Column

With the NFL playoff field almost set, Colts will need a miracle in Week 17

The Indianapolis Colts are still mathematically eligible for the NFL playoffs.

As for what needs to happen to get them in?

Paging Stephen Hawking.

Not only do they need to beat Tennessee on Sunday, but they need eight other games to go their way, including the following upsets:

Jacksonville over Houston. Miami over New England. Baltimore over Cincinnati. Buffalo over the New York Jets. Oakland over Kansas City.

In other words, the Colts need to squeeze a fully inflated Wilson through a mouse hole. Blindfolded.

Then again, this is the NFL, where every year just about every team has at least a glimmer of hope. The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, needed to win their finale at Tampa Bay, and get wins by four other AFC teams. Everything broke their direction, and the Steelers not only made it to the postseason but won a playoff game.

With one Sunday left in the regular season, the Colts and Steelers are the two teams on the outside looking in. The six NFC berths are taken — Carolina, Arizona, Washington, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Seattle — with only seedings up for grabs. Four AFC teams have secured spots — New England, Cincinnati, Denver, and Kansas City — while Houston and the New York Jets have win-and-they're-in games.

A look at the pros and cons of every team in the playoff picture:

NFC

CAROLINA

Situation: The Panthers can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over Tampa Bay, or an Arizona loss to Seattle.

They're going all the way: Cam Newton elevates the whole offense and is on his way to being named the NFL's most valuable player. The Panthers have been leading the league all season in take-aways (36) and turnover differential (plus-19).

They're doomed: The Panthers are conspicuously light on offensive weapons, and it doesn't help that running back Jonathan Stewart is nursing a sprained foot. On the other side of the ball, the team has gotten precious little productivity out of defensive ends Jared Allen and Charles Johnson.

ARIZONA

Situation: The Cardinals would clinch the No. 1 seed with a win over Seattle, and a loss by Carolina.

They're going all the way: The balanced Cardinals are ranked No. 1 in scoring and fifth in points allowed. Led by Carson Palmer, they have so many ways to score. Arizona has more touchdowns (57) than punts (55).

They're doomed: Even though the Cardinals sacked Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers nine times last Sunday, generating a consistent pass rush has been a problem. The defense might really wind up missing playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu.

WASHINGTON

Situation: The Redskins have clinched the NFC East.

They're going all the way: The passing offense has come together in a big way for Kirk Cousins and his receivers, including the fragile Jordan Reed. Cousins is making good decisions, not forcing passes as he tended to do in the past, and is gaining confidence by the week.

They're doomed: Unlike their forefathers of the 1980s and early 1990s, these Redskins typically flop in the playoffs. Four of their offensive linemen are first-time starters at their positions this season, and the expected run game never materialized. The pass rush has been lacking.

GREEN BAY

Situation: The Packers would clinch the NFC North with a win or tie against Minnesota.

They're going all the way: The best chance the Packers have is to run the ball, and Eddie Lacy has been solid lately, although not phenomenal. He's sixth in the league in rushing since Week 11. Even though the Packers have struggled to move the ball through the air, they still have Rodgers, among the league's elite quarterbacks.

They're doomed: The Packers have no deep threats. As evidence of that, Rodgers is averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. By comparison, in his MVP season of 2011, he averaged 9.2. The offensive line is poor, but one of the reason Rodgers gets sacked so often — 41 times, after 28 and 21 the past two seasons — is no one is getting open.

MINNESOTA

Situation: The Vikings need to win at Green Bay to clinch the NFC North.

They're going all the way: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater doesn't make a lot of mistakes, and he gets the ball into the hands of All-Pro Adrian Peterson, who has the rushing title within reach. The Vikings are getting healthy on defense, led by former UCLA standout Anthony Barr. If the team can avoid penalties and turnovers, it can hang with anyone.

They're doomed: The offensive line, which lost two starters in the preseason, is average at best. That unit has had some bad games on the road. Although the defense usually does a respectable job of stopping the run, it's capable of a letdown in that department. Green Bay's Lacy has played the Vikings five times, for instance, and has run for at least 100 yards in four of those.

SEATTLE

Situation: The Seahawks have secured the sixth seed. They can move up to the No. 5 if they win and Green Bay wins.

They're going all the way: Marshawn Lynch should be coming back as soon as next week, and with fresh legs. The offense was humming for five games before hitting the wall against St. Louis last Sunday.

They're doomed: The offensive line is susceptible to breakdowns, especially with left tackle Russell Okung slowed by a bad calf. If Lynch doesn't hit the ground running, the burden of the ballcarrying could be shared by Christine Michael and Bryce Brown, and that wouldn't scare opponents.

AFC

NEW ENGLAND

Situation: Patriots would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win at Miami, or a Denver loss or tie against San Diego.

They're going all the way: The Patriots, defending Super Bowl champions, are getting healthy at the right time, with receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and safety Devin McCourty all on the mend.

They're doomed: The offensive line is banged up and vulnerable. The best way to beat New England is by turning up the heat on Tom Brady.

DENVER

Situation: There are two ways Denver can win the AFC West: a win over San Diego, or a loss or tie by Kansas City against Oakland. A Cincinnati loss or tie opens the door for Denver to get a first-round bye, and the No. 1 seed is in play if New England loses.

They're going all the way: Brock Osweiler doesn't need to light up the scoreboard. The key for Denver is to get mistake-free football from its young quarterback — or close to it — and let that dominating defense do its job.

They're doomed: The Broncos have a patchwork offensive line, and their pass rush has been fading a bit lately. With Peyton Manning watching from the sideline, they are inexperienced at the most important position.

CINCINNATI

Situation: The Bengals would clinch a first-round bye with a win over Baltimore and a Denver loss. If Cincinnati were to lose, it could still get a bye if Denver lost and Kansas City won.

They're going all the way: AJ McCarron has done a respectable job in replacing Andy Dalton, who figures to be back soon from his hand injury. With Osweiler, the Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the Texans' Brian Hoyer in the mix, it's not like the AFC picture is teeming with elite quarterbacks.

They're doomed: The Bengals are 0-4 in the playoffs in the Dalton era, and 0-6 under Coach Marvin Lewis. Much as the team tries to downplay that distraction, those numbers loom large.

KANSAS CITY

Situation: The Chiefs would clinch the AFC West with a win over Oakland, and loss by Denver.

They're going all the way: Alex Smith has extensive playoff experience, and the Chiefs' defense is rolling. Kansas City has a plus-15 turnover differential, best in the AFC, and rookie Marcus Peters is tied for the league lead with eight interceptions — two more than the entire team had last season.

They're doomed: Offensively, the Chiefs live off turnovers and short fields. Those are less likely to happen against good teams in the playoffs. Kansas City has gone three weeks without scoring an offensive touchdown in the second half.

NEW YORK JETS

Situation: The Jets would clinch a playoff spot by beating Buffalo, or a Pittsburgh loss to Cleveland.

They're going all the way: New York's defense is healthy, balanced, and experienced, with former USC standout Leonard Williams being the only rookie who plays a lot. The Jets can stop the run. On offense, Fitzpatrick is having a career year.

They're doomed: In the team's current five-game winning streak, Fitzpatrick has 13 touchdowns and one interception. He is playing so well, so far above his career averages, it makes you wonder when the clock will strike midnight. The running game has faded, so even more is riding on Fitzpatrick's arm.

PITTSBURGH

Situation: The Steelers would clinch a playoff spot with a win at Cleveland and a Jets loss.

They're going all the way: Powered by the AFC's top-ranked offense (396.5 yards a game), the Steelers have notched some impressive victories over Arizona, Cincinnati, Oakland and Denver. They can score with anyone, and Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings — better than any quarterback but Brady in these playoffs.

They're doomed: Roethlisberger has five interceptions in the last three games, and he was terrible in last Sunday's loss to the Ryan Mallett-led Ravens. The defense isn't getting enough pressure on quarterbacks, and that secondary is a sieve.

HOUSTON

Situation: The Texans would clinch the AFC South with a win over Jacksonville, or an Indianapolis loss.

They're going all the way: The Texans can do some serious damage on defense, last week forcing four turnovers and limiting Tennessee to 257 yards in a 34-6 blowout. Jadeveon Clowney will rest his injured foot Sunday but is expected back for the first playoff game.

They're doomed: Houston has cycled through four starting quarterbacks and is back to Hoyer. With a ground game that's the definition of average — ranked 16th — a lot of weight falls on a quarterback position that has been the picture of inconsistency.

INDIANAPOLIS

Situation: As mentioned above, in addition to beating Tennessee, the Colts need eight other teams to win: Jacksonville, Miami, Denver, Atlanta (for strength-of-schedule reasons), Baltimore, Buffalo, Oakland and Pittsburgh.

They're doomed: Indianapolis, which for two decades has been the envy of almost everyone for their quarterback stability, has had seven different quarterbacks on its roster this season. Sunday, the just-signed Josh Freeman is starting his first game since 2013.

They're going all the way: Hey, if somehow the Colts make it to the postseason, it must be written in the stars for them.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 03, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Indy-dependent day - The Colts' playoff destiny is far out of their control on the final day of the regular season, with 10 of 12 teams already decided." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
60°