As Mr. Tunison has pointed out, The NFC struck back a bit this past week. But instead of focusing on the merits league parity, he aptly stated, it should be noted that the playoff picture is a rather muddled one. Really, EVERY TEAM HAS ISSUES. Let us sift through them, shall we...
New England (6-1):
With Cleveland this Sunday, these guys are likely to be 7-1 when they come to Pittsburgh in two weeks. I cannot stand Bill Belichek, but there is simply no denying that his ability to groom a team of slightly-above-average talent in to one that will challenge for home field advantage in the playoffs is impressive. That's the "Bad News" as far as I'm concerned. The "Good News" is, as a team, they are fatally flawed and I cannot see them making it too deep in the playoffs. Their secondary is abysmal. They give up nearly 300 yds/gm in the air, 31st in the league. The Jets were able to exploit this, Sanchez spread around 3 TDs to his receivers (sans Santonio), pressured Brady on defense with aggressive blitz schemes and dealt New England their only loss. These are things that a more polished Steelers' O and keyed-up Steelers' D are certainly capable of. I just hope we can make the necessary adjustments on a short week following Cincy.
New York Jets (5-2):
Most of the talking heads mention the Jets & Steelers as the two best defenses this season. Some of that praise is fair, as they've been shutting down teams' running games all season. But, their offense has sputtered at times. They are coming off a surprisingly stymied 9-0 loss to the Packers, especially considering it followed the team's bye week. With games in Detroit & Cleveland coming up, I would be shocked if they don't challenge for their division at the very least. Our matchup with them on Dec. 19 will go a long way in determining the AFC's playoff picture and may be a preview of Wild Card Weekend.
Joe Flacco and his band of miscreants hold the tie-breaker in our division. After we lost to them in October, I figured we'd have to beat Baltimore in December to win the division. But with the Ravens having yet to face six teams with winning records to our three, we could backdoor the AFC North crown. The Steelers' wins over Atlanta, Miami & Tampa (all teams Baltimore has yet to face) are huge now, as could be a loss by the Ravens to Cincy. Ed Reed's impact on the Ravens' secondary was immediate and cannot be overlooked (2 INTs), but even "Homeless Beard" couldn't keep the great Ryan Fitzpatrick under 350 yards passing. And let's not forget, the FIX WAS IN in Miami, so the Dolphins are likely a better team than we all realize. Coming off the bye this week, Baltimore opened at nearly a touchdown favorite over Miami, but then Vegas remembered Chad Henne prefers to win on the road, so who knows.
Kansas City (5-2):
It is likely that KC will be a home underdog in the first or possibly even second round of the playoffs this year (if they sneak out a bye). This team continues to post wins, flying under the radar and taking advantage of a schedule that is beyond easy. Seriously, someone from Elias or Football Outsiders get on this: They haven't won a game against a single team with a winning record. And it's possible that they won't all season and still get to double-digit wins! Amazing. But, let's not kid ourselves, the stats bear out that the Chiefs have one of the best running offenses in football and are rather adept at stopping the run. That's a good combination. Matt Cassell won't be hoisting any Lombardi's, in my opinion, and there is NO team I'd rather face in January, but they'll be there, make no mistake.
I'm not going to fall at the feet of Jim Caldwell, but he's obviously pulling the right strings in Indy. The Colts have dealt with a myriad of injuries since the season's onset and have still managed to lead their division, albeit tenuously. Monday Night Football painted a picture of a Colts defense that was disruptive of the pass and stout against the run. A lot of that was just Gary Kubiak's ineptitude, if you ask me. The Colts give up an average of 133 yards on the ground a game. They also have proven to be shakey on the road, where they are headed this Sunday against Philly. Manning has worked efficiently in almost every game this season, as the Colts have had to outscore, rather than stop their opponents. It'll be interesting to see if that approach will work against a rather potent Eagles offense.
Vince Young is the number one rated QB in the league. Chris Johnson is third in the league in total yards. Kenny Britt has established himself as a dynamic receiving threat, hauling 7 TDs in as many weeks. But Vince Young has been knocked out of part of three games. Chris Johnson has been feast or famine, with four games over 100 yards rushing and four games under 70 yards. It is looking like Kenny Britt might not be around for awhile. And all of this is to say nothing of a defense that is toward the bottom of the league (28th). With four teams at .500 or better, the AFC South is looking like a game of divisional playoff musical chairs, with a good chance at a second-place finisher snagging a Wild Card Birth. I'm just not so sure the Music City will have a chair when the tune stops.
I wrote before about how Miami is curious. At 4-3, they still have a shot at the playoffs, but they're sucking hind tit in a division that may very well produce two playoff teams ahead of them. Here's the deal: they rank right around the middle on all four statistical team categories, much like the Patriots. They have more talent in the backfield and on the defensive side of the ball than does New England. But their coach and QB are second-rate. An upset here or there and they could leap-frog the Jets or Pats, but I don't see it happening as games against both will be on the road. Wait, they're good on the road?
As I stated above, Gary Kubiak really mismanaged the game this past Monday. I'm not saying Houston would've won if they'd handled the ball to Foster or thrown to Johnson more. But, I cannot imagine having two potent weapons like that and failing to use them would be a GOOD thing. Giving up 300 passing yards a game on defense is never good, but averaging 136 rushing is. With Johnson and Schaub failing to meet last season's form, the Texans will have to pound the rock and develop some effective defensive strategy in order to make a playoff push. But, it's unlikely. I think they'll lose to the Chargers this week, essentially burying them behind a tough schedule and two or three teams in their own division.
The last team on this list that could conceivably make the playoffs. David Garrard went nuts, Sunday, but that was against a reeling Cowboys squad that, it makes me giddy to even type this: Is already circling the drain. A closer look at Jacksonville's season shows they've only beat one team with a winning record and have yet to play Houston as they head in to the bye. A week 10 matchup between those two teams will go a long way in determining who could rise to the playoff ranks. My money is on neither, though. In fact, the two teams are VERY similar: Above average running backs, porous defense and a QB that can flash the deep ball, but little else. I just don't think the Jags will avoid two or more losses against the Giants, Colts, Titans and twice vs. the Texans. It's going to take 10-6 to dance this year.
San Diego (3-5):
Finishing 7-1 is not out of the question for the Chargers. Yes, that's right. I mean, look at this:
Those numbers are indicative of a team with MAYBE one loss. The Chargers will have to upset Indy, KC or Houston to reenter the playoff discussion. But, that's not impossible. Still, I have to believe the hole is too deep. I'm not a Rivers fan by any means, but watching him put up numbers with 4th and 5th string receivers that could end up being some of the best of all-time is impressive. It's a shame, really.
This is great. A free-fall against below average opponents, a crumbling before our eyes QB and an offense that basically gave up on what was a good system last year (TO & Ocho deserve each other) and you have a concoction that I pray that we can reap the benefits of in the form of two wins. If we are able to do so, and that's still a big "if" then we may have the Bungles to thank for helping our season as much as say, the fumble in to the endzone rule. I'm going to say something here: I've always thought Marv Lewis was a good coach. Certainly an adept defensive mind. But he will likely get the boot at some point this year. Completely undeservedly so. I will, however, be glad when he's no longer in our division as a head coach.
Cleveland started off the season with three straight heart breakers. It's a shame, too, because they have some legitimate building blocks. Peyton Hillis is not awful. He's been a great find and something that the Browns, if they know what they have, will use to establish a running game to pound lesser opponents with. Also, early returns indicate that Colt McCoy is not terrible. Were he to have a few more vertical threats, like any, maybe they'd make .500 a reality. Next year, perhaps. I'll tell you one thing, however: If we are counting on a week 17 win against this squad to get us in to the playoffs, then we've already lost in a way.
Another disappointment. People paying attention to the Broncos reliance on the pass early on in the season may have known that they were in trouble, but it wasn't until their absolute trouncing at the hands of the Raiders that the issues came fully in to the light. Kyle Orton & Brandon Lloyd. Both putting up crazy fantasy numbers. On my team. Both in football purgatory. Hilarious.
They're not going winless. That is about all that matters as far as their season is concerned.
I just don't see any way the Pats & Jets don't come out of the East. Right now, I'd give the edge to the North to snag the other Wild Card, but the South certainly has the most teams positioned to do so. Hopefully the Jags & Texans will neutralize each other on that front.
East: New England 12-4(BYE)
North: Baltimore 12-4(BYE)
West: Kansas City 10-6
South: Indianapolis 11-5
Pittsburgh - 11-5
NY Jets 10-6
(Don't hold me to this stuff...)