Playoff Watch: Jets Are Already on the Ropes

<p>As the season continues through November, the playoff picture starts to become a little more clear. Teams are usually falling into one of three categories; In, Out, or On-the-bubble. While the Patriots share one of the best records in the NFL, it's almost a certainty both New England and Pittsburgh will secure a post season slot. Other teams around the AFC are starting to lose pace</p> <p>John MacKenna, provides this look around the league and who might not make it to the post season.</p>

PHOTO: Justin McCareins #81 of the New York Jets drops the ball after being hit by Asante Samuel #22 of the New England Patriots. (Getty Images)

Playoff Watch: Jets Are Already on the Ropes
By John MacKenna

With seven weeks left to play, half of the AFC's 16 teams are virtually out of the playoff race. The Patriots and Steelers look like locks in the East and North with matching 8-1 records, while six other teams are tied at 6-3.

Week 11 has no marquee game, but none of the contenders has it easy. The Ravens, hosting the Cowboys, are the only team favored by more than 7 points. Even the Patriots and Steelers have their hands full with dangerous road games against the Chiefs and Bengals, respectively.

Divisional games mean high stakes for Jacksonville and San Diego. The Chargers match up well against the 3-6 Raiders, but Jacksonville might be without QB Byron Leftwich when the Titans come to town.

Ten wins looks like the playoff prerequisite this year. Getting to seven wins this week is most important for the schedule-challenged Jets and Ravens.

Them: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-5)
This is all you need to know: Cincinnati has problems with run defense, to the tune of 143 yards surrendered per game, 3rd worst in the NFL. Pittsburgh averages 163 yards on the ground, 2nd best. Against Cleveland last week, Pittsburgh passed only 16 times and possessed the ball for 36 minutes.

Not that it matters, but Duce Staley might return this week after missing two games with a hamstring pull. During Staley's absence, Jerome Bettis has rushed for 252 yards.

Pittsburgh's defense should have an easy time with QB Carson Palmer and RB Rudi Johnson. Palmer has 12 interceptions and seven touchdown passes, and Johson … well, he's no Corey Dillon.

The Steelers are focused in the extreme, and it's hard to imagine a letdown. Should they have an off-day, however, the Bengals could turn and bite. They are 3-1 at home, including a 23-10 win over Denver. When they visited Heinz Field Oct. 3, they lost by only 11 points, with Johnson running for 123 yards.

Us: New England Patriots (8-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (3-6)
Like the Rams two weeks ago, the Chiefs are a threat to scorch the Patriots' threadbare defensive secondary. Earthwind Moreland, Randall Gay and Troy Brown held their own against Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, but Kansas City is a whole different deal. In Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton and Tony Gonzalez, the Chiefs have receivers who get open downfield. And Trent Green is both bolder and more accurate than Drew Bledsoe. Green averages 8.32 yards per attempt and completes 67 percent of his passes. They also have an excellent offensive line that gives Green the time he needs.

The Patriots will surely get after Green, but KC will probably score 24-plus points and force Tom Brady and company respond. If Deion Branch returns, that shouldn't be a problem.

RB Priest Holmes is expected to miss the game with a knee sprain, but the Chiefs were fine without him last week, when Derrick Blaylock ran for 186 yards in a 27-20 win over the Saints.

The Chiefs do a decent job in stopping the run, but Dillon should slice and dice his way to 140 yards or so. And don't overlook the contribution of Kevin Faulk, who chipped in 61 yards on 13 carries last week against Buffalo.

Look for the Patriots to score a narrow win in a high-scoring game and keep pace with the Steelers.

Must-Win Game No. 1: New York Jets (6-3) at Cleveland Browns (3-6)
These are tough times for Herman Edwards' team. Last Sunday's overtime loss to the Ravens was the Jets' third in four games. Quarterback Chad Pennington remains out with a shoulder that is badly bruised at best, and his return date is unknown.

New York must stop the leaking because their schedule has no soft spots, with Houston, Seattle and New England on their home slate and road games against Arizona, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Winning more than half of those six games will be a tall task.

Which makes the Cleveland game a must-win, and it won't be easy. The Browns are a lot tougher than the record indicates. Sure, they've lost three in a row, but the opponents were the Steelers, the Ravens and the Eagles.

The Steelers terrorized Browns QB Jeff Garcia, holding him to seven completions and 110 yards. Look for the Jets to get after Garcia and contain RB William Green. Jets RB Curtis Martin notched another strong game against Baltimore (28 carries for 119 yards) and will carry the load again.

QB Quincy Carter completed 13 of 22 for 175 yards with no picks against the Ravens. He needs to duplicate that performance to keep his team in the wild card hunt.

Must-Win Game No. 2: Baltimore Ravens (6-3) host Dallas Cowboys (3-6)
The Ravens won't ring up 28 points in a quarter like the Eagles did Monday night against Bill Parcells' team. Heck, the Ravens probably won't even score 28 in the game, as the average Dallas opponent has.

But Kyle Boller got it done last week in New York, and he'd better do it again because the Raiders don't have a gimme on the schedule until Miami in Week 17. In the meantime, how about road games in New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh?

The Ravens are auditioning punters after losing Dave Zastudil for up to four weeks with a separated shoulder. Pro-Bowl OT Jonathan Ogden might return from a hamstring injury that has kept him out for three weeks. CB Chris McAlister is expected to return after being knocked out of the Dallas game with a shoulder stinger. Dallas is missing WRs Terry Glenn and Antonio Bryant.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) host Tennessee Titans (3-6)
Leftwich is hoping to bounce back from his Oct. 31 knee sprain, but Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio is prepared to go with David Garrard, who threw no interceptions last week and hit Jimmy Smith for a 36-yard touchdown to beat Detroit in overtime.

The Titans might get Steve McNair back, but they have are contending with lots of other injuries. Both safeties are out. Pro Bowl tackle Brad Hopkins will miss game with broken bones in right hand. DT Albert Haynesworth has an elbow injury that might keep him out, and RB Chris Brown has a sore toe.

For Jacksonville, RB Fred Taylor gained 144 yards last week, and WR Jimmy Smith has topped 100 yards in four of the last five games. A loss here would be bad, as the Jaguars still have to travel to Minnesota and Green Bay and host Pittsburgh.

Denver Broncos (6-3) at New Orleans Saints (4-5)
The Broncos, coming off a bye, match up well here. They've won two of their four road games, at Tampa Bay and Oakland. Their stingy pass defense should get the better of Aaron Brooks, Joe Horn and company. RB Reuben Droughns should gain enough on the ground to open the passing game for Jake Plummer, who has 8 TD passes in the last two games. WR Ashley Lelie has 16 catches for 257 yards in the last three games to lead a deep receiving corps.

The Broncos have one of the easier schedules in the field. The biggest challenges after this one are a road game in San Diego and a home game against the Colts. They also visit Kansas City and Tennessee.

San Diego Chargers (6-3) at Oakland Raiders (3-6)
The Chargers have struggled here in the past, but 2004 is a new year. The bye week came at a good time for LaDainian Tomlinson, who is nicked up. The Raiders might be able to hold him down, but they have no answer for TE Antonio Gates. San Diego has been stout against the run, and they can handle Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas.

Even the schedule maker is smiling down on Marty Schottenheimer's team. They face trying road games in Indianapolis, Cleveland and Kansas City, but they can win two of those three.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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