(Reuters) - The pressure mounts this week for the rejuvenated New Orleans Saints as they top a list of teams facing crunch time in their bids to secure a spot in the National Football League (NFL) playoffs.
The Saints, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers are among the teams that can remove roadblocks on their path to the playoffs or face a harrowing final home stretch to the schedule.
“Look at the time of the year,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin told the team’s website. “After Thanksgiving, you better be playing your best football or on your way toward playing your best football if you’re going to be representative.”
After an 0-4 start to the 2012 season, the Saints (5-5) have stormed back into the wild card chase but face a crucial clash on Sunday against the visiting San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1).
The Saints are led by quarterback Drew Brees, who has tossed a league-best 28 touchdowns this season, but will rely heavily on an improving defense against the National Football Conference (NFC) West-leading 49ers.
Colin Kaepernick, who was brilliant in his first career start on Monday leading the 49ers to a 32-7 demolition of the Chicago Bears, is expected to get the start ahead of concussed Alex Smith in what has developed into a minor quarterbacking controversy in the Bay Area.
There is no quarterbacking controversy in San Diego but the Chargers (4-6) need Philip Rivers, who has 14 interceptions this season, to avoid turnovers if they are to have any hope of stopping the high-flying Baltimore Ravens (8-2).
The Chargers got the season off to a blazing start going 3-1 but have since stumbled and are three games back of the American Football Conference (AFC) West-leading Denver Broncos and in desperate need of win to stay in the wild card race.
The Bills (4-6) and Miami Dolphins (4-6) are in the same dire straits in the AFC East, sitting four games back of the New England Patriots and on the fringes of the wild card fight.
The Bills head to Indianapolis to take on Andrew Luck and the surprising Colts (6-4), who have post-season plans of their own while the Dolphins will try to halt a three-game skid and get back in the playoff picture when they welcome the Seattle Seahawks to South Florida.
The Bears, Giants and Steelers are not yet in desperation mode but wins on Sunday could set up all three contenders with a less jittery finish to the 16-game regular season.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who was red hot to start the season, has gone stone cold going three games without throwing a touchdown.
Manning, the most valuable player of last season’s Super Bowl, will have to be on target come Sunday as the Giants (6-4) face another Super Bowl MVP in Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers (7-3).
”You can expect a good game,“ said Rodgers. ”They’re a really good football team, they’re first in the division, we’re tied for the division lead, and so, you have a couple of division leaders squaring off.
“I think that’s pretty exciting, plus the last two teams to win Super Bowls.”
While the Packers and Giants both top their respective divisions their leads are far from secure.
The Giants, who have lost their last two, are being chased by the Washington Redskins (5-6) and Dallas Cowboys (5-6) while the Packers are locked in a tight battle with Bears (7-3).
The Bears, who have struggled without Jay Cutler losing two straight, hope to have their number one quarterback in the lineup for a key clash with the NFC North division rival Minnesota Vikings.
The Steelers (6-4) are also trying to survive without their starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who remains sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Pittsburgh, who watched backup Byron Leftwich go down in a loss to Baltimore last week, will start third string Charlie Batch against the Cleveland Browns in need of a win if they are to keep pace with AFC North rivals the Ravens.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue