— Seven teams, three playoff berths left: this is what Week 17 is all about.
The seven remaining "bubble" teams in the NFL aren't exactly powerhouses. They all have their strengths, but they also have one or two weaknesses that kept them from sewing up playoff spots earlier.
Here's an inside look at what each team does best and what they do worst. When four of these teams are eliminated on Sunday, they won't have to look too far to determine what went wrong.
What they do best: Balance their offense
The Raheem Morris-coached Buccaneers have run 407 times and thrown 467 times. QB Josh Freeman spreads his passes among rookie standout Mike Williams (61 catches), tight end Kellen Winslow (63) and all-purpose back Cadillac Williams (46 catches). Unfortuntately, they've lost Arrelious Benn (25 catches, 17 for first downs or touchdowns) to a knee injury. The Buccaneers aren't outstanding at any one thing, but they are good enough at everything to make their offense difficult to stop.
What they do worst: Stop the run
The Buccaneers allowed 188 rushing yards to the Redskins in Week 14 and 181 rushing yards to the Lions in Week 15. The Saints ripped off 212 rushing yards against the Buccaneers in Week 6, with Chris Ivory (158 yards) doing most of the damage. If the Saints can run against you, they will destroy you, as that game's 31-6 score demonstrates. The loss of rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy further weakened the Buccaneers, making their slim playoff hopes even slimmer.
What they do best: Let Peyton be Peyton
If you've been watching football for the last 10 years, you know what the Colts do well. We all got a chuckle when Peyton Manning waddled 27 yards to ice the game against the Raiders, but did you know that Manning has 17 career rushing touchdowns? He was quite the sneaky bootlegger in his early days.
What they do worst: Return punts
Special teams has been a Colts weakness for years, but the team's punt return unit is particularly inept this year. Blair White and the other Colts punt return men average just 6.9 yards per return, but if you factor in their 21 fair catches, the team gains just 4.1 yards per fielded punt. The Colts need every inch of field position they can get this year, but opponents net 40.9 yards per punt, which doesn't do the offense any favors. If the Colts aren't willing to draft and develop a designated return man, they should just use a peach bushel or something.
What they do best: First down offense
The Giants average 5.4 yards per rush and 8.2 yards per pass attempt on first down. They are well balanced on first down (246 runs, 213 passes), and their ability to stay out of obvious passing situations makes then unpredictable and hard to defend when things are clicking.
What they do worst: Protect the football
Ahmad Bradshaw had his role in the offense reduced because he lost six fumbles. Ball security has long been one of Eli Manning's weaknesses, and he has lost five fumbles this season. Many of Manning's 24 interceptions were the results of tipped passes by wide receivers. With eight turnovers in their last two games, the Giants are getting sloppier as the playoffs approach, which is why they may not participate.
What they do best: Run to set up the pass
The Jaguars have a great running game, and they use play action and the threat of the run to hide the fact that they have no receiving corps, and David Garrard isn't very accurate more than 15 yards downfield. The Jaguars' ability to set up the pass is best seen on first down: Garrard and others are 108-of-170 (63.5 percent) for 1,397 yards and 11 touchdowns on first down, in part because the team is far more likely to hand off (233 first down runs) than take to the air. The Jaguars have six passing plays of 20 or more yards on first and 10, plays that typically started with a play-fake to Maurice Jones-Drew.
What they do worst: Pass defense
The Jaguars' pass-defense statistics are bad — 27 touchdowns, a 64.3 percent completion percentage allowed — until you take a closer look at them. Then, they get worse. In addition to other faults, they are often caught off-guard by third-and-short passes. Opponents are 13-of-16 when passing on third and less than two; the Jaguars also committed a 22-yard pass interference penalty on third-and-short when they last faced the Texans. The Jaguars needed a Hail Mary pass to beat the Texans, who threw for 314 yards against them early in the season. They need a similar miracle to make the playoffs.
What they do best: Execute on third-and-long
The Packers are 26-of-64 (40.6 percent) on third-down conversions of six to 10 yards. They are also 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions from the same range. Other teams, like the Patriots, convert a higher percentage of third-and-longs, but the Packers don't just move the chains. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn completed passes of 66, 48, 47, and 39 yards on third-and-long, plus four other completions of 20 or more yards. Just when the defense thinks it has stopped the Packers, they turn the tables with a big play.
What they do worst: Win close games
The Packers are 3-6 in games decided by seven points or less. Two of their close wins should not have been close: they let the Eagles and Lions climb back into games with late comebacks. The Packers lack a power running game (no healthy running back averages more than 3.7 yards per game), and their blitz-heavy defense isn't built to play prevent, so the Packers need a huge lead to feel safe. That's why they kept throwing bombs with a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter against the Giants: if your brakes don't work, you might as well step on the accelerator and keep driving until you are out of gas.
What they do best: Get pressure from their front four
Steve Spagnuolo, architect of the defensive line that led the Giants to a win in Super Bowl 42, has built a light version of the same scheme in St. Louis. James Hall (10 sacks) and Chris Long (8.5) play the Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora roles on the line, with Fred Robbins (6) and C.J. Ah You (4) contributing on stunts and twists. While 19 of the Rams' 43 sacks came against the Smiths and Skeltons of the NFC West, the team also sacked Philip Rivers seven times, meaning they can harass the good quarterbacks as well as the bad ones.
What they do worst: Create big plays on offense
The Rams have just 16 passing plays of 30 or more yards on the season and just four passing plays of 40 or more yards. Mark Clayton, who caught four of those 16 passes, is now on injured reserve, leaving the Rams with nobody who can stretch a defense. Sam Bradford does a great job of moving the ball in eight yard chunks, but the lack of big-play capability forces the Rams to scratch for every yard.
What they do best: Generate big plays on returns
Return man Leon Washington is the Seahawks' team MVP. He beat the Chargers almost single-handedly with his 253-yard, two-touchdown return effort in Week 3, and without that win the Seahawks wouldn't be part of the final-week story. Marcus Trufant, Lofa Tatupu and Earl Thomas all contributed touchdowns on turnover returns, while Washington and Golden Tate pitched in 84- and 63-yard punt returns to set up scores. For a team that only scored 294 points all season, six return touchdowns had a huge impact.
What they do worst: rebuild
Let's face it: the Seahawks stink, and if they make the playoffs they'll be first-round mincemeat. They should be building for the future, but other than Thomas, on defense, few young players have made an impact. The team forced Matt Hasselbeck to stay in the lineup until his foundation rotted, and the Seahawks roster is littered with players like Brandon Stokley, Chris Baker, Lawyer Milloy, Raheem Brock and other veterans on the downside. Ankle injuries to wide receiver Tate and tackle Russell Okung hampered the development of this year’s rookie class, but it was depressing to watch Hasselbeck throw five-yard passes to Stokley when they should have been giving Charlie Whitehurst and others a longer look weeks ago.