Teams heading down the homestretch have a lot to prove

The final two weeks of the regular season carry varying degrees of importance for teams that have clinched a postseason berth or, at the very least, are still in the playoff picture.

For some, such as Tampa Bay and Seattle, there was nothing on the line Sunday. Other than the very real possibility of going 16-0, New England has no playoff-related incentive, either.

But other clubs, such as the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns, were playing for their postseason lives.

Let's take a closer look at how they and others handled themselves and what that could mean in January:

New York Giants

Beating the Buffalo Bills 38-21 in wind-swept, rain-soaked Ralph Wilson Stadium was huge. It said that the Giants are up to the challenge of winning a critical game, which is what they'll have in a couple of weeks. Granted, the Bills were already out of the playoffs, but they showed up ready to play. They received an emotional boost from a visit from Kevin Everett, who had not been in Orchard Park since suffering a frightening spinal-cord injury in the season opener against Denver. But that was only good enough for the Bills to build a quick 14-0 lead and look as if they were going to cruise to an easy win.

The Giants battled back, with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combining to rush for 296 yards and three touchdowns against a smallish Bills defense that had been trampled for 163 yards by Jamal Lewis a week earlier. Eli Manning did not look playoff ready, throwing two interceptions and fumbling twice. But if the Giants can continue to succeed with their old-fashioned, power-oriented approach, they have a chance to be competitive.

Washington Redskins

With Todd Collins at quarterback, the Redskins have become a new team. He gives their offense an explosiveness that it sorely lacked when Jason Campbell was under center. And it is a quality that could make the Redskins an intriguing team in the playoffs ... if they get there.

Collins has shed the label of career backup, which he had worn for many years, and is now showing a great deal of effectiveness as a starter in place of the injured Campbell. He threw for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead Washington to a 32-21 victory over Minnesota, which hardly resembled the red-hot team that seemed to be cruising to a playoff berth. The Redskins' final regular-season game is against the Cowboys, who have nothing to play for. After squandering an opportunity for a home win, the Vikings must travel to Denver for their season finale.

Collins shows considerable poise and confidence in the pocket. But it isn't only because he is running an offense that he knows extremely well, having learned it when Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders ran the offense in Kansas City. It also is because, after years of being an understudy, he is ready to show that he has what it takes to be a starter, a role in which he flopped with Buffalo 10 years ago.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints were supposed to be the team desperate to stay alive for a playoff spot. Instead, it was the Eagles who played with a sense of desperation in scoring a 38-23 triumph in the Louisiana Superdome.

The Saints' defense had no answers for Donovan McNabb, who looked spectacular in throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for 37 yards.

Drew Brees tried to carry the Saints' offensive load, but he had no help from his running game. The Saints, who had had the NFL's best third-down offense, failed to convert nine of 12 third-down tries.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars didn't merely clinch a playoff spot with their 49-11 thrashing of Oakland. They made it perfectly clear to the rest of the AFC's postseason teams that they mean business.

The Jaguars seem to look better by the week, and are hitting their stride at the perfect time. Their physical style on both sides of the ball will be difficult for any opponent to handle. The running of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew enhances their punishing defense. And David Garrard is an effective playmaker whose considerable poise will serve him well in the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans' 10-6 victory over the New York Jets keeps them alive for a playoff spot, but it doesn't exactly qualify as a mammoth accomplishment. The Jets are a bad team. The Titans should be able to handle them without much difficulty.

As it turned out, the Jets gave the Titans all they could handle. In fact, the Jets even took points off the board when, after a Mike Nugent field goal, Eric Mangini chose to accept a penalty and try for a touchdown. But the decision backfired when Chad Pennington was intercepted in the end zone.

The Titans can clinch a wild-card berth by beating the Colts in Week 17. Given that the Colts have nothing on the line and will likely be resting starters, Tennessee's chances for a victory appear good. Still, the Titans can't necessarily count on an easy game. Vince Young remains erratic, and their offense does not pile up big plays.

Cleveland Browns

Just when it looked as if the "new Browns" were to take the next step from competitive to legitimate playoff team, they returned to their "old Browns" form by stumbling and bumbling their way to a 19-14 loss to Cincinnati.

In the process, the Browns squandered a chance to clinch their first playoff spot since 2002. They also created a scenario where they need the Titans to lose in Week 17 in order to reach the postseason. If Tennessee wins, the Browns are out.

There was no excuse for the Browns to perform as poorly as they did with so much at stake. They rose to the occasion so often this season, winning shootouts and overcoming a blizzard to beat the Bills, 8-0, in a playoff-like game in Week 15. Maybe they simply had nothing left against the Bengals.

Derek Anderson did the most damage to Cleveland's cause by throwing four interceptions, two of which led to a pair of quick Bengal touchdowns. But the Browns also had receivers who dropped passes. They messed up a field-goal try. They couldn't convert on fourth-and-one. In short, they looked like the "old Browns, a team that does not belong in the playoffs.


New England Patriots

Their 28-7 pounding of the hapless Miami Dolphins makes the same statement that the Patriots have made all season: They have no equal in the league. Although the Patriots already have clinched home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, they will likely dispose of the New York Giants in Week 17 to finish 16-0. And they will likely proceed to win their fourth Super Bowl, meaning that they will achieve an unprecedented 19-0 record. Of course, anything can happen in the playoffs, but I doubt that the Patriots will stumble. Does anyone honestly disagree? I don't think so.

Dallas Cowboys

By clinching home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, the Cowboys not only put themselves in the best position to reach the Super Bowl, but they also clearly established what we've been saying all along: That they are the best team in their conference. They took care of business at Carolina Saturday night. Then they benefited from the Chicago Bears' stunningly easy victory over the Green Bay Packers. Losing Terrell Owens to an ankle sprain is a blow, although having a couple of weeks of rest should help the chances of having him back in action by the Cowboys' first playoff game. If that's the case, no one is preventing the Cowboys from getting to Arizona.

Green Bay Packers

How do the Packers lose to the Bears 35-7? The Packers were supposed to be playing with a fairly sizeable prize in mind: The chance to secure home-field advantage. Instead, they handed it to the Cowboys.

The Packers have to be concerned that they were overwhelmed by the struggling Bears. They have to be doubly concerned that their best hope for success in the postseason, Brett Favre, had a mere 14 yards passing and an interception midway through the third quarter. Brian Urlacher returned one of Favre's two interceptions for a touchdown.

The Packers, who call the "Frozen Tundra" of Lambeau Field home, seemed extremely unprepared to handle the cold and snowy conditions in Soldier Field. Typical of their struggles was the awful performance of their punter, Jon Ryan, who had two attempts blocked, fumbled a snap, and had a nine-yard kick.

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