Pat Shurmur and Case Keenum are working on a couple of playoff long shots that would be even more unbelievable than the “Minneapolis Miracle” they crafted 10 months ago in their last win as Vikings offensive coordinator and starting quarterback.
Shurmur, the Giants head coach, is 2-0 coming out of his team’s bye week and still in the NFC East playoff picture despite a 3-7 record. Meanwhile, Keenum and his Broncos are 1-0 coming out of their bye week, 4-6 overall and a dangerous AFC wild-card dark horse that has one-score losses to the 10-1 Rams, 7-3 Texans and 9-2 Chiefs (twice).
“We didn’t do a ton of things right,” Keenum said after last week’s last-second field goal beat the Chargers in Los Angeles and stopped their six-game winning streak. “But we did enough of the things that matter.”
That could describe a typical day for a lot of NFL teams not named the Rams, Chiefs or Saints.
Six of the eight division leaders have had a losing record at some point this season. The Texans won seven straight after starting 0-3. The Steelers (7-2-1) started 1-2-1. The Patriots (7-3) were 1-2. The Cowboys (6-5) were 3-5.
The Giants are the 13th seed in the NFC. Three weeks ago, they went into their bye as a 1-7 definition of NFL dysfunction.
Sunday, they play at floundering Philadelphia with a chance to move to within two games of the division-leading Cowboys and the NFC’s fourth seed. The Eagles are 4-6, losers of three straight home games and were beaten 48-7 at New Orleans last week.
The Giants, meanwhile, are coming off a game in which they scored 38 points and beat the Buccaneers as embattled Eli Manning threw one incompletion while posting a 155.8 passer rating.
The Cowboys lead the NFC East, but they’re inconsistent, to say the least. The Redskins also are 6-5, but they’ve lost quarterback Alex Smith for the season. And the Eagles are so beat to pieces they could be looking at playing the Giants and Odell Beckham Jr. without their top five cornerbacks.
The Giants play each of their division foes one more time. They also play the Bears and Titans at home, and the Colts on the road.
In Denver, the Broncos sit in the 11th seed, but they trail five 5-5 teams in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot. Sunday, they host a Steelers team that’s ripe for a loss. The Steelers trailed in Jacksonville 16-0 with seven minutes left before escaping with a win last week.
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller, “but I like where we are. We’ve only been out of one game. We got totally killed in the Jets game [34-16]. But every other game has had a similar feel.”
The Broncos have had three games decided by last-second kicks by Brad McManus. He made a 36-yarder to beat the Raiders in September, missed a 51-yarder to beat Houston and then hit a 34-yarder to beat the Chargers last week.
Suddenly, a team that had lost six games in seven weeks was able to close out a game against an elite opponent thanks to Keenum and a patchwork offensive line that might prove to be an unexpected blessing.
Two days before the Chargers game, Denver lost its third interior linemen when it learned that left guard Max Garcia had a torn ACL. Billy Turner filled in for Garcia, who was filling in for Ronald Leary.
Elijah Wilkinson made his first pro start filling in for right guard Connor McGovern, who slid over and made his first start at center in place of Matt Paradis.
The result: No sacks for the first time all season. Against a potent pass rush. And a 5.7-yard average per carry.
On the game-winning drive, Keenum went 5-for-5 for 86 yards to five different receivers before spiking the ball with 4 seconds left.
“I always have faith in [Keenum] in those situations,” Miller said. “He’s our sniper, and he’s able to make it happen for us.”
After Pittsburgh, the Broncos play the Bengals, 49ers, Browns and Raiders. They very well could be 8-7 or 9-6 heading into the Week 17 rematch with the Chargers in Denver.
Wouldn’t that be miraculous.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org