NFL Playoff Picture: AFC Contenders And Pretenders
By my count, 11 teams have stunk foully enough to extricate themselves from the playoff conversation: the Dolphins, Browns, Jaguars, Colts, Redskins, Vikings, Buccaneers, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams.
Then, of course, there’s the “Once Upon a Dream” Team—the Eagles, who, despite having long-since cashed in their life insurance policy are still hanging on in the postseason conversation. Blame their fans.
But I’d rather talk about the AFC for now. Let’s separate the contenders from the pretenders. You can find my NFC list here.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3)
Remaining tough games: vs. CIN, @SF
How fun is this “Young Money” receiving corps to watch? Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. I can’t say I like the nickname, but I do like seeing these guys put on a show every week. They’re flashy, they execute well and, damn, the speed of these guys. It’s no wonder the organization was okay parting with Santonio Holmes. They obviously knew what they had waiting in the wings.
As for the rest of the team, it’s hard, once again, to find fault. The running game needs work, but Rashard Mendenhall has shown bursts of promise (he had his first multi-touchdown game of the season Sunday against the Bengals) and continues to be a factor in the offensive game plan – he’s had double-digit rushing attempts in all but one game this season. The defense has been very good as well, despite injuries. The licking they put on Tom Brady in Week 8 is one he won’t quickly forget. More than anything, though, the Steelers pass the eye test. They look dominant on both sides of the ball. A season sweep at the hands of the Ravens can’t feel good, but this is a team that will be competing for the Super Bowl, which should be consolation enough for that small indignity.
Remaining tough games: vs. ATL, @CIN, vs. TEN
Before you rip the newly-minted Matt Leinart Era, consider this: We haven’t seen him play since 2009, and we have yet to see him attempt a pass in Texan blue and red. He’s been unfocused and unreliable in the past, but this is just his second NFL team, and he completed over 65 percent of his passes his last season in Arizona. Also, Andre Johnson is returning this week, and the double-headed monster of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is in full effect. It’s not inconceivable that Leinart can hold down the fort effectively until Matt Schaub returns and, at worst, lead them to playoff success.
More than anything, this Texans defense has been a monster unleashed. The 3-4 is working for them like gangbusters. They’re top 5 across the board in major defensive categories and have forced 20 turnovers so far. Remaining games against the Falcons and the Titans shouldn’t be a problem unless Leinart kindergarten-level pees the bed, and Cincinnati will be a Courtney Love-level mess (having played the Steelers and Ravens in the span of three weeks) by the time they host the Titans in Week 14. This team is an under-the-radar giant. Look for them to make Saints in-2009 level noise in the playoffs.
Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
Remaining tough games: vs. CIN, vs. SF, @SD, @CIN
As talented as the Ravens are, there’s a clear-cut formula for shutting them down: Get an early lead, force turnovers and take the ball out of Ray Rice’s hands. Last week, the Seahawks mixed that concoction to Breaking Bad perfection. They jumped ahead 7-0, forced two fumbles from David “Hands of Stone” Reed and made Joe Flacco throw a career-high 52 times. Rice had just five carries and the Seahawks won 22-17. The Jaguars followed a similar pattern in Week 7 (Rice – 8 carries for 28 yards), as did the Titans in Week 2 (Rice – 13 for 43 yards). That’s three losses to three (at the time) sub-.500 teams. A close win over Arizona nearly made four.
When the Ravens have a tough matchup (i.e. games against the Steelers), they play better, but it’s only a matter of time before their lack of focus (likely a product of a newer, more youthful core) catches up with them. They’re too good not to get a wild card berth, but I see them as more Philadelphia Phillies than St. Louis Cardinals, if that makes sense. I imagine they’ll get bounced in the first round by a weaker, more opportunistic team (i.e. whoever wins the AFC West), robbing us of a potential AFC Divisional showdown with the Steelers.
Prediction: Contender (with reservations)
Remaining tough games: @BAL, @PIT, vs. HOU, vs. BAL
The Bengals are trending downward. They allowed over 300 yards of total offense for the third straight week on Sunday and managed to stop the Steelers from scoring in the red zone just once in four attempts in a 24-17 loss. This doesn’t bode well as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. The hallmark of the Striped Ones so far has been the Rookie Connection – QB Andy Dalton to WR A.J. Green – but Dalton had two picks against the opportunistic Steelers, and it’s safe to assume that trend will continue against the Ravens and the Texans (not to mention the Steelers again). It’s safe to assume as well that those four smash-mouth matchups (@BAL, @PIT, vs. HOU, vs. BAL) will yield injury losses --possibly some significant ones.
A relatively easy stretch of schedule gave fans hope in Cincinnati – and there’s still reason for hope thanks to Dalton’s unexpectedly great rookie season – but Sunday was a reality check, and there are more to come. The Bengals will claw like hell to keep the wild card spot they currently hold. Ultimately, though, it’ll wind up in the hands of a more deserving team from the AFC East. Keep reading to find out which one. Yeah, sorry, I don’t like cliffhangers either.
New England Patriots (6-3)
Remaining tough games: vs. BUF
Talk of the Patriots being the best team in the AFC is absurd at this point. The Darth Vader-esque grasp they have over the Jets notwithstanding, there are too many concerns with their roster to call them the best at anything. Wes Welker is a special player, but he’s not the kind of special player that Randy Moss was back in the day. Moss was a physical presence, a threat to score on any play.
Welker isn’t like that. The last three weeks have proved he can be contained (if not outright shut down) with the right defensive personnel. Likewise, we’ve seen this season that Tom Brady isn’t as invincible as we thought. A multiple interception game from him was unfathomable last year. Now it happens every third game. And that defense. Whew. They’ve allowed 20 or more points six times already. Their secondary is a mess. Given the strength of their remaining schedule, the Pats will almost certainly win the AFC East. After that, though, it’s anybody’s guess.
Remaining tough games: @NYJ, vs. TEN, @SD, @NE
The Jets have their number. They’re awful on the road. And their offense is stagnating worse than The Office, post Michael Scott. The Bills are in serious trouble, and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon – not with away games against the Jets, Bolts and Pats on the horizon. When they were winning, Chan Gailey was the master of emphasizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses. After two straight weeks under 20 points, though, his offense just looks unsophisticated. Like Aladdin without the genie, Ryan Fitzpatrick's magic appears to have run out. At this point, it’ll take a miracle to turn the tide.
New York Jets (5-5)
Remaining tough games: vs. BUF, vs. NYG
Contrary to popular belief, the Jets don’t live and die by Mark Sanchez. Some of the Sanchize’s poorer performances have been wins, and some of his most productive ones have been losses (2 TDs, 0 INT, 61.5 percent completion vs. the Patriots in Week 5, for instance). Their success depends more on whether they can force turnovers and get their run game going, which will be harder to do Thursday against the Broncos without LaDainian Tomlinson. LT says he’ll be back by the Buffalo game in Week 13, though, and, despite the performance against New England, it seems like this defense is coming together. In terms of winning the division, it’ll be hard to overcome the two-loss deficit to the Patriots (who have a more favorable remaining schedule), but this is a playoff team barring some major setback.
Oakland Raiders (5-4)
Remaining tough games: vs. CHI, @GB, vs. DET, vs. SD
I’m going with my gut on this one. Other than last Thursday’s decisive win over the Chargers, who, let’s face it, may as well be one of the Soprano kids the way they’ve been down in the dumps this season, the Raiders have done little recently to inspire confidence in their playoff hopes. Honestly, though, of all the candidates in the AFC West, they just look like the most suitable choice. If they were a Republican presidential candidate, they’d be Mitt Romney. There may be an element of substance to the Raiders that we haven’t seen yet – that young receiver corps is developing nicely, as is Carson Palmer within that system – but at this point you just have to pick a horse, and my horse is Oakland. I believe in Hue Jackson. I believe in Palmer. I believe in their run game. To hell with the conventions that have governed at least 3/4 of this piece, I’m going strictly with the eye test on this one.
Remaining tough games: @ATL, @BUF, vs. NO, @HOU
Moving from a team I’ve seen a lot of to a team I’ve watched only sporadically, let’s talk about the Titans. For an offense that’s league-worst in rushing yards per game (it’s true, look it up), the Titans blow out a surprising number of teams. Four of their five wins have come by a margin of two touchdowns or more. Unfortunately for fans in Tennessee, the opposite is also true. The Titans’ losses tend to be blowouts as well – 41-7 vs. Houston, anybody? This has the puzzling effect of not only making the Titans non-legitimate playoff contenders, but also a truly awful team to watch. Odds are, and it’s unfortunate that this is the case, this season will be remembered in Tennessee chiefly as the Beginning of the End for Chris Johnson. Plan your CJ0K jokes accordingly.
Denver Broncos (5-5)
Remaining tough games: vs. NYJ, @SD, vs. NE, @BUF
John Fox is fighting like hell to win ugly with this team and, for now, it’s working. Everybody talks about Tim Tebow’s leadership qualities – how, intangibly, he’s a one-of-a-kind. But what about Fox? How many coaches would adapt the way he’s adapted to a quarterback so unconventional he solicits just eight attempted passes in a game and the team still wins? That’s incredible, right?
Whether or not the Broncos stick with the dive option remains to be seen – if rival wide receivers are any indication, there’s bound to be a division in the locker room soon about role expectations and how needs are or aren’t being met – but they’ve won three of their last four games and are playing with conviction. That’s more than we can say about the Chargers and Chiefs. It’s probably not enough to win the division, but crazier things have happened.
Diagnosis: Pretender (with weak contender potential)
Kansas City Chiefs (4-5)
Remaining tough games: @NE, vs. PIT, @CHI, @NYJ, vs. GB, vs. OAK, @DEN
Todd Haley can grow all the beard he wants, but no amount of superstition will bring Matt Cassel back in time to save the Chiefs’ playoff hopes. Starting in Cassel’s place while he recovers from surgery is Tyler Palko (career pass attempts: 13), which is the NFL equivalent of trying to replace Jason Statham with Justin Timberlake in the cast of an action thriller. And we all know how that turned out. The Chiefs had a nice four-game run. Their fans got excited for a while. But that’s done now. It’s time to fade slowly into the darkness that is the AFC West cellar and hope Jackie Battle can somehow help us fantasy owners win a championship.
Remaining tough games: @CHI, vs. DEN, vs. BUF, vs. BAL, @DET, @OAK
Philip Rivers is in some kind of a funk. Fifteen interceptions ties his career high, and we’re only through 10 weeks. Make all the excuses for him you want – he’s injured and he’s not telling people, his receivers are letting him down. But really it comes down to one thing: His mind is playing tricks on him like Bushwick Bill and Scarface. Physically, Rivers has always been up to the challenge of playing NFL quarterback. Mentally, though, he just doesn’t have it this year. He’s just not confident. It’s more obvious than Eli Thompson’s impending death on Boardwalk Empire. With six tough games remaining, three of which are on the road, it doesn’t look good for the Chargers. Optimistically, they finish 8-8 and even then they’d miss the playoffs. Death blow time for Norv Turner.
AFC East winner: New England Patriots
AFC North winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South winner: Houston Texans
AFC West winner: Oakland Raiders
AFC wild card winners: New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens
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