Crunch time has arrived in the NFL, with playoff spots and postseason seeding at stake over the final two weekends of the regular season.
Some contending teams can feel secure that such significant games are in the hands of highly accomplished quarterbacks such as New England’s Tom Brady, Carolina’s Cam Newton, Arizona’s Carson Palmer, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
But not every NFL contender has that luxury. There also are teams in the thick of the playoff chase that must cross their fingers and hope for the best at quarterback. That group includes the Cincinnati Bengals with AJ McCarron, the Denver Broncos with Brock Osweiler, the Houston Texans potentially with Brandon Weeden and the Indianapolis Colts possibly with Charlie Whitehurst.
It will be McCarron vs. Osweiler when the Bengals play Monday night at Denver. It is a significant game with the Bengals, at 11-3, just ahead of the Broncos, who are 10-4, for the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed behind the Patriots.
McCarron will make his second start in place of Andy Dalton, the league most valuable player candidate for the Bengals who is sidelined by a broken right thumb. The Bengals seem to be holding out hope that Dalton can return to the lineup in the postseason. In the meantime they must try to get by with McCarron, a second-year pro who had thrown only four regular season passes in the NFL until Dalton got hurt.
The Bengals did not ask McCarron to do too much in his first start, a victory at San Francisco. He had only 21 passing attempts. But he was efficient, with 15 completions and a touchdown pass. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception, although he was sacked four times. More might be needed from him against the Broncos.
“I think the biggest thing was turnovers, for sure,” McCarron, who threw two interceptions in relief against the Steelers in the game in which Dalton got hurt, said at a news conference this week. “I had some in the first game. That’s just not me.
“But you make those mistakes, you’ve got to learn from them. In my situation, you’ve got to learn from them quick. . . . I felt like I did a better job of playing well and taking care of the football also in the San Fran game.”
Osweiler is to make a sixth straight start for Denver as Peyton Manning remains unavailable because of his ailing foot. Manning is not even scheduled to participate in practices this week, making it likely that he will be on the inactive list Monday. The Broncos won the first three games started by Osweiler but have suffered losses in his past two outings. Osweiler completed only 21 of 44 passes in last Sunday’s defeat at Pittsburgh, although he did throw for 296 yards and three touchdowns.
“We do understand what is at stake,” Osweiler said in a midweek meeting with reporters. “I think as you move along in a season and the closer you get to January, the stakes always go up. So we’re obviously very aware of how important Monday night is to this football team.”
Weeden could get the starting nod for the Texans when they play Sunday at Tennessee, with Brian Hoyer subject to the NFL’s concussion protocol. Weeden landed in Houston after being released by the Dallas Cowboys. He failed to win a game as a fill-in Cowboys’ starter this season for Tony Romo. But Weeden played well last Sunday against the Colts as the Texans moved into first place in the AFC South. He took over for the injured T.J. Yates and connected on 11 of 18 throws for 105 yards and a touchdown as the Texans secured their first-ever triumph in Indianapolis.
The Colts try to bounce back Sunday at Miami and, with Andrew Luck still unable to play, again plan to have 40-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck in the starting lineup. But Hasselbeck has an assortment of injuries that suggests his body might have given about all that it can this season. Whitehurst played in relief against the Texans and again is next in line to take over if Hasselbeck is unable to start or unable to finish.
Game of the week:Bengals at Broncos (Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Broncos not only are attempting to catch the Bengals in the race for playoff seeding. They’re also trying to stay ahead of the Chiefs, who are now only one game back in the AFC West.
Games to watch:
Packers at Cardinals (Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET, Fox): The Cardinals can cement their status as the primary challenger to the Panthers in the NFC.
Panthers at Falcons (Sunday at 1 p.m., Fox): Carolina goes for win No. 15 against a team that it beat by 38 points only two weeks earlier. The Panthers also can clinch the top seed in the NFC, which would give Coach Ron Rivera a rest-or-not decision to make next week.
Patriots at Jets (Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS): The Patriots can secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed and, as an added bonus, damage the Jets’ playoff chances.
Redskins at Eagles (Saturday at 8:25 p.m., NFL Network): Someone has to win the NFC East. The Redskins have their chance to seal the outcome.
Giants at Vikings (Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC): The Giants could have next to nothing at stake if they’re eliminated in the NFC East. Or they could have plenty at stake. Either way, they’ll be minus suspended WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Games to avoid:
Chargers at Raiders (Thursday at 8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Network): Shouldn’t this game be played in L.A.?
49ers at Lions (Sunday at 1 p.m., Fox): Can Martha Firestone Ford fire Jed York and Trent Baalke for letting Jim Harbaugh leave the 49ers?
Cowboys at Bills (Sunday at 1 p.m., Fox): The Cowboys are giving Kellen Moore the start at QB because, well, just because.
Jaguars at Saints (Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS): One of these teams is two games out of first place. And the other one is the Saints.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints (foot): Brees reportedly has a tear of the plantar fascia in his right foot. He missed a game earlier this season because of a shoulder injury.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (ankle): He is expected to play against the Giants.
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos (foot): He appears headed to the inactive list for Monday night’s game.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans (knee): His rookie season could be over.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Colts (jaw, ribs): Hasselbeck is plenty tough but his list of injuries grows weekly. He has exited each of the past three games at some point with an injury.
Brian Hoyer, QB, Texans (concussion): He practiced on a limited basis Wednesday but remains subject to the concussion protocol.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers (foot): The Panthers are certain to handle his injury carefully.
Top matchup: Panthers CB Josh Norman vs. Falcons WR Julio Jones
Scrutiny of Norman will be intense after his on-field confrontations last weekend that led to Odell Beckham’s suspension. He again must deal with an elite receiver, although the Falcons were not competitive the last time these two teams played.