THE TENNESSEE Titans need a win over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night to clinch their first playoff invitation in 4 years.
Under normal circumstances, this would be sizable task. On the road against a team that has lost only two games all season.
But these aren't normal circumstances. While the Titans have everything to play for, the Colts have nothing. They already secured the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. It doesn't matter whether they win or lose. All they want to do Sunday night is make it through the game without getting anybody hurt.
Colts coach Tony Dungy already has said that most of his starters won't play very long. Quarterback Peyton Manning has been penciled in for no more than a half, and probably less. Jim Sorgi, come on down.
If you're the Cleveland Browns, who can get into the playoffs with a win over the 49ers and a Titans loss to the Colts, that's a real bummer.
"You coach your team," Dungy said this week. "You play for your team and you really can't worry about anybody else.
"We've got to get ourselves ready to go and just play the best we can and get ourselves ready for the playoffs."
The Redskins find themselves in a similar promising situation as the Titans. They can clinch the NFC's final wild-card spot with a win over the 13-2 Cowboys, who already locked up the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips hasn't said how long his starters will play. But when he added the qualifier, "Whoever we have in there, we feel like we can win with," you can bet next month's mortgage payment that you will see a lot more of Brad Johnson than Tony Romo, and a lot more of Tony Curtis and Justin Rogers than Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware.
Phillips said he feels no obligation to the Vikings or the Saints, who would have a shot at the playoffs if the Redskins lose.
"We don't think about them in any of our other games, and we certainly won't this game, either," he said.
Then there are the Patriots, who can become only the second team in NFL history to go undefeated in the regular season with a win over the Giants tomorrow night. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he'll play his starters as long as it takes to secure a victory.
But the game is meaningless for the Giants. They already know they will play the Buccaneers, at Tampa Bay, in the first round of the playoffs.
Considering all of the attention the game is getting, Giants coach Tom Coughlin is saying all of the politically correct things about playing to win. But don't look for many of his key starters, including wide receiver Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, both of whom are nursing ankle injuries, to be on the field very long.
"There is only one way to play this game," Coughlin said. "I've been asked these kind of questions [about how long he'll play his starters] a million times. Quite frankly, they don't sit well with me. I don't think that way. I don't think like that. We are going to prepare and play as hard as we can."
Let's see what way he's thinking in the third quarter.
-- There should be a decent group of tight ends in April's draft. The only downside is that many are bulked-up former wide receivers who won't help a team much in the blocking department. Then again, that didn't prevent the Bears from taking one-dimensional
late in the first round last April. And
hasn't exactly been a blocking machine in his five seasons with the Eagles. "This is a really good year for athletic tight ends," NFL Network draft analyst
said. "Because of the proliferation of the spread pass game in high school and college, you're seeing less and less of the conventional tight ends, the in-line tight ends that can block and catch. You're seeing more and more of the former wide receivers, rocked-up guys who are playing H-back, motion, split-out, slot guys. There's four, five or six of those kind of guys that'll go probably in the second-, third-, fourth-round area."
Many scouts have Notre Dame's 6-6, 255-pound John Carlson rated as the top tight end. "He's a little bigger and a better blocker than some of the other guys," Mayock said. "He's not quite as explosive in the pass game, but still highly athletic and can get down the field and catch the ball." After Carlson are former wideouts such as Southern Cal's Fred Davis, Purdue's Dustin Keller and Missouri's Martin Rucker.
-- Brent Grimes, a cornerback out of Northeast High, had a team-high 10 tackles in the Falcons' overtime loss to the Cardinals Sunday. Grimes, an NFL Europe alum, had spent most of the season on the practice squad before being added recently to Atlanta's 53-man roster.
-- For those of you eager to see Donovan McNabb leave town, it's worth noting that Vikings coach Brad Childress isn't ready to make a commitment to his young turnover-prone quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, for 2008. "I want to see the rest of the season," Childress said. "His record as a starter [8-3] speaks for itself, but I'd like him to do a little bit better job with ball security."
-- Niners coach Mike Nolan will meet next week with team owner John York to learn about his future with the club. York is expected to retain Nolan, but likely will order him to fire offensive coordinator Jim Hostler and replace him with someone capable of turning Alex Smith into a productive NFL starting quarterback.
-- With four catches against the Bills,
will become only the fourth player in NFL history to collect 2,000 yards from scrimmage and catch 90 passes in the same season. The other three: the 49ers'
in '85 (2,066 yards, 92 receptions), the Chargers'
in '03 (2,370, 100) and the Rams'
in '06 (2,334, 90).
-- Patriots wide receiver Donté Stallworth hasn't had a touchdown catch since the seventh game of the season. In the last three games, he has only three catches for 34 yards. During that same period, Jabar Gaffney has 14 catches for 212 yards and two TDs.
-- In the Giants' last three games, quarterback Eli Manning has a 42.4 completion percent and has averaged only 5.19 yards per attempt.
-- Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins has made 20 straight field goal attempts from 49 to 52 yards.
-- The Patriots are 19-3 after Christmas during Bill Belichick's tenure as the team's head coach.
FROM THE LIP:
-- "I'm not really resting anybody. They're working out here. They might not play as much on Sunday, but they're not resting. We don't have bunk beds in there. They're working." - Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden on whether he'll rest most of his regulars in Sunday's meaningless game against Carolina
-- "I think definitely [Michael] Strahan and Osi [Umenyiora] should take the weekend off. I'd rest them. I know that I definitely wouldn't play those two." - Patriots QB Tom Brady, giving rest-'em-or-start-'em advice to Giants coach Tom Coughlin
-- "I've grown so much in 12 years. This game has done a lot for me, as far as notoriety, but it just teaches you. It gives you a lot of good friends. It's a job I've loved doing for a long time." - Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who hasn't decided whether he'll return for a 13th NFL season
THUMBS UP: To the NFL for having the good sense to simulcast tomorrow night's Patriots-Giants game on CBS and NBC. The league tried to pressure Comcast and Time Warner into putting the NFL Network on their basic tiers, but Big Cable wouldn't budge, although Comcast's claim it's thinking of the non-football-watching consumer is the biggest lie since the dog ate my homework. The NFL wisely realized that no good would come out of the negative publicity if it denied so many fans the opportunity to watch the Patriots make history.
-- To the Redskins for their resilience. They've lost five starters since a 4-2 start, including quarterback Jason Campbell. They dealt with safety Sean Taylor's homicide and four straight losses that dropped them to 5-7. But they've won three in a row and can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a win over the Cowboys. "I don't know a team, I haven't been a part of one, that's overcome this much," coach Joe Gibbs said. "Through that process, you develop a hardening. It's almost like you're going to overcome whatever's out there. Some teams can grab it, some can't. Who would have thought, after all that we've been through, we'd have a three-game run?" Not me.
FIB OF THE WEEK:
When asked how important it is for his team to beat the Giants tomorrow night and finish the regular season unbeaten, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "We just think about this week. We just want to go 1-0 this week, that is all.'' Uh-huh.
1. Patriots 15-0 (1 last week)
2. Colts 13-2 (2)
3. Cowboys 13-2 (4)
4. Jaguars 11-4 (5)
5. Packers 12-3 (3)
6. Chargers 10-5 (6)
7. Steelers 10-5 (7)
8. Seahawks 10-5 (9)
9. Titans 9-6 (11)
10. Browns 9-6 (8)
11. Buccaneers 9-6 (10)
12. Giants 10-5 (14)
13. Redskins 8-7 (15)
14. Eagles 7-8 (18)
15. Saints 7-8 (12)
16. Vikings 8-7 (13)
17. Texans 7-8 (16)
18. Cardinals 7-8 (19)
19. Bills 7-8 (17)
20. Lions 7-8 (22)
21. Bears 6-9 (23)
22. Broncos 6-9 (20)
23. Panthers 6-9 (21)
24. Bengals 6-9 (25)
25. 49ers 5-10 (27)
26. Jets 3-12 (28)
27. Ravens 4-11 (26)
28. Raiders 4-11 (24)
29. Rams 3-12 (29)
30. Chiefs 4-11 (30)
31. Falcons 3-12 (31)