We had done away with the Desperation Index for a time, during the middle of the season when the myth of opportunity held several teams in its stead. But down the stretch, you see the stress in the faces, and you hear the calls for the heads of players and coaches as the survivor pool process starts to take people out. With Week 13 upon us, we begin the Index with the last two Super Bowl champions, who seem intent on proving that repeating is tougher than getting there in the first place...
Desperation Index: 10
New York Giants (6-5) -- It isn't just that the G-Men have lost five of their last six games; it's how those games have gone down. This used to be a team defined by the offensive and defensive lines, and a power running game just this side of unstoppable. But both lines are leaking, and the 270-pound Brandon Jacobs(notes) has been running like he's at a four-way stop all year. If the Giants can't take the Cowboys today, they'll be 6-6 overall and 2-2 in the division, whoch would put them a full division game behind the Cowboys and Eagles. It's safe to say that Tom Coughlin's team will be on the outside looking in if they lose.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) -- Backup quarterback Dennis Dixon(notes) almost pulled it off against the Ravens last week, but he was fooled by a zone blitz in overtime. The Steelers really needed that win, because they and the Ravens have been battling for position behind the Bengals for weeks. They face each other again on December 27, but the Steelers have a lot of work to do before then. They face the Raiders today with Big Ben back in the picture, but the Steeler D is vulnerable and the Raiders have upset the Bengals and Eagles this year. A short week takes them to a should-win at Cleveland on Thursday, then the Packers at home, then the Ravens at home.
Houston Texans/Jacksonville Jaguars (5-6/6-5) -- Both teams are fighting for a wild card game with no chance of catching the AFC South-leading Colts. Both teams might be slightly surprised to be in the playoff race, no matter how tangentially. The Texans have flown close to the sun in close losses to better teams, while the Jags have mixed blowout losses and easy wins to get where they are. When the Texans and Jags hit the field at Jacksonville Stadium today, it will be a (blacked-out) battle between two teams on their last legs.
Desperation Index: 9
Atlanta Falcons (6-5) -- Between the 7-4 hopefuls and the 5-6 fades in the NFC lie the Falcons, who have struggled with injuries, expected problems on defense and surprising issues on offense all season. Matt Ryan(notes) won't even play against the Eagles today, and there are reports that he may miss the rest of the season with ligament damage in his big toe. Chris Redman(notes) will get the start for the Falcons, who are too concerned with their own issues to think about Michael Vick'e(notes) return to the Georgia Dome.
New York Jets (6-6) -- That 3-0 start is way back in the rear view at this point. Rex Ryan's defense has lost serious traction since losing nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) for the season, and Mark Sanchez(notes) has gone "splat" against the rookie wall. They still have half a shot with the struggling Patriots at 7-4, who they've split the season series with. But they have a division record of 2-4, and they'll have to do better than a split in their last four games. That might be a tall order -- after the Bucs and Falcons, the Jets have the Bengals (who will probably still have something to play for) and Colts (who may be playing for 16-0) to end their regular season.
Desperation Index: 8
Denver Broncos (7-4) -- The Broncos defied all the odds with their 6-0 start, but they've come decisively back to earth since. Not only have they lost four of their last five games, but the losses haven't been close. They managed to right the ship against the shellshocked Giants, but today's game against a spirited (if relatively untalented) Chiefs team is of paramount importance. The Chargers are on fire, and they took over the AFC West when they beat Denver 32-3 two weeks ago. Denver has displayed the will and the skill to impress, and they've followed it with confusing vulnerability. What will they have by season's end?