Playoff Watch: Jaguars Chances Are Slipping Away
By John MacKenna
The AFC playoff picture in Week 12 is much the same as it was a week ago, with seven of the eight playoff contenders having chalked up wins. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars blinked, losing 18-15 at Tennessee in a game they really needed to win.
At the top, the Patriots and Steelers both won tough road games to raise their records to 9-1. The Jets came through with a must win, 10-7 in Cleveland, while the Ravens also scored a much-needed, albeit much-easier win over the Cowboys, 30-10.
Jacksonville might get QB Byron Leftwich back this week, but it might too late already. The Jags fell to 6-4, one game behind the Colts in the AFC South and saw their division record fall to 2-3. With Peyton Manning throwing for four touchdowns every week, the Jags are probably playing for a wild card berth and will need to win five of their last six.
This week's marquee game is the Ravens vs. the Patriots. A Baltimore victory could be very costly for the Patriots, who need to win one game more than the Steelers to gain homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Ravens are playing very well, but their schedule is daunting, with road games to follow in both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
Here's a look at this week and ahead.
Them: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-1) host Washington Redskins (3-7)
Not much to say about this game, except the Steelers should win easily. They've won eight in a row and have held their last three opponents to an average of nine points. Look for the Steelers to easily control the Redskins' mild run game (108.6 yards per game, 20th in the NFL) and maul QB Patrick Ramsey. The Redskins have lost three of their last four.
The Bengals lost to the Steelers, 19-14, last week but may have created a blueprint that better teams can use to bring down the mighty Steelers. They sacked rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger seven times for 54 yards. Steelers WR Plaxico Burress suffered a hamstring injury--a loss that could haunt Pittsburgh if his absence is extended. LB Kendrell Bell aggravated a groin injury against Cincinnati.
The Steelers' schedule toughens up considerably after this week. They travel to Jacksonville where the Jaguars badly need a win and should have Leftwich back at quarterback.
Steelers remaining games: at Jacksonville, NY Jets, at NY Giants, Baltimore, at Buffalo.
Us: New England Patriots (9-1) host Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
No one wants to play the Ravens now. They've won five of six, holding opponents to an average of 12 points over that stretch. And lest we forget, they are the only team to beat the Steelers.
If the Patriots can muster a few touchdowns and hold safety Ed Reed to one interception, they should win. Ravens RB Jamal Lewis is expected to miss the game with an ankle injury he suffered last week against Dallas. His replacement is Clarence Taylor, who gained only 33 yards on 15 carries against a struggling Dallas defense.
The Patriots' run defense stiffened nicely Monday night, holding the Chiefs to 64 yards on 20 carries. Sure, Priest Holmes was missing, but replacement RB Derrick Blaylock had torched the Saints for 186 yards a week earlier.
The X factor is Baltimore QB Kyle Boller, who completed 23 of 34 passes against Dallas and has not been intercepted in three games. Six Baltimore receivers caught two or more passes last Sunday. If Boller picks on the Patriots' cornerbacks the way Chiefs QB Trent Green did, anything can happen. This would be an excellent time for Patriots CB Tyrone Poole to return to action.
Any loss could be tough for the Patriots, but their schedule gets pretty soft after this one. The toughest challenges are road games against the Browns and the Jets.
Patriots remaining games: at Cleveland, Cincinnati, at Miami, at NY Jets, San
Ravens remaining games: Cincinnati, NY Giants, at Indianapolis, at Pittsburgh, Miami
Must-Win Game: Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4) at Minnesota Vikings (6-4)
Ace WR Randy Moss is expected to return for the Vikings, and that is bad news for the Jaguars, who simply cannot afford to lose again. Jacksonville has lost two of three, scoring 17 points or less in each game.
The Vikings are fourth in the NFL with 407 yards per game and second in passing with a gaudy 286.9 yards per game. Former Patriots TE Jermaine Wiggins has become a favorite target in Moss's absence, with 14 catches for 145 yards in the last two games.
The Jaguars best hope is control the clock with RB Fred Taylor, who has gone over 100 yards in three of the last four games. The Vikings' run defense is spongy (22nd in the NFL), allowing 123.8 yards a game.
Jacksonville still has to play the Steelers at home and the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Jaguars remaining schedule: Pittsburgh, Chicago, at Green Bay, Houston, at Oakland
New York Jets (7-3) at Arizona Cardinals (6-4)
Chad Pennington will test his arm this week but is not expected to play. His replacement, Quincy Carter, was adequate last week as the Jets snapped a two-game losing streak with a 10-7 win over the Browns. Since beating Miami 41-14 on Nov. 1, the Jets are averaging only 15 points per game.
The Cardinals are tough at home, but it's hard to imagine them moving the ball against the tough New York defense. Emmitt Smith has averaged over 2.9 yards per carry only once in the last four games. Quarterback Shaun King turned the ball over seven times (three picks, four fumbles) in aSunday's35-10 loss to the Panthers.
Arizona has been soft against the run (131.7 yards per game, 26th in the NFL), so the Jets should be able to let Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan control the game.
The Jets need this one. They still have a road game against Pittsburgh, a home game against New England, and no matchups easier than this one.
Jets remaining schedule: Houston, at Pittsburgh, Seattle, New England, at St. Louis
San Diego Chargers (7-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (3-7)
This one will be tough, but the Chargers have what it takes to win in Kansas City. LaDainian Tomlinson busted out for 164 yards on a season-high 37 carries last week against Oakland. It was the first time in six weeks that he has gone over 71 yards.
San Diego has won four in a row, holding opponents to an average of 13 points. Antonio Gates continued his breakout season last week, with eight catches for 101 yards.
The Chiefs will have to rely on QB Trent Green. RB Priest Holmes is expected to miss the game, and Derrick Blaylock won't get the job done against the San Diego defense that is holding opponents to a league-low 76 rush yards per game.
This is make-or-break time for the upstart Chargers, who host AFC West rival Denver the following week.
Chargers remaining schedule: Denver, Tampa Bay, at Cleveland, at Indianapolis, Kansas City
Denver Broncos (7-3) host Oakland Raiders (3-7)
This is one of the week's cushy matchups. The Broncos are on a roll, beating Houston and New Orleans by a combined 65-26 in the last two weeks. Denver RB Reuben Droughns has gone over 100 yards in five of the last six games. Jake Plummer has 10 TD passes in the last three games.
The Broncos should be well-rested for the big divisional matchup with the Chargers.
Broncos remaining games: at San Diego, Miami, at Kansas City, at Tennessee, Indianapolis
Indianapolis Colts (7-3) at Detroit Lions (4-6)
The Lions have lost four in a row, and their highest output in that stretch is 21 points. The Colts outscored their last two opponents by a combined score of 90-24. QB Peyton Manning has 18 touchdown passes in the last four games.
The Lions have to hope for a big Thanksgiving Day letdown from the Colts, who just might be complacent after seeing the Jaguars fall a game behind. Should the Colts somehow stagger here, they might let the Jaguars back into the race. The Colts have some tough games ahead.
Colts remaining games: Tennessee, at Houston, Baltimore, San Diego, at Denver
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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