As NFL playoff picture comes into focus some teams' futures are fuzzy

As NFL playoff picture comes into focus some teams' futures are fuzzy
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, is sacked by Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Antonio Smith during the second half of the Raiders' 24-13 win Sunday. (Ryan Kang / Associated Press)

As if the weekend wasn't bad enough for San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh — reeling from Sunday's loss at Oakland — the 49ers coach chipped a front tooth Saturday night while biting into a piece of meat.

"Two-dollar steak," he joked with reporters Monday in a light moment, increasingly rare with his team these days.


Back-to-back defeats largely have rendered the 49ers toothless, their playoff hopes dangling by a thread with an ominous road game at Seattle on Sunday.

With three weeks to go in the NFL's regular season, the postseason picture is coming into focus, and some teams that looked promising a few weeks ago are fading from sight. The 49ers are one, but so are the Cleveland Browns, who lost a 25-24 heartbreaker to Indianapolis in the final minute Sunday.

Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer showed a tinge of frustration Monday when asked about his future with the franchise, especially with the public drumbeat growing louder for rookie Johnny Manziel to step in at quarterback.

"It's crazy how fast things change," Hoyer told reporters. "I feel like four or five weeks ago we're talking about contract talks and now we're talking about if I'm even going to be staying here. It's the furthest thing from my mind right now."

Miami's make-or-break showdown with Baltimore didn't go the Dolphins' way, and that 28-13 loss could dash their hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

The Kansas City Chiefs, who were 7-3 in mid-November and had beaten Seattle for their fifth straight win, have lost three in a row and are careening toward irrelevance.

In San Diego, the Chargers dropped a rung on the seeding ladder with Sunday night's 23-14 loss to New England, but still would be a playoff team if the current rankings hold. As it stands, Pittsburgh would get the first AFC wild-card berth, and the Chargers would get the second.

But the season doesn't end today. There are three arduous weeks of football left, and for the Chargers that means games against Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City, with about as much wiggle room as a middle seat in economy class.

While NFL teams universally embrace the one-game-at-a-time philosophy, staunchly refusing to look too far into the future, it's sometimes safe to talk about the playoffs.

That's the case with the Broncos, for instance, as they can clinch the AFC West and a home playoff game by beating the Chargers on Sunday. But even that escaped the notice of defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, whose team currently is the AFC's No. 2 seed behind New England.

"I didn't even know we can clinch this week," Knighton said Monday. "That's the first thing on our checklist, to win our division, and once we handle that, we'll focus on the next task at hand. Like I said, we're just taking it a week at a time. We'll watch the previous game we played against San Diego, watch the games they've been playing since then and just go on the road and execute against a team that's hungry to get in the playoffs."

Indianapolis is in a similar situation. If the Colts beat or tie Houston at home Sunday, they will secure the AFC South. They are now seeded third.

After Sunday's victory over Tennessee, Houston Texans Coach Bill O'Brien reminded his players of the do-or-die nature of the upcoming game at Indianapolis. According to the Houston Chronicle, O'Brien yelled during his postgame locker-room speech: "I'm going to say something negative: We have never won there. We've never won there! Let's take that. Let's take it!"

Arizona emerged from Sunday atop the NFC West and, for the time being, as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But that was meaningless to Coach Bruce Arians, who is preparing the Cardinals for a Thursday night game at the red-hot St. Louis Rams. With a playoff picture as firm as wet cement, coasting is not an option.

Asked what makes December football special, Arians said: "For some teams, it doesn't mean a damn thing except the season's almost over. I've been on that side. This one means a lot because everything rides from here on in, so every game is really a playoff game, especially the way the NFC is sitting right now with so many teams at nine [wins]. Every game's a playoff game."

In Philadelphia, the Eagles were recovering Monday from a home loss against Seattle, and looking forward to Sunday's home game against Dallas. The victor of that game will be in the driver's seat to win the NFC East.

"Everybody understands that the more games you win, the better opportunities you have to play in the postseason and that's what this deal is all about: trying to qualify for the postseason," Philadelphia Coach Chip Kelly said Monday. "But I don't think talking about it does anything for us. I mean, we are going to meet for a certain amount of time for me to go over playoff scenarios with them, but it means absolutely nothing if we don't play well against Dallas.

"Bottom line is, let's just play well in our next game."

It's all about action now. Talk is as cheap as, well, a two-dollar steak.

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer