Playoff Watch: Ravens, Broncos Lose Their Grip

<p> It's that time of the year when every win has just a little extra importance, and every loss could spell elimination from the post-season.</p> <p>John MacKenna, provides this look around the league and who might be competing with the Patriots for post-season honors.</p>

Playoff Watch: Ravens, Broncos Lose Their Grip
By John MacKenna, Patriots Insider

The regular season still has four weeks to go, but the race for five of the six AFC playoff berths is nearly over. In the race for the final spot, the Denver Broncos have the inside track, but they are struggling, and four other teams are ready to pounce.

By losing last Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens and the Broncos fell out of contention for everything but the final wild card spot and gave the New York Jets and the San Diego Chargers clear paths to the postseason.

In the crucial race for the best regular-season record, the New England Patriots won easily while the Pittsburgh Steelers had another near brush with defeat but held on to extend their win streak to 10 games.

The 11-1 Steelers and the 9-3 Jets clash in Pittsburgh in this week's marquee game. New England (11-1) is at home against the 6-6 Cincinnati Bengals, who have crept into the wild card race by winning two in a row.

The 6-6 Buffalo Bills have also entered the picture by winning three in a row and five of their last six. They are as hot as any team in the league, but their tiebreaker situation makes them the longest shot in the field.

Marquee Game: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) host New York Jets (9-3)
The Jets have QB Chad Pennington back, and he completed 20 of 27 passes in New York's 29-7 win over the Houston Texans, while RBs Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan combined for 194 yards on 34 carries. The Jets have won three in a row and given up a mere 17 points in that stretch.

The Steelers struggled last Sunday before coming from behind in Jacksonville, 17-16, on a late field goal. Their tackling was spotty, and they surrendered 359 yards while losing the time-of-possession battle by more than nine minutes. Pittsburgh's average margin of victory in the last three games is only five points. They look mortal, and the Jets pose a major threat.

On the other hand, rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger looked superb engineering a 56-yard drive in the final two minutes. He completed three or four passes for 39 yards (with his incompletion coming on a spike.)

The Jets will be playing without star DE John Abraham, who is fourth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks. Abraham injured a ligament in his right knee last Sunday, and his return date is unknown.

The Jets have another tough game on Dec. 26 when they host the Patriots, but they could lose that game and this one and still win a wild card.

The Steelers have an easier matchup next week against the struggling New York Giants, but they finish out with a home game against the Ravens and a road game in Buffalo.

Steelers remaining games: at NY Giants, Baltimore, at Buffalo.
Jets remaining schedule: Seattle, New England, at St. Louis

New England Patriots (11-1) host Cincinnati Bengals (6-6)
The Patriots will probably find a way to win their sixth in a row, but it might not be easy. The Bengals have scored 85 points in their last two games, and they beat the Patriots in the preseason, 31-3.

Second-year QB Carson Palmer is the last guy the Patriots want to see now. He is 51 for 65 in the last two games with 633 yards and 7 touchdown passes. He lit up the Patriots in preseason and probably won't be intimidated.

The first pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer is elusive in the pocket and gets good protection from a solid offensive line. If he gets time, the Bengals' receivers should be able to find holes in the patchwork New England secondary. In the last two weeks, WR Chad Johnson has 20 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns. T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught 10 balls for 171 yards last week against the Ravens.

After this one, the Patriots have just one real test left: a Dec. 26 visit to the Meadowlands to face the Jets. Their other two games are against the NFL's 2004 doormats, the 2-10 Dolphins and the 1-11 49ers.

If the Bengals lose this one, they're done. They still face the Bills and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Patriots remaining games: at Miami, at NY Jets, San Francisco
Bengals remaining games: Buffalo, Giants, at Philadelphia

Must-Win game: Baltimore Ravens (7-5) host New York Giants (5-7)
If the Ravens somehow lose at home to the Giants, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye. They need to win three of their last four, and they have road games at Indianapolis and Pittsburgh the next two weeks.

The early prediction is that RB Jamal Lewis will miss his third straight game, but Baltimore gained 192 rushing yards without him in last Sunday's 27-26 loss to the Bengals. The Giants are nearly as bad at run defense (134.8 yards, 26th in the NFL) as the Bengals are, so the run-happy Ravens should be able to get comfortable on offense.

The Ravens lost last week because the Bengals' Palmer threw for three second-half touchdowns. They don't have to worry about that sort of explosion by Giants' rookie Eli Manning.

Ravens remaining games: at Indianapolis, at Pittsburgh, Miami

Must-Win Game: Denver Broncos (7-5) host Miami Dolphins (2-10)
The Broncos really should claim the final playoff spot. They have no excuses. Three of their remaining four games are eminently winnable, starting with this one. But the Broncos are gagging. They have lost four out of the last six, including an inexcusable home loss to Oakland two weeks ago and last week's critical loss to division rival San Diego that left Denver two games back in the AFC West.

Miami on the road is an easy opponent. After holding it together on defense throughout the first half, the Dophins have allowed their last four opponents an average of 28.5 points.

If the Broncos can put together a three-game win streak now against the 2-10 Dolphins and a pair of 4-8 teams, they'll probably be the only team to finish at 10-6.

Another reason for the Broncos to win: Should they finish the regular season tied with the Ravens, the tie will probably be decided by record against common opponents, and the Dolphins are one of those.

Broncos remaining games: at Kansas City, at Tennessee, Indianapolis

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-6) host Chicago Bears (5-7)
Of the teams at 6-6, the Jaguars have the best shot at a wild card. They have an easier schedule than the Bengals do, and their tiebreaker situation is better than that of the Bills. The Jaguars are playing well now, as they demonstrated Sunday night when they nearly beat the Steelers.

This is a must win, because the Jaguars can't lose two games and they can't count on winning next week in Green Bay. The Bears have LB Brian Urlacher back, and they're coming off a 24-14 win over the Vikings in Chicago.

If the Broncos and Bengals both go 2-2 the rest of the way and the Jaguars go 3-1, the Jaguars will likely take the wild card. They have a win over the Broncos, and they likely would have a better conference record than the Ravens.

Jaguars remaining schedule: at Green Bay, Houston, at Oakland

Buffalo Bills (6-6) host Cleveland Browns (3-9)
Had the Bills opened the season 1-3 instead of 0-4, they'd be in the thick of wild card race. They've won five of their last six, and they're averaging 39 points over their last three games.

Instead, they are the longest of long shots because they are on the wrong side of nearly every tiebreaker equation, with a 3-6 conference record and losses to the Jaguars and Ravens.

Patriots fans have got to love the fact that the Steelers finish the regular season with a road game in Buffalo, where the Bills have won four straight.

Bills remaining games: At Cincinnati, at San Francisco, Pittsburgh

San Diego Chargers (9-3) host Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)
The Chargers took a huge step towards the AFC West title with 20-17 win over Broncos last Sunday. Now the schedule gets pretty easy, except for a Week 16 trip to Indianapolis. Tampa Bay is 1-5 on the road, but they're coming off a 27-0 over the Atlanta Falcons. The Chargers have won six straight.

Chargers remaining schedule: at Cleveland, at Indianapolis, Kansas City

Indianapolis Colts (9-3) at Houston Texans (5-7)
The Colts have a three-game lead over Jacksonville, but they still need to win this one to feel secure, because their last three games are all against AFC playoff contenders.

Colts remaining games: 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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