How the AFC Playoff Race is Shaping Up

So we’ve reached the 3/4 mark of the NFL season, and the picture of the 2010 NFL season is starting to come into focus and become a lot clearer.

The New England Patriots are very good, scary good even, especially on offense. In fact, their offense is performing at a level that equals that of the historically great 2007 Patriots offense, and it’s doing it with a rag-tag collection of football players. I don’t think there can be an argument against Tom Brady as the MVP at this point.

The Patriots defense is less than stellar, and the secondary has struggled mightily this year. However, getting home field advantage int the playoffs might matter as much to New England as it will any team in football. Forcing teams to play outside in Foxboro in January will do more to upgrade this pass defense than anything short of adding Darrelle Revis or Champ Bailey.

Newsflash, Mark Sanchez is not a very good quarterback. He’s not anywhere remotely close to the level of a Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco when it comes to great young quarterbacks in this league. As a matter of fact, if you really look at it, Sanchez isn’t performing better than any of the top young quarterback prospects of the 2008 and 2009 drafts. Even Chad Henne is playing better football this year. If you want one reason the Jets are over-hyped, it starts with their over-hyped quarterback.

Speaking of over-hyped, I think it’s a term that also applies to the Jets secondary. Their pass defense is only 17th in the NFL right now, and against number one receivers they are a pedestrian 13th. For a team who supposedly has the best shut down corner in the NFL, you’d expect better.

The theme of this Jets team is clearly a team that is more about brash, arrogant boasting, and hyped superstars than it is about being a truly great football team. They are now destined to begin the playoffs on the road. The good thing for the Jets is that the AFC’s 4th seed won’t pose a too imposing challenge. However, if they get to round two, on the road, I don’t think the Jets have a chance against any of the three big dogs in the conference. And no, after Monday night, the Jets no longer belong in the conversation regarding the AFC’s elite.

With games left at Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Jets could easily wind up with five losses and as just the sixth seed in the AFC and forced to likely start the playoffs potentially in Kansas City. As of right now, they aren’t in any real danger of missing the playoffs. However, if there is a hangover from the embarrassing showing against the Patriots this upcoming Sunday against the Dolphins and the Jets lose this game, things could get testy in New York, and this hype machine is going to have to fight for its playoff life with two brutal road games looming.

The Miami Dolphins loss last weekend to Cleveland did serious damages to their playoff hopes, in fact, it may have ruined them. The Phins have a favorable schedule in the closing month with Buffalo and Detroit both coming to South Florida before they head north to play a Patriots team that will likely be resting their starters.

If, and that’s a huge if, Miami can beat the Jets, the combination of the win, and the two remaining schedules, will at least put some pressure on the Jets, and give Miami a fighting chance. The Dolphins 6-6 record is a perfect microcosm of their season. They excel at nothing, and yet, aren’t particularly bad at any one phase of the game.

In other words, they’ve lacked a significant play maker to transform this team from mediocre to good. They thought that they obtained such a player in Brandon Marshall, but the reality of the situation is that Marshall hasn’t even performed like a legit NFL starting receiver this year. Both Bo Hartline and Devon Bess have outplayed him this year. If Miami fans want somewhere to point blame for their failure to take the next step this year, they need look no farther than Marshall. Despite being thrown at 100 times this year, Marshall has only pulled in 58 passes, and just one touchdown.

There are no questions though as to whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens still belong in the conversation. It’s just unfortunate that one of them will have to start the playoffs on the road, and that likely will be Baltimore. Of course, this wasn’t a problem for the Ravens last year as they marched right into New England and put a whipping on the Patriots.

Baltimore’s schedule sets up favorably, so they should be able to get back past the Jets and into the 5th spot in the conference, which could be huge. It’s likely the 4 seed from the AFC will be the AFC South winner, which would mean Jacksonville or an injury depleted Colts team.

The Steelers would absolutely rather New England have to come to their building in January, but it doesn’t appear that will be the case. The Steelers defense is good enough though to go to Foxboro and beat the Patriots. They also have the weapons on offense to take advantage of New England’s secondary. If anyone seems likely ¬†potentially take down New England, it’s these Steelers. Winning the game against Baltimore to get themselves a top two seed was paramount, they will need all hands on deck to get by New England. Don’t be shocked though if they see Baltimore in the 2nd round, and don’t be shocked if they don’t survive it this time around.

The Chargers loss last week did wonders for the Kansas City Chiefs and their bid for the playoffs. If I need to remind you, remember I pegged this Chiefs team as my sleeper team in the NFL over the summer. Unless the Chiefs completely fall asleep at the wheel now, they are going to be hosting a playoff game in about a month.

The problem for the Chiefs is that they don’t play good enough defense and special teams to really be considered a threat to make a post-season run. Stopping people and winning the field position battle is how you win in January in the NFL, and the Chiefs just aren’t good enough in those phases of the game.

However, if Kansas City can draw the Jets in the first round, they stand an excellent chance of getting out of round one. You know Thomas Jones would be extra motivated to take on the Jets, and you’ve got to like the chances of Brandon Flowers severely limiting Santonio Holmes impact for the Jets.

The Chiefs travel to San Diego on Sunday to play the Chargers, a victory will pretty much eliminate the Chargers from the division and playoff race. The team who beat San Diego last week, Oakland will be traveling to Jacksonville in a weekend that sets itself up as a potential elimination weekend in the AFC West.

That Oakland game with Jacksonville could be extremely big. A Raiders victory and the door in the AFC South gets swung wide open for everyone in that division to have a chance to waltz right in. It also puts the Raiders in position to continue to apply pressure on the Chiefs, who by the time their game gets to the 2nd half will know if the Raiders have won or not.

It’s very possible the three teams in the west enter the last three games of the season with just one game between them all. If that’s the case, advantage San Diego. The Chargers get San Francisco, Denver and Cincinnati to close the year. A win over Kansas City, and it seems another December charge from the Chargers will be inevitable. With Oakland or Kansas City guaranteed to lose (barring a tie) one more time, suddenly San Diego might become the favorite to win this division after all. Yes, this week is an enormous week in the AFC West.

The Jaguars seem to be sitting rather pretty in the AFC South at the moment. Even though they play at Indianapolis in two weeks, the schedule absolutely favors the Jaguars and their playoff push. They get the aforementioned Raiders at home this week, and then close the season with a game at home against the hapless Redskins and on the road against a Texans team that will likely be playing for a coach on the way out.

The way to beat Jacksonville is to make them turn the ball over, something the Oakland Raiders absolutely do not do. In fact, only the Broncos force fewer turnovers per drive than the Raiders do. If you’re a Jaguar fan, you’ve got to like what you’ve got coming up. But enjoy the finish of the regular season and the likely division title Jaguar fans, because in the playoffs, the potential first round match-ups do not at all favor Jacksonville. It doesn’t matter whether it is Baltimore or New York, the Jaguars don’t match up favorably with either. Their hope at this point to win a game in the playoffs has to be a New York Jets collapse and perhaps the San Diego Chargers sneaking in.

With the Colts at 6-6, and severely hampered by injuries, it may be too much to ask for the Colts to win the last four games and finish 10-6, meaning Jacksonville needs to just find two wins to get to 9 and likely ensure at least a tie with the Colts. Of course, if the Jaguars win their next two games, the division will be over.

You would think the Colts have to feel good about the fact that they do get to play the absolutely inept Titans twice in the seasons final four games, but it might not be all roses. Even if they sweep the Titans, for one, that only puts them at eight wins. More importantly though, the Titans may not be a match-up that the Colts have the upper hand in.

The Titans are outstanding on special teams and play some pretty good defense. The Colts are the second worst team in the league on special teams, and the offense has become a turnover machine in recent weeks. That combination is exactly the kind of mixture that will get you beat by Jeff Fisher coached team, even if Rusty Smith is playing quarterback.

The Titans, with three division games left, still have a mathematical chance to work their way back into the playoffs. What this team wouldn’t do for healthy, and quality play at quarterback right now. With it, it wouldn’t be that far fetched to see the Titans winning their next two games at home, and being 7-7 in position to put major pressure on Jacksonville and Indianapolis in the division. Unfortunately, the smoke and mirrors of Rusty Smith at quarterback might win a game or two here down the stretch, it probably just won’t be enough. However, with two left with the Colts, they can absolutely ruin the Colts rein in the AFC South.

At this point in the season, it just looks to be too much for the Colts to get their way into the playoffs, and you can see it even in Peyton Manning’s play lately. He’s still one of the games best quarterbacks, but his value is perhaps inflated a bit this year because of the complete lack of running game. It should be noted, that on a per play basis, Manning hasn’t been among the league’s top ten quarterbacks this year. Obviously, the supporting cast around him factors heavily into this, but it’s something that can’t be ignored, and this is with a Colts offensive line that is the best in the league still at protecting the quarterback.

You can’t rule out the Houston Texans, yet. However, by next Tuesday morning you likely can. Their game with Baltimore next Monday night is absolutely huge. It’s quite possibly the most important game in Gary Kubiak’s coaching career. A loss, the playoffs are gone, and so likely is Kubiak at the end of the year.

In fact, next week’s game with Baltimore can severely alter the playoff landscape. A Baltimore loss would be their fifth, suddenly opening up the door for any number of teams still at the six loss mark with three games to play in the season. Not only that, it keeps Houston very much alive in the AFC south race, and with a home game with Jacksonville in week 17 looming, the pressure will get seriously turned up on Jacksonville to not slip up prior to that tilt.

However, a loss that eliminates Houston puts this as a team who is probably going to be very aware they are playing for a lame duck coach, with little to play for. That approach will probably lend itself to the Texans effort dwindling on a week by week basis, and that could be very important for the Jaguars as they will be trying to wrap up a playoff berth at the seasons ends against the Texans.

The Texans offense has been lethal this year, performing at a pace that’s not far removed from being one of the ten best offensive teams of the past 18 years. Unfortunately for Houston, their defense is historically even worse, as it still has a chance to be the worst defense the NFL has seen in that same time span. If the Texans defense had even just been bad, and not historically bad, the AFC South would likely be getting wrapped up in the next two weeks by the Texans. Instead, a regime change could be in place.

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