This has been the most unpredictable of N.F.L. seasons. Call it parity or mediocrity, but only the , the Atlanta Falcons and the have secured playoff spots in the 12-team field. The and the must wonder if they have fallen into a fever dream. They probably still remember what it felt like to cruise toward the Super Bowl. It was just a year ago, after all, that their division opponents put up little fight, that their playoff position was guaranteed, that they were already well into their meticulous plans to rest their most critical players.
But Super Bowl hangovers can linger, especially when compounded by ennui and injuries. On Sunday, during the most critical slate of games of a topsy-turvy N.F.L. season, the Colts and the Saints found themselves in oddly unfamiliar territory, playing must-win games in December.
When it was over, their paths had diverged as surely as they did on that Sunday night in February. The Colts won, the Saints lost, the playoff picture remaining muddled.
Two weeks ago, the Colts were on the brink of dropping out of the playoffs for the first time in nine years. But on Sunday, they kept alive their hopes of winning the A.F.C. South and going to the playoffs for the ninth straight season with a 34-24 victory over Jacksonville. The Jaguars would have won the division with a victory.
Instead, if the Colts beat Oakland and Tennessee in the final two weeks of the season, they will win the division and the Jaguars will once again remain home. Jacksonville Coach Jack Del Rio said he fully expected to leave Indianapolis as the division champion.
“We knew our backs have been against the wall for a couple of weeks now,” Colts Coach Jim Caldwell said. “We’re still just giving ourselves another opportunity down the road. We have another game, just like this game, with the same thing at stake. It’s not like anything has changed for us.”
For the Saints, though, something definitely changed. The oddly timed mistakes and unevenness that marked the early part of their season resurfaced in a 30-24 loss to Baltimore. On Sunday, the defense allowed 208 yards rushing.
The Saints had won six games in a row, but, just like the Colts, they went the way of their quarterback. ’s three-game interception-a-thon seems to have ended at the right time. He completed 29 of 39 passes for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions as the Colts also got 155 yards rushing. Brees helped the Saints roar back from a 21-7 deficit to tie the in the fourth quarter only to throw a tipped-ball interception that ended the Saints’ final drive.
If the Saints are to return to the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to do it as a wild-card team. Their loss, combined with Atlanta’s victory over Seattle, leaves the Saints two games behind Atlanta, who are the likely top seed in the N.F.C.
“We control our destiny,” quarterback said. “It’s too early to look at the playoff picture right now, but if we are a wild-card team, the road to the Super Bowl will be on the road. We can handle that.”
The may not have to. Their victory over the , on the strength of their running game, gave them a one-game lead over the in the A.F.C. West, with home games against Tennessee and Oakland remaining. San Diego’s playoff chances were further imperiled when beat the Steelers, because the Jets and Chargers are vying for one of two A.F.C. wild-card spots.
But the Steelers’ loss gave renewed life to the Ravens. Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot based on the strength-of-schedule tie breaker. But the Steelers and the Ravens are tied for the A.F.C. North lead, although Pittsburgh currently leads the tie breakers for the division title, too.
Baltimore, as it turned out, may best symbolize the utter chaos of this season. Its victory over New Orleans was the ninth game this season in which the Ravens let a fourth-quarter lead slip away, an indication that perhaps one of the most vaunted defenses of the last decade could finally be wearing down. But with the Saints rolling and the Ravens’ division hopes fading, the defense suddenly righted itself, stopping New Orleans on two straight fourth-quarter drives and keeping Baltimore’s division hopes alive.
Linebacker , the sage of the Ravens’ defense, said that when the Saints tied the score, he thought nothing of the team’s recent history.
“As long as it’s a tie score, we can’t lose,” he said. “And that’s what I was walking on the sideline telling the guys: ‘Let’s go finish it now. Let’s finish it.’ ”
Now they and the multitude of teams still alive must finish the season.