Playoff Watch: Steelers, Colts Are on the Spot

<p>The top seeds in the AFC playoffs have been set, yet much remains to be seen as to how their final game will affect other teams still trying to make the postseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts finales have a direct impact on two other teams hoping for the wildcard spot. While meaningless to the Steelers and the Colts, the games are critical to the Broncos and the Bills.</p><p>John MacKenna takes a look at what is likely to happen this final week 17 in the AFC.</p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots LB, Roman Phifer pressures Pittsburgh Steelers QB, Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers beat the Patriots 34-20 (Getty Photo)

Playoff Watch: Steelers, Colts Are on the Spot
By John MacKenna

The two leading contenders for the final AFC wild card spot, the Denver Broncos and the Buffalo Bills, will play their deciding games against teams with very little incentive to take them on.

The Broncos (9-6) are assured of the playoff berth if they beat the Indianapolis Colts (12-3) in Denver. The Bills (9-6) will take the spot if they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-1) in Buffalo while the Broncos lose.

The Colts and the Steelers both have nothing to gain and everything to lose in these games. Their playoff positions are secure, and their priority now is to field the strongest, healthiest team they can in their playoff openers.

If the Colts and Steelers were playing teams that were eliminated from postseason contention, they likely would protect their stars by playing them minimally or not at all. They might choose that approach any way, meaning that the Broncos and Bills would be playing their biggest games of the season against teams that weren't trying all that hard to beat them.

Colts Coach Tony Dungy insisted earlier this week that his team will challenge the Broncos. "We're going out there to win," Dungy told the Indianapolis Star. "I would like to win No. 13. We'd like to go (into the playoffs) with a nine-game winning streak. There are a lot of things that we want to do in terms of keeping that momentum and continuing to be sharp."

If one of the Colts' stars goes down with an injury, playing to win will look like a bad idea. A team that has clinched its playoff position should feel free to make decisions based on postseason priorities, and that means avoiding injuries. It's an unfortunate fact of this AFC season that two teams who have clinched playoff position will play such important roles in the wild card race.

Here's a look at how things shake out in the final weekend of the regular season for the five teams still competing for wild card spots.

New York Jets (10-5)
It's hard to believe that the Jets have not clinched a playoff berth after starting the season 5-0 and hitting the three-quarter mark at 9-3, but they will make the playoffs unless everything goes wrong on Sunday. The Jets need only one of the following three things to happen: they win; the Bills lose; the Broncos lose.

The Jets have the misfortune of playing in one of the only two games this Sunday in which both teams are fighting for playoff position. The Jets travel to St. Louis to face the 7-8 Rams, who have an outside shot at either the NFC West division title or a wild-card berth.

The Rams have lost four of their last six, but they have Marc Bulger back at quarterback, and they gained 209 rushing yards on Monday night against the Eagles, with rookie RB Steven Jackson gaining 148 yards on 24 carries. Jackson left the game with a bruised knee, however, and his condition is unknown.

The Jets are coming off a 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots in which they were deficient on both sides of the ball. On offense, they gained only 46 yards rushing and QB Chad Pennington threw two interceptions. On defense, the Jets managed only one sack and let Patriots QB Tom Brady complete 21 of 32 passes for 258 yards.

Denver Broncos (9-6)
Like the Jets, the Broncos need only to win to secure a playoff position. The Broncos can lose and still make the playoffs, but they would need the Bills to lose and the Jaguars and Ravens to either lose or tie.

If the Colts play hard, the Broncos will have their hands full. The Colts have won eight in a row, and they would love to make it nine as they head into the postseason. They lead the NFL in total yards (418.3 per game) passing yards (297.1 per game) and scoring (33.9 per game).

The Broncos look good on paper, ranking fifth in the NFL in total yards gained (391.9 per game) and fourth in total yards allowed (283.9 per game), but they have lost three of their last five, including a 45-17 drubbing by the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 19 in a must-win game for the Broncos. The Broncos have lost two of their last four home games.

If the Broncos win, they will probably face the Colts again next week in a wild card playoff game. Last year, the Broncos beat the Colts 31-17 in Week 16 then lost to the Colts 41-10 in a wild card game.

Buffalo Bills (9-6)
It is possible the Bills will finish the season by:

  • snapping the Steelers' 13-game winning streak;
  • winning seven straight games;
  • and missing the playoffs.

The Bills need to beat the Steelers and get help from either the Colts or the Rams to nab the final wild card spot. If the Broncos win, the Bills miss the playoffs, win or lose.

The Bills face the Steelers in Buffalo, where the Bills have won five straight while holding opponents to an average of 13.6 points a game. Second-year RB Willis McGahee and rookie WR Lee Evans have been leading the Bills' offense, which is eighth in the NFL in scoring (24.7 points per game). The Buffalo defense is holding opponents to 264.4 yards of total offense a game, third lowest in the NFL.

The Steelers will be without rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a rib injury in last week's win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers are outscoring opponents by an average of only 7 points over the last six weeks. In the same stretch, the Bills have won by an average margin of 23.1 points.

The weather forecast is not good for the Bills, who thrive in bad weather: 45 degrees with a 30 percent chance of precipitation.

None of the playoff teams would be sorry to see the Bills eliminated, as they are the scariest of the wild card contenders.

Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7)
Should the Bills beat the Steelers in their 1 p.m. game, the Jaguars will be eliminated before the kickoff of their 4:15 p.m. game against the Raiders in Oakland. The Jaguars also need the Broncos to lose.

The Jaguars had the pole position in the wild card race until last Sunday, when they absorbed a savage thrashing at the hands of the Houston Texans, 21-0. The Jags had entered the game tied with the Broncos, Bills and Ravens with tiebreaker advantages over two of the three.

If Jaguars RB Fred Taylor returns at full strength after missing the Houston game, the Jaguars should be able to handle the Raiders. Oakland QB Kerry Collins remains dangerous, however, with 14 TD passes in the last five games.

Baltimore Ravens (8-7)
The Ravens are nearly out of the playoff picture because they could not beat the AFC's best teams down the stretch. Since Thanksgiving, they have played the Patriots, the Colts and the Steelers and lost all three games.

They have a relatively easy game this week, playing at home against the 4-11 Miami Dolphins, but they need way too much help. Any win by the Bills, the Broncos or the Jaguars eliminates the Ravens.

The Dolphins bring a two-game winning streak to Baltimore, having knocked off the Cleveland Browns, 10-7, last Sunday, with QB A.J. Feeley leading another winning drive. The Ravens lost to Pittsburgh, 20-7 last week. Look for the Ravens to pound the ball inside with RB Jamal Lewis.

Predictions:
Jets lose to Rams
Broncos lose to Colts
Bills beat Steelers
Jaguars beat Raiders
Ravens beat Dolphins
Jets and Bills wins wild card berths.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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