By DENNIS WASZAK JR, ANDREW SELIGMAN, MICHAEL MAROT, WILL GRAVES, GREG BEACHAM, STEVE REED
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 15, 2018
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. LAKE FOREST, ILL. INDIANAPOLIS PITTSBURGH LOS ANGELES CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- TEXANS AT JETS With each victory, the Houston Texans increasingly established themselves as a team to beat in the AFC.
Their nine-game winning streak set a franchise record and also raised expectations by the week. So, perhaps their 24-21 loss to Indianapolis last Sunday could, in some way, alleviate some building tension down the stretch.
Right, Deshaun Watson?
"You only put pressure on yourself," Watson said.
"For us, we don't really put pressure on ourselves. We don't really focus on that. Of course, we didn't want to lose. We always want to win and try to continue to stack those, but it just kind of goes that way sometimes. It's the National Football League.
"We just try to focus on the next opponent, the next game and try to get back in the win column."
Watson and the Texans (9-4) will get their chance to do that Saturday when they take on Sam Darnold and the struggling New York Jets (4-9).
Houston could clinch the AFC South title with a win and then a loss or tie by both Indianapolis and Tennessee on Sunday, or with a tie and losses by both the Colts and Titans. The Texans could also seal a playoff berth with a combination of other scenarios involving several other teams.
Either way, they know they can set themselves up nicely with a victory at MetLife Stadium.
"With three games left throughout the regular season, I think you home in and focus in," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said, "especially on one game at a time, 12 quarters of football, however it has to be."
Meanwhile, the Jets are just focused on the finish line - and perhaps the end of coach Todd Bowles's tenure.
New York snapped a six-game skid last Sunday with a 27-23 win at Buffalo, but it would appear Bowles will not be back next season after four years without a trip to the playoffs. General manager Mike Maccagnan is not a certainty to return, either, with some misses in the draft and free agency during his tenure.
"It's the same thing every week: We want to win every game, regardless of whether we're going to the playoffs or not," Bowles said.
PACKERS AT BEARS Clinch the NFC North championship and beat a heated rival to do it? The Chicago Bears couldn't have asked for a sweeter scenario.
That's exactly the opportunity they're staring at when they play host to Aaron Rodgers and the fading Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon.
"It would be very exciting," quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said. "We know this is a big week for us, and a lot comes with it."
With six wins in the past seven games, the division championship and a playoff spot are just about in hand.
A win over the Packers (5-7-1) would clinch the North for the Bears (9-4). So would a loss by Minnesota to Miami. And ties by both the Bears and the Vikings would do the trick, too.
Even if they don't clinch the division, they could still secure a playoff spot on Sunday. In that case, a tie against Green Bay - or a tie or loss by Washington against Jacksonville - would send Chicago to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 team won the NFC North.
Of course, with a victory comes this added bonus: beating Green Bay. It would also give the Bears a measure of revenge for that season-opening gut punch at Lambeau Field, when Rodgers got carted off the field with a left knee injury and came back to lead the Packers from 20 down to a 24-23 victory.
"It's a special moment in my career," Rodgers said. "It is the Bears, and the injury I was dealing with and the pain and 20-0 and coming back and winning that game. It seems a long time ago, standing here in Week 15, but that was a good moment for us. It's a better moment when you parlay those into big-time winning seasons and championship runs, but it was a special moment for sure."
The teams' fortunes sure have changed since.
The Bears have emerged as a force in the NFC in their first season under coach Matt Nagy after four straight last-place finishes. The Packers fired Mike McCarthy in his 13th season two weeks ago and made offensive co-ordinator Joe Philbin the interim head coach, hoping to jolt a team in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
COWBOYS AT COLTS Jason Garrett and Frank Reich understand the high stakes of Sunday's game.
If Dallas wins, it clinches the NFC East. If Indianapolis wins, it stays in the hunt for the AFC's final playoff spot and possibly even a division crown.
The two coaches and their players will get one more precious late-season chance to see how they stack up against another postseason contender and what can be done to keep playing into January.
"Most people call this the dash for cash," Colts tight end Eric Ebron said. "So you just try to win."
Few teams have done more lately than the Colts (7-6) or Cowboys (8-5).
Rather than folding after starting 1-5, Andrew Luck and Co. turned things around with six wins in seven games and tying Baltimore, Miami and Tennessee for the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff chase.
Luck's comeback has happened during perhaps the best season of his career with 34 touchdown passes, second in the league and six short of his career high, a career-best completion rate of 67.7 per cent and he is 241 yards away from the fourth 4,000-yard season of this career. This time, Luck also is working with an improved defence that has allowed 17.1 points over the past seven weeks and ranks among the league's top third in sacks and negative plays.
The combination has upped the ante for the Colts' opponents.
"They attack you a lot of different ways," Garrett said. "It's aggressive, it's attacking and it's a balanced offence. You have to be ready for a lot of different things."
Dallas also made a dramatic midseason turn.
After starting 3-5, the Cowboys made a deal for receiver Amari Cooper and everything suddenly changed.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott has charged back into the NFL rushing lead and quarterback Dak Prescott started making more potent plays.
Dallas' defence has climbed to No. 4 in yards allowed and now people around town believe the Cowboys could win their first divisional-round game since the 1995 playoffs - if they make it. One thing is clear: Dallas is all-in.
PATRIOTS AT STEELERS No pregame talk of a potential playoff rematch by Mike Tomlin.
No real implications for home-field advantage in the AFC.
Not much hype either, at least not the kind that typically accompanies a meeting between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not with both teams coming off the kind of numbing road losses that can linger for weeks if not handled properly.
Yes, the Patriots (9-4) and Steelers (7-5-1) still lead their divisions, even if it doesn't necessarily feel like it.
Not after New England found itself on the wrong end of the "Miami Miracle" last week while Pittsburgh slipped to a third straight defeat in Oakland, one that left its postseason prospects iffy at best.
"It's not ideal, but we are in [first]," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We haven't won the games we're supposed to and that's on us." But there's still a lot on the line."
Particularly for Pittsburgh. The Steelers lead Baltimore by just a half-game in the AFC North. Pittsburgh will reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season by winning its final three games. It makes the math pretty easy.
The task itself is considerably harder considering New England's mastery over Pittsburgh for the better part of two decades.
The Patriots have won each of the past five games between the two perennial AFC powers, including a 27-24 victory at Heinz Field last season that included a chaotic fourth quarter featuring a New England rally and an overturned call on a seemingly obvious go-ahead touchdown grab by Steelers tight end Jesse James in the final minute that ultimately led to an NFL rule change.
While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shrugged off his team's spotty record when facing Tom Brady - who is 11-2 all-time against Pittsburgh - by pointing out "we are not the only team that has issues with them" - he's well aware his club's margin for error has vanished.
EAGLES AT RAMS The Philadelphia Eagles' recent struggles aren't providing any comfort to the Los Angeles Rams.
The NFC West champions have a few problems of their own for perhaps the first time this season.
With three losses in its past five games, the Eagles (6-7) are facing an uphill challenge just to earn the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title in the playoffs. Their offence can't get rolling, the defence can't defend the pass and quarterback Carson Wentz's fractured vertebra sits atop a bulging list of injury problems.
But the Eagles' gritty performance in a 43-35 win at the Coliseum last season is still fresh in most football minds in Los Angeles. The Rams (11-2) would never take the champs lightly heading into the teams' Sunday night showdown.
"I still look at them like a Super Bowl-calibre team," Rams receiver Robert Woods said. "Still the defending champs. We get a chance to play them in prime time. We get to play at home. We get to play well and redeem ourselves from last week."
The Rams can't spend any time thinking about the Eagles' woes, either. Los Angeles is coming off a dispiriting 15-6 loss in chilly Chicago during which it failed to score a touchdown for the first time in coach Sean McVay's tenure.
McVay has never lost consecutive games, and no team has beaten the Rams twice during his two seasons - but Philadelphia has a chance to do both. The coach has no trouble getting his players' attention this week with the combination of their second loss and a visit from the champs.
The Rams won't likely face Wentz, who has a stress fracture in his back. The injury could take up to three months to heal. The quarterback is listed as "questionable" for Sunday night's game against the Rams in Los Angeles and is scheduled to travel with the team. Wentz's second NFL season ended at the Coliseum a year ago when he tore a ligament in his left knee, but Nick Foles relieved him and led the Eagles to that win over his former franchise, clinching the NFC East in the process.
SAINTS AT PANTHERS Cam Newton keeps a black and yellow broom he was "gifted" by the Saints hanging in his locker, some omnipresent motivation after what happened a year ago when the Panthers met up with their NFC South rivals.
New Orleans swept Carolina, winning both regular-season games in 2017 before eliminating the Panthers from the first round of the playoffs in January with a 31-26 win at the Superdome.
The rematch is never far from Newton's mind.
"If you need any type of boost, kind of chip on your shoulder versus [these guys] I have a constant reminder each and every day when I look in my locker," Newton said, who will renew acquaintances Monday night with the Saints, a team he said he "doesn't like."
Newton said the broom came from the Saints, although he wouldn't disclose which player. He also received a bottle of "Jordan" red wine this off-season from nemesis Cam Jordan, the Saints dominant defensive end. Jordan had promised to send Newton some "juice" if the Saints swept the Panthers.
"Disrespectful," Newton said flatly.
The broom remains in its plastic wrapper and Newton said he would like to stamp it "return to sender" if Carolina (6-7) can somehow manage to beat New Orleans twice in the next three weeks and sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Panthers currently trail the Vikings by a half-game in the battle for the second wild card spot, but are given only a 9-per-cent chance of making the postseason.
Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said: "I know about the wine, not the broom - but whoever sent the broom is a comedic genius."
Meanwhile, the Saints (11-2) have already locked up their second straight division title and are aiming for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Rams are also 11-2, so there's no room for error.
"They got the juice, but at the end of the day we are coming Monday with a cup for our own, too," Newton said.
Photos by USA Today, Getty Images and The Associated Press
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Indianapolis Colts tight end Eric Ebron
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton