With so much focus on which teams will make the playoffs and where they'll be seeded, it's easy to forget about the clubs that have been all but eliminated from the postseason chase ... yet could very well have a major say in how it turns out.
If the season ended today...
The final five weeks provide numerous opportunities for teams out of contention to become spoilers, either by eliminating teams on the bubble or altering a contender's playoff positioning.
Some appear more capable of doing so than others. For instance, clubs such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Oakland don't qualify because, even though they face contenders, they've given almost no indication they can compete with them.
The following is a list of five teams that figure to have the greatest potential to impact, in one form or another, what the final playoff picture will look like:
1. Washington Redskins (3-8)
Chances to spoil: Dec. 6 vs. New Orleans (11-0); Dec. 21 vs. N.Y. Giants (6-5); Dec. 27 vs. Dallas (8-3); Jan. 3 at San Diego (8-3).
Why they just might: Did you see their Week 12 performance against Philadelphia? The Redskins played well enough to win. They have shown plenty of dysfunction and coach Jim Zorn is likely to be replaced after the season. Still, they aren't quite as bad as the record indicates. That could be bad news for the Saints' hopes of a perfect season, especially if they haven't gotten past the euphoria of their Monday night humiliation of New England and are looking ahead to their Dec. 13 NFC South showdown with Atlanta. The Redskins also figure to play the two divisional opponents tough, and could trip up the Chargers' hopes of landing a No. 2 playoff seed (on the assumption that Indianapolis is going to be No. 1). They have the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, and are seventh overall in fewest yards allowed. They also are fourth in the league in sacks per attempt, which should come in handy against seldom-sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees. So would the possible return of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from an ankle injury.
2. Buffalo Bills (4-7)
Chances to spoil: Dec. 20 vs. New England (7-4); Dec. 27 at Atlanta (6-5).
Why they just might: The Bills have been a different team since firing Dick Jauron and making defensive coordinator Perry Fewell their interim coach. Fewell has brought an air of excitement and enthusiasm to the players, who seemed to sleepwalk through many of their games with the ultra-dull Jauron in charge. Under Fewell, the Bills are showing much more aggressiveness on offense and are generating strong pressure from a blitz-heavy defense. He also has made two key lineup changes that are paying dividends, with Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing Trent Edwards at quarterback and Fred Jackson taking over for Marshawn Lynch at running back. The Patriots seem like a lock to win the lowly AFC East, but the Bills did almost knock them off in the season opener at Foxborough.
Also of note: While the Bills won't spoil the Colts' playoff standing when they host Indianapolis on Jan. 3, they could be in position to spoil a perfect season. The Colts could very well sit most of their starters for the regular-season finale at Ralph Wilson Stadium because they'll have a No. 1 playoff seed clinched by then.
3. Carolina Panthers (4-7)
Chances to spoil: Dec. 13 at New England (7-4); Dec. 20 vs. Minnesota (10-1); Dec. 27 at N.Y. Giants (6-5); Jan. 3 vs. New Orleans (11-0).
Why they just might:Matt Moore replacing injured Jake Delhomme at quarterback might provide a badly needed lift to the Panthers' passing game. Is it likely? Probably not. But the Panthers can't do any worse than having Delhomme, struggling with an injured finger, repeatedly misfire and put the ball into the hands of the opposition. Moore showed flashes of promise during relief appearances in 2007. He throws the ball well and is a talented athlete. The Panthers also have the NFL's fourth-best rushing offense, and are third in the league against the pass.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (3-8)
Chances to spoil: Dec. 6 vs. Denver (7-4); Dec. 27 at Cincinnati (8-3); Jan. 3 at Denver (7-4).
Why they just might: Granted, it's a tough case to make in the aftermath of the Chiefs' 43-14 loss to San Diego in Week 12. But this is the same team that knocked off Pittsburgh seven days earlier. The Chiefs rank near the bottom of the league in all statistical categories, but they have a few bright spots. The brightest is running back Jamaal Charles, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. His tremendous speed makes him a threat to go the distance whenever the ball is in his hands, and that includes kickoff returns. Chris Chambers has been a nice addition to the receiving corps. And the Chiefs have played well on special teams, an area of particular vulnerability for the Broncos, whom K.C. can victimize twice in the final five weeks.
5. Chicago Bears (4-7)
Chances: to spoil: Dec. 13 vs. Green Bay (7-4); Dec. 20 at Baltimore (6-5); Dec. 28 vs. Minnesota (10-1).
Why they just might: It's hard to imagine, yes, but maybe the Bears will find a way to actually move the ball on the ground and through the air. Maybe their offensive line will actually create running room for Matt Forte and provide sufficient protection for Jay Cutler. Maybe their receivers will actually figure out how to get open. Perhaps the Bears could try to just pound the football and reduce the number of times that Cutler has to throw … and risk yet another interception. OK, these are all longshots. But the Bears did find a way to beat four teams, including the Steelers. Knocking off any of the contenders that remain on their schedule is a way to at least salvage some of what is left of their miserable season.