-13 in Week 13.
The Raiders aren’t out of the AFC West yet, but it’s almost certain that they’re finished. The goal now should be to keep each team who comes their way from making an easy trip to the playoffs, much like the Raiders have failed to gain way into since 2002.
It’s doubtful, with the exception of the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys, that there was a more disappointing team in the 2010 NFL season than the Tennessee Titans. The Titans started the season 5-2, picking up big wins over playoff contenders like the Oakland Raiders (6-7), New York Giants (9-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) and Philadelphia Eagles (9-4). Their wins were dominant and the defense looked fierce. Suddenly, they hit a wall.
Since their 37-19 victory over the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans have lost an astound six straight games. What’s worse is these losses have come out the lesser half of their schedule this season, most notably, the Miami Dolphins (7-6), Washington Redskins (5-8) and Houston Texans (5-8). Their offense and defense have been embarrassing and all rank far below expectations. With the exception of this past week’s 30-28 loss to the Colts, the Titans have struggled to put points on the board. The addition of Randy Moss has proved pointless. Chris Johnson is having a good year by most people’s standards, but hasn’t even amassed half of the 2,500 rushing yards he planned to in 2010 with just 1,137 rushing yards on the year. It is the talent and the Titans’ capability to win that makes them dangerous.
The final two opponents on their schedule, much like the Oakland Raiders, are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, they will not be meeting them in Tennessee, but a return to early season form wouldn’t allow that to make any difference how they perform. Of course, the Titans haven’t been the Titans in six long weeks. The Titans defense is ranked 24th in the NFL and could spell disaster for the Titans. They’ll need to play similar to this past week’s 30-28 loss to the Colts if they plan to have any hope against two of the league’s most dominant offenses.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense is susceptible and far from the league’s best. A solid offensive performance from the Titans, with a big game finally coming from the Kerry Collins-to-Randy Moss combination, could easily put things in the Titans’ favor. It will be a matter of Jeff Fisher’s usually stellar defense stepping up that will decide how things fare in Arrowhead Stadium.
As for the Colts, the Titans will need to find a way to stop Peyton Manning. You stop Peyton Manning, you win the game. It’s that simple. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The key will be to keep Peyton Manning off the field. Thank God for Chris Johnson. Use him, control the clock and help keep your defense from tiring out against Peyton’s aerial assault.