Only three of twelve playoff spots are still open, and only a handful of teams have hopes of filling them. For the rest of the NFL, a long lonely winter approaches with only this weekend's games left to salvage any last shreds of pride. But who's got that much pride left? And how much does it really count for?
NFL pundits will tell you that every team is full of professionals, that they all have pride, that no one wants to lay down this weekend. Sorry, not buying.
Sure, they may all say so, but the fight-or-flight mechanism is too heavily ingrained into human nature. Without paychecks or playoffs at stake, it's too easy to give far less than a full "110%" for most of the game, then clean out your locker and retreat into the confines of your McMansion to lick your wounds and rest up for a long offseason.
That said, some of these players and teams are still playing for next year: laying a foundation of wins to carry over to the following year, to make a statement in the division, to attract free agent talent, or simply to secure a better contract next season.
Secured Playoff Spots: GB, SF, NO, DET, ATL, NE, BAL, HOU, PIT
In The Hunt: NYG, DAL, DEN, OAK, CIN, TEN, NYJ
Sixteen teams with hope alive, sixteen more with nothing but pride at stake. Here's a ranking of those teams' predicted effort level. How much does pride really mean?
1. Seattle Seahawks (at ARI). Effort Level: 110%
Pete Carroll has his team drinking some serious Kool-Aid. They've suffered a rash of injuries to their offensive line, but are getting max effort from the young scrubs who replaced them. They've won five of their last seven games, and nearly stole a sixth from division-leading San Francisco last weekend. They'll be playing for position against division rival Cardinals, and each team has an equal 7-8 record overall, and a 3-2 record in the West.
Wildcard: Tarvaris Jackson may be auditioning for the starter's job next season. T-Jax was supposed to be just a placeholder, as the Seahawks were widely expected to be drafting a legitimate "quarterback of the future" in 2012. They still might, but Jackson has shown fluency and athletic ability in Darrell Bevell's offense, and an ability to make plays despite a changing cast of wide receivers.
2. Carolina Panthers (at NO). Effort Level: 109%
Effort in this case may not be reflected in the final score, as the Saints have a shot at a bye week and are not likely to rest anyone or go easy on the Panthers. But coach Ron Rivera is making his case that the team should be expecting to win games, and Cam Newton's talent is enabling the team to believe.
Wildcard: Many of the team's core players (DeAngelo Williams, Charles Johnson) were re-signed last year, but Steve Smith will be looking at the last year of his contract in 2012. He has been reborn with Cam in Carolina, but would love a huge game to help convince Jerry Richardson to pick up next year's $7.75 million dollar price tag. And more importantly, to help him listen when Smith's agent talks extension.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (at DEN). Effort Level: 108%
Todd Haley is now a sour, distant memory for this Chiefs team, after three good weeks under interim coach Romeo Crennel. The players seem to like Crennel and are playing hard for him, knocking off the unbeaten Packers and taking the Raiders to the wire. They're in an ideal position as division spoilers to give Crennel a pair of signature wins, and finish the season strong after being given up for dead.
Wildcard: Kyle Orton is not expected to remain as the starter, but Josh McDaniels' fate could change his fortunes in Kansas City. McDaniels worked with Orton and Chiefs starter Matt Cassel, and is hotly rumored to be heading to KC as offensive coordinator, if he gets booted from the Rams. One way or the other, Orton will be auditioning for future work.
4. Arizona Cardinals (vs SEA). Effort Level: 105%
Ken Whisenhunt found his name prominently among several editions of the coaching hot seat rankings, but got himself off the hook with a stunning second-half turnaround. That he did it with John Skelton at quarterback for most of the way makes the team's performance that much more impressive. Of course, it's a little insulting to the coaching profession to suggest that he "coached" Patrick Peterson to make three game-changing punt returns during his team's hot streak, but hey. Results are results.
Wildcard: Kevin Kolb is being paid to be the team's quarterback of the future, but does the team believe in him? Larry Fitzgerald is the true leader of the team, and is a model citizen where this is concerned, but there may be lingering doubts about Kolb among the rank and file.
5. Miami Dolphins (vs NYJ). Effort Level: 100%
The Jets' paper-thin playoff hopes rest on beating Miami at home. Don't expect the Dolphins to simply lay down and let that happen. While the franchise's fortunes in the draft might improve if the players tank, the players themselves have found their pride reignited under Tony Sparano's late-season resurgence. The effect has carried over under interim coach Todd Bowles' run.
Wildcard: Bowles' tactical ability is an unknown. This is a huge game with huge stakes, and mistakes by an unproven head coach could sow seeds of doubt in this team. The Jets are a mistake-prone but admirably resilient team. You can't assume that an early lead will hold.
6. Buffalo Bills (at NE). Effort Level: 90%
We saw what 110% of the Bills looks like in their first meeting with the Patriots this season. However, the stakes have changed significantly in the rematch. Pride alone is at stake for the Bills, and the Patriots are playing to guarantee a first-week bye in the playoffs. Try as they might, Buffalo may not be able to prevent this game from going south in a hurry.
Wildcard: There are rumblings that Stevie Johnson has worn out his welcome in Buffalo. However, he is still the best big-play receiver that Buffalo has. If he has a monster game and spurs an upset, he may have bought himself another year of Fitz magic. But if he forgets to catch the ball on a succession of big plays, as he has in the past, he may well be ticketed out of town.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (vs IND). Effort Level: 89%
Maurice Jones-Drew is the pro's pro at running back, and won't let his team take this final game lightly. And we assume that Blaine Gabbert is legitimately trying to play quarterback at the NFL level, even if the result looks more like a Scooby Doo gag reel than a future Next Big Thing. (All that's missing from Gabbert's Shaggy-like pocket presence is a guest appearance from Phyllis Diller and the Harlem Globetrotters. Jinkies!)
Wildcard: Interim coach Mel Tucker is trying everything he can think of to keep his job, going so far as to call his jumpity young quarterback "courageous" and "super-tough." But you can spread that stuff only so thin before everyone realizes how badly it stinks.
8. St Louis Rams (vs SF). Effort Level: 85%
The one thing you can say for the Rams in their last days under Steve Spagnuolo: they're playing hard. But there is so little to be gained with a win, and so little talent to go getting a win with, that there is going to be a natural cap on their effort. Especially against a far superior opponent. Kellen Clemens has no illusions of playing for a starting job, and every coach on the staff outside of Spagnuolo is busy updating their LinkedIn profile.
Wildcard: Steven Jackson has achieved every milestone he could hope to achieve as a Ram, except a playoff victory. He carries that hunger on his sleeve, and is the natural and outspoken leader of this team. However, he's never had any success against Patrick Willis and the Niners - if he makes this his personal playoff game, we may see an inspired team effort.
9. San Diego Chargers (at OAK). Effort Level: 80%
This ranking has nothing to do with the team's faith in their head coach, who will almost certainly be fired on January 2nd. General Manager AJ Smith is widely expected to go with him, in a total franchise reboot. With that kind of sweeping change up top, every player on the team's blueprint is going to be keeping an eye on their exit strategy. But that can wait a few hours, when the hated Oakland Raiders come to town. The Chargers will be amped up to spoil any hope the Raiders might have of making the playoffs, even if it means ushering Tebow in instead.
Wildcard: Vincent Jackson is a motivational enigma. When he plays hard, and when he's featured in the game plan, there may not be a more dangerous receiver in the NFL. However, more often than not he Randy Mosses his way through his routes, allowing himself to get swallowed up as passes go to Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd, or Antonio Gates. He has only gotten worse since going through several rounds of contract hell with AJ Smith. How might he react to the idea that a loss may shove Smith out the door? Who knows?
10. Washington Redskins (at PHI). Effort Level: 70%
The fact that any team is willing to go all out for the nutjobs in charge in Washington is surprising to me, but Jim Haslett appears to have built something like an identity on defense, and Rex Grossman has a way of feeding off his constant chorus of doubters. Throw in an opportunity to pile dirt on the hated Eagles, and you've got about as high an effort level as you can get with this screwed up franchise.
Wildcard: Running back Ryan Torain's puzzling struggles and even more puzzling release with one week left in the season may cause more head-scratching among his teammates. It was obvious that he was playing hurt, and just as obvious from last year's results that there was talent there to tap. So why not just IR him if you need the roster spot? Cutting bait on Torain will do little to galvanize the rest of the Redskins, at least not on the side of the coaches.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (vs WAS). Effort Level: 65%
Late-season surge aside, this is still a deeply flawed Philadelphia team. But there is a perverse pride in getting back to .500 after expecting (and being expected) to make a deep playoff run this season. Michael Vick has shown admirable heart in taking pain-killing injections to get himself back on the field to fuel the comeback. And no doubt Andy Reid wants to have the last laugh that a non-losing season would provide. But their psyche is still awful fragile, and if they get down, there is still a lot of quit in this soft Philadelphia team.
Wildcard: Philadelphia is as tied to Andy Reid as a team can be to a coach. But there are significant cracks forming in the foundation, a factor that may push this team to respond one way or the other. How much loyalty is there among Eagles players (not named DeSean Jackson, that is)?
12. Chicago Bears (at MIN). Effort Level: 55%
The Bears are caught in limbo. There's nothing to gain and very little to prove with a victory, but that doesn't mean that losing to the sorry Vikings is an acceptable end to the season. Bears fans will look back at the season that could have been, but for the crippling losses of Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. This game is but a drop in the bucket one way or the other. You're likely to see just enough of an effort to beat Minnesota, but no more.
Wildcard: Kahlil Bell has temporarily claimed the starter's job at running back, the premier position if you're a Chicago Bear (on offense). No one remembers Chicago's quarterbacks, but everyone knows Sweetness. Bell ran hard in his first start, but was also carefree with the football. The Bears will lean heavily on him for the win, but more carelessness with the rock could put his team in a tough spot.
13. Indianapolis Colts (at JAX). Effort Level: 40%
There is very little but pride driving this football team in these closing weeks to the season, which has seen the Colts break their winless streak and follow that up with an unexpected second victory. Closing with a three-game win streak may be meaningless, unless you're looking at draft position. The players won't admit it, and coach Caldwell probably won't be around either way, but Sucking for Luck in this final matchup makes so much more sense in the long run that any pride shown in this game may be wasted. Or worse, regretted.
Wildcard: Donald Brown has been properly labeled as a bust for most of his career, a blatantly horrible first round draft pick for a team that has needed an offensive line rebuild for approximately forever. But D Brown has been running like a beast in these final weeks of the season, attempting to make a statement about his place on the team for next season. If he can turn a few big runs into scoring plays, he could make the Rams a very happy team.
14. Minnesota Vikings (vs CHI). Effort Level: 35%
Here we start entering the twilight zone of the weekend, as this Vikings team is a ship sinking slowly, dependent now on Joe Webb, and his coaches' decision whether or not to play him. The Future (i.e. Christian Ponder) is slipping and The Present (i.e. Adrian Peterson) has been lost. And there's little left of the past to lean on in terms of recent success, or in terms of veteran players. It adds up to a sorry bunch playing out the string.
Wildcard: Leslie Frazier may or may not be coaching with his job on the line. Normally it takes a lot to get fired as coach for the Wilf family, but it's been a warm winter and the ice may be thin in Minnesota.
15. Cleveland Browns (vs PIT). Effort Level: 30%
Cleveland is the tide pool of football, in a constant and delicate state of flux, and barely able to support life. The tide is out on the Browns' season, and possibly on Colt McCoy's career as starting quarterback. Nothing has worked particularly well this season, whether it be McCoy's play, Pat Shurmur's job as head coach, Peyton Hillis' contract pitch, or the emergence of any of the unproven weapons on offense. Drop this team in the NFC West or AFC South, and they might be competitive. Put them up against the murderous thieves of the AFC North, and you have a team in the fetal position.
Wildcard: Hillis is finally healthy enough to resume workhorse duties, and Pittsburgh's interior run defense surrendered some respectable yardage to Steven Jackson a week ago. But will Cleveland be motivated to give their running back any contract leverage by feeding him the rock?
16. Tampa Bay Bucs (at ATL). Effort Level: 5%
The demise of this team is inexplicable, and utterly unprecedented. This was a 4-2 team, ten long weeks ago. They are most certain to become a 4-12 team after this week, the first four-win team to finish with a ten-game losing streak. There are a very few professional football players on this squad, like Ronde Barber, and they are just shaking their heads at the atmosphere of this team. Everyone is out for themselves, whether freelancing and forgetting their assignments, or simply quitting.
Wildcard: Will the Atlanta Falcons care enough to show up for this game? They have their playoff seed locked up, and temptation may be there to rest their starters. On the other hand, though, the Falcons are a team that has struggled with its intensity level at times, and may want to enter the postseason running hot on all cylinders. If they sleepwalk through this one and give Tampa a winnable game, they may rekindle this team's long-dormant competitive fires.