The New York Giants can put away their calculators.
So can the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals.
With the fuzzy NFL postseason picture coming into focus, those teams have the clearest path to the playoffs. Sunday, they can secure their baseline objectives — a spot in the tournament — by winning their games at home.
With a victory over Philadelphia, the Giants can lock up the NFC East. Should it win and Dallas lose, New York would collect a first-round bye — quite a gift heading into the most tension-filled month of the regular season.
If they beat Cleveland, the Titans will win the AFC South. They’ll keep one eye on the New York Jets-San Francisco 49ers game too because a Jets loss — coupled with a Tennessee win — means the Titans get a bye.
By beating the St. Louis Rams, or if the 49ers lose, the Cardinals will clinch their first division title since 1975, and will play host to a playoff game for the first time since 1947.
“It’s right in our grasp,” Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin told reporters. “All we’ve got to do is take care of business.”
Lately, that’s been easier said than done. The Cardinals are coming off consecutive losses, most recently a 48-20 roasting by Philadelphia. After seeing so many promising seasons fall apart, at least some Arizonans have to wonder whether this year was yet another mirage in the desert.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he doesn’t want his players to dwell on the fact that, by winning a division title, they can do something no Cardinals team has done in 33 years. By his thinking, they can toast to that later.
“If we do get in, then that’s something we can reflect on after the fact,” he said. “But right now, we know this is going to be a division game, which is always tough. We’re really focused on getting back on the game and playing better than we did last week.”
The Giants are doing just fine on the field, having won 11 of 12, but off the field is another matter. Headlines-wise, clinching a spot in the playoffs is second to the drama surrounding suspended receiver Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub.
Among those who have criticized Burress is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now come reports that Pro Bowl linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was with the star receiver at the club, allegedly tried to hide the gun.
So more hurdles for a franchise that has cleared several of them this season, beginning with the loss of star defensive ends Michael Strahan (retirement) and Osi Umenyiora (injury).
Said quarterback Eli Manning: “I don’t know if it’s just being in New York or what causes it, but it always seems like there’s something going on, there’s a distraction and we’ve had our share of them. I think myself, the players, the coaches have just learned how to cope with them.”
The Giants and Cardinals are playing rematch games. New York beat Philadelphia, 36-31, a month ago; the Cardinals beat the Rams, 34-13, in Week 9.
Tennessee, meanwhile, hasn’t played Cleveland in three years. The Browns won then, but the situation is vastly different now. Whereas Cleveland is down to its third quarterback and has lost four of five, the 11-1 Titans are coming off a 37-point win at Detroit — the franchise’s largest margin of victory since 1990.
The heat will be on Cleveland quarterback Ken Dorsey, who will face a defense that leads the AFC with 17 interceptions.
Tennessee made the playoffs last season, but needed to win its finale to secure a spot. Now, the Titans have some breathing room.
“You kind of start to look forward, but you can’t look past this week,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch told reporters. “We haven’t clinched a playoff spot. We haven’t even clinched our division. We have to keep winning. But a win this week would be huge and would be a huge step toward any postseason possibilities.”
A quick first step is nice. A strong finish is better.