As the NFL season heads into its fourth quarter, the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns are trying to salvage their fairy-tale seasons, while the San Diego Chargers have climbed off the scrap heap and back into the playoff race.
The Chargers, who won five in a row early then stumbled through a three-game losing streak, have won three straight, including an upset victory Sunday at Baltimore. At 8-4, they are a game behind the first-place Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Next up, San Diego plays host to New England on Sunday Night.
"As stacked as everybody is, as close as our division is … you could say it's playoff mode," Chargers linebacker Jarret Johnson said Monday. "I don't know if that's what you should be saying. But that's reality."
In Cleveland, reality bites. Last month, the Browns were in first place in the AFC North, alone atop their division for the first time in 19 years. But, after two losses in three weeks, the 7-5 Browns are tied with Baltimore and Pittsburgh behind Cincinnati, leading the division at 8-3-1.
Not only that, but the Browns could make a quarterback change from struggling starter Brian Hoyer to rookie Johnny Manziel, who directed the team's lone touchdown drive in Sunday's 26-10 loss at Buffalo. After four interceptions in the first nine games, Hoyer has been picked off six times in the past three.
Coach Mike Pettine said he expects to have a decision by Wednesday on which quarterback will get the nod for Sunday's home game against Indianapolis.
"I'm not leaning one way or another," Pettine said Monday. "But there's a lot to consider. ... We do look at the body of work. But given the play recently at that position, it's time to discuss it."
Meanwhile, in Arizona, the duct-taped-together Cardinals are starting to come apart. They have lost two in a row and are desperate for a victory, strange to say for a team that at 9-3 remains in first in the NFC West and shares the league's best record with New England, Denver, Philadelphia and Green Bay.
"The next one is huge to maintain where we're at," said Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians, whose team plays host to Kansas City on Sunday. "The sky has not fallen yet. We're still No. 1, and we're playing at home. We need to stay there this week and just take them one at a time."
After the Chiefs, the Cardinals play at St. Louis, home against Seattle, and at San Francisco. If they can win one, they'll be in good position for a wild-card berth — although they missed the playoffs at 10-6 last season — and they likely would need to win at least two of the final four for a division title, especially the way the Seahawks are surging.
Everyone is dealing with injuries at this point in the season, but Arizona has been hit particularly hard, having lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer last month to go along with a slew of high-profile defenders. In all, 16 players have missed a total of 72 games.
In the second quarter of Sunday's defeat at Atlanta, the Cardinals saw three starters sidelined: safety Tyrann Mathieu (thumb), running back Andre Ellington (hip) and guard Paul Fanaika (ankle).
The next four games will be a significant test for Arians, the leading coach-of-the-year candidate.
"Just go back to work," he said, when asked how he keeps the season from slipping away. "There are two pictures — a two-game losing streak and you're 9-3. Why did you get to 9-3, and how did you get the two-game losing streak?"
Asked whether he's calm with his players or ratchets up the energy and passion now that it's crunch time, Arians said: "I'm just honest. When you stink, you stink. You point out how you stunk and get it corrected. No, I don't throw chairs and holler and do all that stuff that's non-productive. That's not teaching. You have to teach in order to get things corrected."
With four games to go, some teams will ace their test. Others will get schooled.