With only two weeks remaining in what has been an exhilarating and action-packed season, the playoff picture is beginning to become clear.
The Patriots, Steelers, Bears and Falcons have already clinched a berth in the post-season, but that still leaves eight open spots.
Eleven teams still have a realistic chance at snatching up those slots, and here we examine the 15 players whose performances will be most closely judged.
The presumptive Super Bowl favorites just weeks ago, the Packers are now a long-shot to even make the post-season. With Aaron Rodgers out, the Packers turned to second-year QB Matt Flynn.
Last week against New England, Flynn threw for 251 yards with three touchdowns and an interception (with was returned for a touchdown). Unfortunately those big numbers will not be remembered as well as Flynn’s mismanagement of the clock as the Packers tried to mount a comeback.
After completing a pass with less than 30 seconds left, Flynn couldn’t get the play from the sideline and ended up watching time tick down before being sacked and fumbling to end the game.
If Green Bay hopes to make the playoffs, they will need Flynn to show more poise–even with his lack of experience.
Although he’s only in his second NFL season, Aaron Curry has already emerged as a defensive leader for the Seahawks. The former Demon Deacon linebacker has 69 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles this season.
Seattle will need continued production from Curry and the rest of their defense if they have any post-season aspirations. The 6-8 ‘Hawks have to travel to Tampa Bay for a difficult game, but even if they lose, could force a virtual tie by defeating the Rams.
Neither of their upcoming opponents are shy about running the football, meaning Curry will need to step up if the Seahawks hope to make the playoffs.
A year removed from winning the Defensive Player of the Year award, Charles Woodson’s production has been down. The star cornerback has only two picks (he had nine a season ago) and dropped an easy interception against the Patriots that could have swung momentum in Green Bay’s favor.
The Packers end the season with games against the Giants and Bears, and could force a virtual tie by defeating New York. Last week against the Eagles, Eli Manning threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns.
The burden of silencing the Giants' aerial assault will fall on the shoulders of the former Heisman-winning corner.
During the 2007-2008 season, Braylon Edwards established himself as one of the league’s elite receivers. The 6’3” Michigan man hauled in 80 balls for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns. Since then, it has been an entirely different story.
Edwards was pulled over for driving 120 miles per hour in a 65-mph zone. In 2009 he was arrested after attacking Edward Givens–a friend of LeBron James. Then in September of this year, Edwards was arrested for drunken driving after recording a .16 BAC.
Edwards is constantly dropping balls, has seen his numbers drop, and could be an easy scapegoat if the Jets suffer a late-season meltdown.
All season long, the Bears biggest problem has been their offensive line. Quarterbacks have already been sacked 44 times this season and the results are starting to show.
Last night against the Vikings, Cutler unloaded the ball extremely prematurely before the play could even develop because he didn’t think his team could pick up the blitz. One of the players most responsible for the woes of the offensive line is left tackle Frank Omiyale.
The Bears face two of the best blitzing teams in the NFL in the Jets and Packers, so Omiyale and his fellow linemen will have to step up their protection.
Chicago has already clinched a playoff berth, but they are vying with the Eagles for a first-round bye and don’t want to see their star quarterback injured on a sack.
After posting a career-best season in 2009, Manning has struggled this year. The former number-one pick has thrown 20 interceptions and has eight games with multiple turnovers. If the Giants fail to make the playoffs, it’s not just Tom Coughlin who will take the blame.
Manning has welcomed a leadership role and will have to accept responsibility if his team loses out. Manning will face two hostile crowds as he travels to Green Bay and Washington, and will certainly feel the pressure.
At 10-4, the Saints seem like a sure thing to make the playoffs. But if the team does falter, the blame will be placed on the same man who is so often credited for their success. Brees needs only one win in their final two games, but that could be difficult with a road game against first-place Atlanta and a Week 17 matchup with a tough Tampa Bay defense.
As good as Brees has been this season, his numbers are down around the board. His completion percentage and QB rating are down, while his interceptions and sacks taken are both up.
It would be unfair to blame Brees for not reaching those astronomical numbers, but this is a team built around Brees. He will enjoy the credit when the team wins, but he will also bear the brunt of the criticism when his team loses.
Brees' final two games are far more difficult than his fellow bubble teams, and he will need to play at a high level to win either game.
In what was essentially a must-win game for both teams, the Chargers spanked the 49ers 34-7. What’s worse is the performance put forth by Michael Crabtree.
The Niners' top receiver managed just three catches for 17 yards in a game Alex Smith dropped back to pass 35 times. Meanwhile his counterpart–the Chargers' Vincent Jackson–hauled in five balls for 112 yards.
San Francisco needs to win out if they hope to make the playoffs and both the Seahawks and Cardinals have been torched all season long. Crabtree will be expected to turn in two big performances, and could take a lot of blame if he fails to produce.
Amazingly, Matt Cassel returned to the field on Sunday just 11 days after undergoing an appendectomy. While his stats were somewhat pedestrian (15 of 29 for 184 yards, one touchdown and one pick), his presence was a huge lift for his team.
Cassel claims to feel fine following his surgery but if his numbers begin to suffer, fans and analysts alike will question his decision to return so early. In all likelihood, the Chiefs need to win out to avoid entering a virtual tie with the Chargers.
With home games against the Titans and Raiders, Cassel will need to be playing at 100 percent.
If the Ravens lose out–which is highly unlikely given their opponents–much of the blame will be placed on Joe Flacco. After acquiring Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh this off-season, most experts assumed that the Ravens offense would be much improved.
While the passing game has certainly grown (Flacco’s QB rating is up six points from last season) the running game has faltered. Rice is on pace to rush for nearly 150 yards fewer than last season with a far lower yards per carry (4.0 this season compared to 5.3 in 2009).
Despite more carries, Rice will likely finish this season with fewer yards and could be turned into a scapegoat if Baltimore wavers down the stretch.
After demolishing the 49ers over the weekend, the Chargers are just one game behind the division leading Chiefs. With two games left against the struggling Bengals and Broncos (both teams are 3-11), Philip Rivers will be expected to continue shouldering the load for San Diego.
The Chargers will need a little luck to sneak into the post-season, but more importantly they have to take care of business. Rivers passed for four touchdowns in the team’s first game against the Broncos and should have little trouble duplicating the results.
However, if San Diego loses either of these games and somehow the Chiefs lose as well, analysts will simply look back at what could have been. Rivers has carried this offense all season long and will need to continue doing so for the Chargers to make the postseason.
In a critical game against one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL, Maurice Jones-Drew turned in a very disappointing performance. The dynamic, pint-sized back managed just 41 yards on 15 carries–good for a 3.1 yard per carry average.
Adding to the surprise is the fact that Pocket Hercules had ran for at least 100 yards in each of his six previous games.
Jacksonville ends the season against two suspect run defenses and will take heat if he again fails to deliver.
During his rookie season, Steven Jackson was a little used back-up to Marshall Faulk. That year, the Rams went 8-8, barely squeezing into the playoffs. Since then, Jackson has run for at least 1,000 yards every season but has never made the playoffs.
With the Rams so close to their first playoff berth in six years, the pressure will be on Jackson to deliver.
St. Louis controls their own fate with games against division rivals San Francisco and Seattle, and could use big performances out of their star running back.
Last week, Manning turned in a vintage performance, passing for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the Colts to a 34-24 victory over the Jaguars. The win put both teams at 8-6, a virtual tie atop the AFC South standings.
More importantly, it marked the second consecutive game Manning did not throw a pick after a three-game stretch where he threw 11.
As long as the Colts win out at Oakland and at home against Tennessee, nobody will criticize Manning. However, if he loses and Jacksonville makes the playoffs, many will be quick to point out Manning’s earlier struggles.
There may not be more pressure on any player in the NFL than there is on Mark Sanchez. The second-year quarterback ran for a seven-yard touchdown in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, marking the team’s first offensive touchdown in over 11 quarters.
After throwing for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his first five games, Sanchez has thrown for just eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions (plus seven fumbles) in his last nine.
New York has one of the league’s top defenses, but will need a marked improvement from Sanchez if they hope to make any noise in the playoffs–or even make it for that matter.
The Jets are still just two games up in the wild card standings, and need just one win in their final two games to seal a bid.