Steelers vs. Jets, Finnegan vs. Johnson among Week 15 storylines
Five division leaders have potential to clinch playoff spots this week
Pittsburgh can claim No. 2 berth in AFC witih win over slumping Jets
Surprising Jacksonville can dethrone Indianapolis as AFC South champs
There's no denying Week 15 in the NFL is rife with an abundance of intriguing subtopics. There's Johnson-Finnegan II in Nashville. The doll-eyed Mike Shanahan perhaps going full-blown Child's Play cuckoo by starting Rex Grossman over Donovan McNabb. There's a Snow Day in Minneapolis, a You're Fired Bowl in Ohio and marquee quarterbacks fighting to get on the field despite serious injuries.
But at the core of the weekend's stories are playoff berths. That's what it's all about, and everything will become much clearer by Monday night. Five division leaders have the potential to clinch. Several first-round byes also can be clinched. Altogether, with the right wins and the right things happening, after this week's matchups no fewer than eight teams can clinch and join the New England Patriots in the postseason tournament.
This week's storylines must start in Pittsburgh, where a couple of teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations are trying to get well. The Jets' condition certainly is much more severe than the Steelers, who can clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win. But intrigue, story twists and possibilities abound at Heinz Field
With Troy Polamalu unlikely to play because of a lower leg injury, Jets QB Mark Sanchez must feel a little better about his chances. Still, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows how to harass and frustrate a struggling quarterback and Sanchez is all of that. Jets coach Rex Ryan has thought of benching Sanchez, who has thrown five picks and completed just 43 percent of his passes in his last three games.
Polamalu isn't the only key Steeler hurting -- tight end Heath Miller still is suffering from post-concussion syndrome and is doubtful. Then there is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has a lingering ankle issue, is still recovering from surgery for a broken nose that doctors said looked like "corn flakes" and who can't get the Steelers offense going. The Steelers have not scored a touchdown on a drive that started in their own territory since Nov. 28. They rank a dismal 27th in the NFL in red-zone scoring. That won't cut it in the playoffs, particularly if Pittsburgh is eyeing an AFC title-game trip to New England.
There won't be better cornerback-receiver matchups anywhere in the league than at Heinz Field, with Hines Ward testing Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes returning to Pittsburgh, where he became a Super Bowl legend. Roethlisberger says he won't shy away from throwing in Revis' direction. That's usually a risky proposition, but Ward is embracing the challenge against the former Aliquippa High and Pitt Panthers star. On the other side, Holmes, the 2009 Super Bowl MVP for the Steelers, admittedly is holding a grudge against the team that traded him for the NFL equivalent of a bag of rocks (fifth-round draft pick). Holmes has promised a big day, including a punt return for a touchdown at his old stomping ground.
Almost everywhere in Week 15, the games will be meaningful and the storylines significant:
2) The Pay-Per-View marquee might call it, Johnson-Finnegan II -- The Elimination. Sure, both the Texans and Titans have all but been eliminated from the playoffs, but there always are hard feelings between these AFC South rivals and that venom spilled over into an ugly beat-down Johnson put on Finnegan just three weeks ago. Finnegan has said he hopes to clear the air with Johnson and "just play football," but if you believe the Titans and Texans won't mix it up somehow, someway, you haven't been paying attention.
3) If the Eagles continue their recent dominance over the Giants, which is five-straight wins, including a playoff victory, a No. 2 seed in the NFC is very possible. If they lose, they could easily have to go the wild card route. The stakes could not be higher. And as much as these teams are known for defense, a shootout should be expected, although the Giants losing Steve Smith for the season (knee) is a severe blow. The Eagles rank second in the league in points-per-game, while the Giants are seventh. The Eagles lead the league in yards per-game, with the Giants fourth.
4) Could it be more than just snow they're shoveling in Minneapolis? Despite an offer from the Colts to play this Monday night game with significant playoff implications indoors, the Vikings appear hell-bent on playing Monday night at the outdoor TCF Bank Stadium. All the thermal tarps, heaters and chemicals in the world won't change one simple fact: They're going to put millions of dollars worth of players, many of whom have a history of head injuries, on what could become a sheet of ice when the wind chill drops to maybe 20-below. Sure, football is an outdoor game often played in severe conditions. But why risk it?
5) The Ravens may have beaten the Texans in a thrilling Monday night affair last week, but Gary Kubiak's offense certainly set the template on how to slay the mighty Ravens defense. Can the red-hot Saints follow suit and mount a late-season charge to the top of the NFC? With back-to-back 99- and 95-yard drives, the Texans showed that the Ravens defense is slower and more flawed than anyone could have imagined. This one has huge implications in the collective mindset and confidence factor for both squads.
6) Has Redskins coach Mike Shanahan completely lost his mind? Or is benching one of the league's best quarterbacks all part of the grand Redskins 2011 And Beyond plan? The 'Skins are done this year, no doubt. But with news Friday that Mike Shanahan and son Kyle have decided to bench Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman, rest assured the Cowboys are thrilled. And Shanahan once again is setting himself up for harsh -- and deserved -- criticism if this thing blows up in his face.
7) It's Bengals-Browns. Could this be the, Last Chance To Save Your Job Bowl? The Bengals' Marvin Lewis probably is Dead Man Walking when it comes to job status. But don't be surprised if Eric Mangini, especially with a loss here and a late-season flop, ultimately takes the long walk to Mike Holmgren's office. The Browns have found a quarterback in Colt McCoy and, at minimum, the offensive coordinator could go. Some say Mangini's job is safe no matter what. Still, with season-ending games against the Ravens and Steelers, a loss here and the Browns could end the year 5-11, which would be the identical record as last year and the sixth time in the last eight years the Browns will have won no more than five games.
8) Several medical experts continue to warn that Matt Cassel is rolling the dice if he plays 10 days after an appendectomy. But the battle of Missouri has serious playoff implications and Cassel seems to know best. He's been on the practice field, but remains uncertain. The NFC West, remarkably, goes through St. Louis. And all of a sudden the Chiefs are locked in a heated race with the Chargers, who won convincingly Thursday night and will have the tiebreaker if the Chiefs lose here and then both win out.
9) And the first team to clinch a division title in 2010 will be ... the Jacksonville Jaguars? This is where you rub your eyes and shake the cobwebs from your head in disbelief. But believe it. The 8-5 Jacksonville Jaguars have a chance to clinch the AFC South title with a win over the 7-6 Indianapolis Colts. More important, if the Jags can win this one, enough with all the talk about, "they're not talented, but ..." and "they're winning now, but ..." Clinch a division title and you're legit. Period. The Jags have a quality quarterback, maybe the most efficient and best running back in football and players on both sides who may not look great coming off the bus, but make plays.
10) Aaron Rodgers won't play Sunday, according to reports. Everything, then, points to the Packers' playoff hopes going bye-bye in Foxboro. If we have learned anything this NFL season, it is that long-term effects of head injuries cannot be taken lightly. Unfortunately, that means the Packers likely will have to start thinking long-term when it comes to the playoffs. Rodgers hasn't even been able to take part in meetings or film sessions as a result of the concussion he suffered last week. Unless Matt Flynn can somehow find a way, beginning with Sunday's night's game against the Patriots, Packers hopes are dimming.