Two weeks to go in the season and there are still a number of teams fighting for five remaining playoff spots, while teams already in the postseason are fighting for a better seed. There are coaches on the hot seat, which is par for the course in late December. There are rookie quarterbacks trying to finish strong and veteran quarterbacks trying to prove they should be the starter in 2012. Rookie pass rushers have made a bigger statement than at any other position this year. The schedule-makers did teams no favors in the past two weeks of the season with all the division rematch games; for many of those games, you can throw out the records and get ready for a few surprises.
Moment of truth
Teams can talk a good game in the offseason. They can tell us they got a lot done in camp. They can win a few games early and get their fans excited. But now is the moment of truth. Can they close and get in the playoffs?
The Lions face that question this week when the Chargers come to Detroit. The Jets and Giants both face the same question on the same field and the pressure will be as big as any playoff game. The Broncos took a big chance on Tim Tebow and now can win the division or possibly fall out of the race. Tebow is undefeated on the road and needs to rebound off last week's loss to the Patriots. The Bengals will be blacked out in Cincinnati but they are very much in the playoff race with a rookie QB and the red-hot Cardinals in town. Finally, the Dallas Cowboys have to deliver against arch rival Philadelphia. Dallas has to be ready for the Eagles' classic fast start. In the Eagles' six wins this year, the average halftime score has been 21-6 in their favor. The last time these teams met, the final score was 34-7, Philadelphia.
Coaches feeling the heat
Coaches getting fired is a fact of life in the NFL, especially in a salary-cap era when there is so much guaranteed money in player contracts -- it's harder to terminate those guys. Three head coaches are already out the door and a few more could follow. Finishing strong is critical to sway the owner that the coach deserves another chance. Remember last year when it was rumored Gary Kubiak was out in Houston? Bob McNair gave him one more chance, and now Kubiak is up for coach of the year (well, at least he was before Thursday night's loss in Indy).
There needs to be strong performances this week from the Tampa Bay Bucs, Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers for the sake of the head coaches of those squads. On a related note, it's almost better for these coaches to be on the road, so the owner doesn't see lots of empty seats in his stadium.
Rookie pass rushers
So often, rookie pass rushers come into the NFL without enough technique and enough strength to be effective getting to the quarterback. Two years down the road, after time in the weight room and learning enough, they become effective. Well, the class of 2011 came ready to play.
The top 10 rookie pass rushers have 74 sacks between them; it is possible the top five could all reach double figures before the end of the season. Right now, Aldon Smith of the 49ers (13) leads Von Miller of the Broncos (11) for the rookie lead. Both are on the road this weekend and both play for teams trying to straighten out their playoff plans. Keep an eye on the two future superstars this weekend.
Statement games for veteran QBs
There are a few veteran quarterbacks who must finish strong to gain the confidence of management and the coaching staff to prove they deserve the starting nod in 2012. A poor or mediocre effort this week and the door will start to shut on their chances of returning next year.
Rex Grossman (Washington) is at home against Minnesota -- the worst pass defense in the NFL. A 300-yard, two-touchdown win would go a long way for his future. There are some concerns in Buffalo after Ryan Fitzpatrick got a big contract midseason, followed by the Bills going on a seven-game losing streak. During the streak, Fitzpatrick has thrown 12 interceptions and been sacked 15 times. The Broncos are in Buffalo this weekend and there are 24,000 unsold seats. Economic pressure meets production pressure for the Bills QB. The Cardinals are on a four-game winning streak with backup QB John Skelton. If he plays and beats the Bengals, there may be no turning back to Kevin Kolb. If Kolb plays and loses, things may be even worse for him. Keep in mind, Kolb has a big contract but coach Ken Whisenhunt drafted Skelton.
Keep it rollin', Romeo
I have known Chiefs interim coach Romeo Crennel for close to two decades and there is no finer gentleman in the football business. Don't misconstrue his quiet approach as weakness; he's a very good coach and last week's win over the Green Bay Packers didn't surprise me. The Chiefs love playing for him and they know he can be the 2012 head oach if they keep winning. I am pretty sure GM Scott Pioli has already whittled his short list of candidates and realizes that Crennel is starting to look pretty good. Crennel is very familiar with the Pioli way of doing things, he will be a big asset in the draft room and he doesn't have an ego that could get in the way of progress. The Chiefs have no bigger rival than the Oakland Raiders, who come to K.C. this weekend. A win here and a season-ending win in Denver next week and the Chiefs could win the division. If that happens, Romeo can move his belongings to the corner office.
Wrong team at wrong time
Life is tough enough for the St. Louis Rams (2-12), Cleveland Browns (4-10), and Chicago Bears (7-7). Their seasons have been a disaster, all three teams take the field this week with backup quarterbacks, and all three teams are on the road. Worst of all, they all play angry playoff teams that lost last week. The Rams head into Pittsburgh, the Browns travel to Baltimore and the Bears are up at Lambeau Field. We could be looking at three blowouts as the playoff teams right their ship and get momentum back on their side. The Steelers have allowed an average of just 11 points in winning the games immediately following their three previous losses this season. The Ravens have not lost two in a row all year and have bounced back with an average of 32 points a game after their losses. The Packers only have one loss all year and will have little trouble getting up for their bitter rivals from Chicago.