AFC Playoff Watch: Broncos Don't Deserve This
By John MacKenna
With three games left in the regular season, three AFC playoff berths are locked up, and two others appear snug. Meanwhile, the undeserving Denver Broncos still hold the inside track in a four-way race for the sixth and final spot.
The New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts have all wrapped up their division titles. The Colts and Patriots have each won six in a row, while the Steelers are on an 11-game win streak. The San Diego Chargers won their seventh in a row to maintain their two-game lead over the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.
In the race for the AFC's best record and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, the Steelers and Patriots both survived challenges at home at raise their records to 12-1. The Steelers actually had an easier time with the Jets than the Patriots had with the Bengals.
The Steelers-Jets game was a hard-fought affair, with the Jets hanging around in the fourth quarter before Steelers RB Jerome Bettis threw a touchdown pass to make it 10-3. It's encouraging to see the Steelers come close to losing at Heinz Field, but it's also scary to see the Jets come so close to winning there, given that the Patriots face the Jets in two weeks.
Despite losing to the Steelers, the Jets are a game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens and Broncos and would need to get passed in the standings by two teams to miss the playoffs.
The Ravens won last Sunday to raise their record to 8-5, but their season is on the line in the next two weeks as they play the Colts and Steelers in back-to-back road games. The Broncos are also 8-5 after barely beating the last-place Miami Dolphins, 20-17, in Denver.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills are both 7-6 after winning last Sunday. The Jaguars will remain in contention if they can win this week at Green Bay. Buffalo remains as hot as anyone but probably would need to win out and get some help to qualify.
Marquee Game: Baltimore Ravens (8-5) visit Indianapolis Colts (10-3)
Last week's results only add to the intrigue here. Sure, the Colts beat the Houston Texans, 23-14, but the Texans held them to two touchdowns after the Colts had averaged 45.5 points over their previous four games. Meanwhile, Baltimore QB Kyle Boller threw four touchdown passes as the Ravens posted their highest score of the season in a 37-14 rout of the New York Giants.
Colts QB Peyton Manning undoubtedly will want to stick it to the Ravens after they humiliated his brother Eli last week to the tune of 4-for-18 passing for 27 yards with two interceptions. The Colts are 5-1 at home.
The Ravens, who are 3-3 on the road, will be playing with their backs to the wall. With another killer game next week at Pittsburgh, the Ravens know they will probably miss the playoffs if they lose this one.
Baltimore RB Jamal Lewis is expected to play. He sat out the second half last week against the Giants, but reports are that his ankle is OK. If Lewis is in and Boller is on, the Ravens should be in the game. The Colts have the NFL's highest-scoring offense (34.9 points per game) and most prolific passing game (197.6 yards per game), but the Ravens have the league's fourth-stingiest defense (15.8 points per game) and are 10th in the NFL against the pass (133.7). The Ravens are fourth in the NFL with 17 interceptions.
The Colts have faced only two top defenses this year, and they lost both times, in the season opener at New England and at home against Jacksonville on Oct. 24.
Ravens remaining games: at Pittsburgh, Miami
Colts remaining games: San Diego, at Denver
Denver Broncos (8-5) visit Kansas City (5-8)
Of the four contenders for the final playoff spot, only Denver can get to 10 wins without beating another first-place team. Denver's next two games are on the road, but the opponents are the 5-8 Chiefs and the 4-9 Titans.
The Broncos are in this position only because of their 5-1 start. They are 3-4 since Oct. 17 and haven't beaten a playoff contender since the Chargers on Sept. 26. In the last three games, QB Jake Plummer has thrown seven interceptions and RB Reuben Droughns has fumbled three times. Plummer also was caught on camera flipping off fans in Denver during Sunday's 20-17 win over the Dolphins.
Broncos RB Tatum Bell, who ran for 123yards Sunday before injuring his shoulder, is expected to play against the Chiefs. Bell replaced Droughns last Sunday after Droughns fumbled on two of his first four carries.
The Broncos beat the Chiefs, 34-24, in the season opener in Denver. The Chiefs' last four home games were against teams now leading their divisions. They defeated the Falcons and the Colts in October and lost to the Patriots and Chargers in November.
The Chiefs scored 83 points in their last two games, which were on the road at Oakland and Tennessee.
Broncos remaining games: at Tennessee, Indianapolis
New York Jets (9-4) host Seattle Seahawks (7-6)
The Jets hold a one-game lead in wild card race, but their last three games are all dangerous. The Seahawks appear overmatched in this one, but they are guarding a one-game lead in the NFC West and are coming off a hard-fought 27-23 road win over the Vikings.
The Jets are 5-1 at home, with their only loss coming to the Ravens in overtime on Nov. 7. They will be missing sack artist John Abraham again, but their defense was fine without him last Sunday, when the Jets held the Steelers to 120 yards rushing and 142 yards passing.
Seattle has held an opponent (the Dophins) under 23 points only once in their last six games. The last opponent to score more than 22 points against the Jets was San Diego on Sept. 19.
Jets remaining schedule: New England, at St. Louis
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6) visit Green Bay Packers (8-5)
After losing three straight, the Jaguars kept their playoff hopes alive last Sunday with a 22-3 win over the Bears. It was their first win this season that was decided before the game's final minute. Jacksonville was dominant on defense, holding the Bears to 31 rushing yards and sacking QB Chad Hutchinson five times.
The Packers have won four straight at Lambeau Field, but two of those wins were by three points, including Sunday's 16-13 win over the Lions. With a road win against the Colts under their belts, the Jaguars won't be intimidated.
The Jaguars could lose this one and still have a shot at a wild card by virtue of their tiebreaker advantages over the Bills and the Broncos and their soft remaining schedule.
Jaguars remaining schedule: Houston, at Oakland
Buffalo Bills (7-6) visit Cincinnati Bengals (6-7)
No one deserves a wild card more than the Bills do. They have won seven of their last eight, including their last four by an average score of 38-16. They are ninth in the NFL in scoring and have the third-ranked defense (289.5 yards per game). RB Willis McGahee has six 100-plus-yard games. And no one wants to face them.
The Bills have a good shot on the road against the Bengals, but the sad truth is that the Bills could win out, snap Pittsburgh's win streak in the finale and still miss the playoffs because of earlier losses to Baltimore and Jacksonville.
Bills remaining games: at San Francisco, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-1) visit New York Giants (5-8)
It's hard to imagine the Steelers struggling at all. The Giants might be the easiest opponent in the NFL now. They have lost six straight, and the last time they scored more than 14 points in a game was Nov. 7.
Pittsburgh might be sputtering on offense, but that hardly matters when the other team can't score. Pittsburgh has held its last six opponents to an average of 9.3 points a game.
The Jets visited Pittsburgh on Sunday with a healthy Chad Pennington leading a well-balanced attack, and all they got was two field goals. The Steelers held Jets RB Curtis Martin to 72 yards on 24 carries and picked off Pennington three times.
The Steelers shouldn't be too worried about the Ravens next week after beating three of the NFL's top defenses in the last three weeks. The road game against Buffalo is more perilous.
Steelers remaining games: Baltimore, at Buffalo.
New England Patriots (12-1) visit Miami Dolphins (2-11)
The Patriots will probably find themselves in another tussle. The Dolphins are 1-4 in their last five games, but they have been outscored by only 127-113 in that stretch, which included games with the 7-6 Bills and the 8-5 Broncos.
The Dolphins' resiliency defies logic. Running backs Sammy Morris and Travis Minor are both averaging less than 3.8 yards a carry; Quarterback A.J. Feeley has thrown 10 interceptions in the last five games; and the defense has been playing without stalwart LBs Zach Thomas and Junior Seau.
The Dolphins remain No.1 in the NFL against the pass, allowing only 107.9 yards per game, but they have slipped to 29th against the run (138.8 yards). Corey Dillon should have another strong game, particularly if Thomas (hamstring injury) does not return.
Patriots remaining games: at NY Jets, San Francisco
San Diego Chargers (10-3) visit Cleveland Browns (3-10)
The Chargers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-24, last Sunday to maintain their two-game lead over the Broncos in the AFC West. The Chargers can afford to lose one, but they'll probably win in Cleveland, where the Browns are unraveling to the tune of 79-22 in their last two games combined.
The Browns would have to beat the Chargers through the air, because the Browns are 27th in rushing at 96.3 yards a game, and the Chargers have No. 1 defense against the run (77.5 yards). San Diego has won seven straight.
Chargers remaining schedule: at Indianapolis, Kansas City
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can reach him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or send him an email here
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