Wednesday Apple Pie

After a week of action in which 14 teams played a divisional rival, the NFL playoff picture is taking on another intriguing shape.

The NFC, far more cut and dry than the convoluted AFC, has only two teams (Philadelphia and Atlanta) that are locks for the post-season. While division leaders St. Louis and Green Bay own important tiebreakers in their divisions, the two would be in a world of trouble if they were grasping for a wild-card berth. But today's Pie will dwell on the AFC, where the possibilities are endless with eight teams having six wins or more.

First, let's get every team with six losses or more off the board. This would include Oakland, Kansas City, Tennessee, Cleveland, Buffalo and Miami. As a side note, notice that Kansas City and Tennessee, two of the four remaining teams from a year ago, will be sitting at home in January. I also told you that Tennessee's unsportsmanlike usage of a half-back pass while comfortably leading in Green Bay earlier in the season would come back to haunt them. Yes, as the Tuesday Morning Quarterback would say, "the football Gods get their revenge on the Flaming Thumbtacks."

With those six teams out of the way, let us turn our focus now to the two teams with five losses - Houston and Cincinnati. The Bengals head into a huge divisional game against the Steelers this week. If they lose, their season is inevitably done. Any team that reaches six losses by the 11th week really doesn't have a shot at the playoffs. However, if they were to upset the Steelers, they own a tiebreaker on Denver and still would have the possibility of sneaking into the playoffs.

The Texans on the other hand must win out the rest of the way. They are already two games behind Indianapolis and Jacksonville in the AFC South and they also lose tiebreakers to San Diego and Denver.

So it is safe to say that this week could knock out the Texans and the Bengals in one fell swoop. That leaves eight teams left. Some are contenders, some are pretenders, but all are equal too or possibly even better than Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Let's not focus on New England and Pittsburgh, who comfortably hold two-game leads in their respective divisions. This leaves us the six teams sitting at 6 - 3.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Key Wins: at Jacksonville
Key Losses: Jacksonville, at New England
Key Upcoming Games: San Diego, at Denver, at Houston, Baltimore

Analysis: The Colts have gotten through the first ten weeks going 1 - 2 against potential AFC playoff teams. The real meat of their schedule and games with tie-breaker potential occur in the final three weeks. They host Baltimore and San Diego before traveling to Denver to end the season. Winning two out of those three games will ensure at least a wild-card. But, should they go 4 - 0 until then, which is a strong possibility (the next four weeks feature teams with losing records), they'd be 10 - 3 and assured of a playoff spot.

Difficulty of reaching playoffs: Easy/Medium, only because of how their schedule is structured.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Key Wins: Denver, at Indianapolis
Key Losses: at Houston, Indianapolis, at San Diego
Key Upcoming Games: Tennessee, Houston, Pittsburgh

Analysis: The Jags need to win out their divisional games and hope the Colts are tripped up by Tennessee or Houston as they currently are a game behind in the divisional tie-breaker. However, should they end up behind Indianapolis, they hold the tie-breaker over Denver and should be pushing for San Diego to win the AFC West, which would put them into the playoffs with a wild-card next to Baltimore. The game against Pittsburgh is not nearly as important though, as they probably won't be battling the Steelers for a wild-card.

Difficulty of reaching playoffs: Medium/Hard. Jacksonville still holds their own destiny and if they can go 4 - 3 the rest of the way should be in perfect position for a playoff birth. But, they must root for Denver to win the AFC West.

DENVER BRONCOS
Key Wins: San Diego, Kansas City, Oakland
Key Losses: at Cincinnati, at Jacksonville
Key Upcoming Games: Oakland, at San Diego, at Kansas City, Indianapolis

Analysis: The Broncos are sitting in a very good place in terms of the playoffs. Although they lose the tie-breaker to Jacksonville, they currently hold the divisional tie-breaker over the Chargers. The Broncos need to only win their divisional games and at least two more games (Miami and New Orleans maybe?) and they should easily win the AFC West. The loss to the Bengals is only a problem if Cincinnati hangs around long enough, but that shouldn't happen. 11 - 5 wins the division for the Broncos.

Difficulty of making playoffs: Easy/Medium

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Key Wins: Oakland, Jacksonville
Key Losses: NY Jets, at Denver
Key Upcoming Games: at Oakland, at Kansas City, Denver, at Indianapolis, Kansas City

Analysis: The Chargers have a really difficult road ahead, quite possibly impossible. They can't afford slip-ups against Oakland or Kansas City. The problem for the Chargers is that the win against the Jags gives them no clear cut wild-card advantage because a lossagainst the Jets cancels that out. The Chargers also must win out their divisional games. It's looking like the Chargers will need twelve wins for the division, but eleven wins with some help would do it.

Difficulty of making playoffs: Hard. Especially hard if they fail to win the division.

NEW YORK JETS
Key Wins: at San Diego, at Miami, Buffalo, Miami
Key Losses: Baltimore, at Buffalo, at New England
Key Upcoming Games: at Pittsburgh, New England

Analysis: The Jets have the least leverage in the race for the playoffs right now. Not only do they have only one option for a playoff berth, as a wild-card, but they're without their best player Chad Pennington. It would be fair to say that every game for the Jets here on out is make-or-break. But, in reality the Jets need eleven wins to firmly secure themselves a playoff berth. Ten wins might do it, but they would need lots of help. The problem for the Jets is that they face Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis and New England to finish out the season. They are also too far behind the Patriots to grab a divisional title. The Jets need to win their next three (at Cleveland, at Arizona, Houston) and hope for a split in the final four, but they won't get Pennington back for another two weeks at the earliest. Not an easy task. Simply, Baltimore might have just knocked out the Jets for all intents and purposes.

Difficulty of making playoffs: Very Hard. The Jets have the lowest possible chance among the favorites to make the playoffs. That last series of regulation against Baltimore will be debated for years to come.

BALTIMORE RAVENS
Key Wins: Pittsburgh, at NY Jets, Cleveland, at Cincinnati
Key Losses: at Cleveland
Key Upcoming Games: at Pittsburgh, at Indianapolis, at New England, Cincinnati

Analysis: The Ravens have the strongest position to make the playoffs. Three of their four key upcoming games are against probable division winners. They also hold the tiebreaker over the Jets. 10 - 6 would get this team easily into the playoffs, but the Ravens' remaining schedule bodes for a possible 11 - 5. They face a demoralized Dallas team, a NY Giants team with a rookie starting and a pitiful Miami Dolphin squad. That equals three wins and they'll be looking to go at least 1 - 3 with the other four games, and that's how they make the playoffs.

Difficulty of Making Playoffs: Easy. The Ravens are sitting pretty and just need to continue to play smart football on defense.

FEARLESS FORCAST
How will the AFC play out? Well, it's still too early to assume anything but that the Patriots will win the AFC East. The Steelers could falter and with a loss to the Ravens at home could let the division slip through their fingers.

AFC #1 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC #2 Seed: New England Patriots
AFC #3 Seed: Indianapolis Colts
AFC #4 Seed: Denver Broncos
Wild-card #1: Baltimore Ravens
Wild-card #2: Jacksonville Jaguars

Let the debating begin.


Apple Six-Pack Recap

1. Green Bay 31 Minnesota 28 – And the spiral continues. The problem is that this team has completely abandoned the running game. Mike Tice needs to make a decision on a running back and stick with it. They seemed to play better when they had only one option at starter. Even with Randy Moss, a team that scores 56 points in two weeks shouldn't go 0 - 2 over that span. The defense on this team is pretty bad, but they got the stops at the end of the game when it counted. They simply had nothing left for the Packers' final drive. The sadder thing is that if the playoffs ended today, the Vikings would be sitting at home, again.

2. Baltimore 20 NY Jets 17 (OT) – When a team leads 14 - 0 on the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the second half, they shouldn't end up losing. Not with Kyle Boller at quarterback, not with Curtis Martin rushing for over 100 yards and not with an above-average defense. But, Ed Reed continues to be a threat to any red-zone offense, single-handedly keeping the Ravens' playoff hopes alive, and as we've already discussed, these playoff hopes are solidly alive and well. The Jets on the other hand? They've got to be breathing pretty, pretty hard.

3. St. Louis 23 Seattle 12 – This is another game that defies logic. Maybe there is something in the water in the state of Washington, but the Seahawks refuse to win important games. They have no problem getting physically and mentally ready to play the bottom-feeders, but when playing St. Louis and New England, the Hawks have looked awful. This was Seattle's chance to grasp the division by a firm hand, but instead they lose the tiebreaker for the division.

4. Indianapolis 49 Houston 14 – I know players like gaudy stats and Peyton Manning obviously likes the idea of breaking Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record. He'll do it. Easily. And it will be easy because Peyton audibles out of every rushing set inside the five. Why? Is Edge James unable to get in the end zone? He's given you 85 hard yards, yet you can't share the stat line with him? When it's that easy to score on a defense, I guess you take what you can get, but there is something very, very selfish in what Manning is doing. And I don't like it. And neither should Edgerrin James. Is Manning consciously trying to pad his stats? Well, we've seen what selfishness the Manning family is capable of during the draft, so I doubt this display is by accident. But, I do have one stat that Manning might want to keep in the back of his mind. For all of the amazing numbers Marino put up in his career, he never won a Super Bowl.

5. Atlanta 24 Tampa Bay 14 – The Falcons ended the Bucs' faint playoff hopes with a convincing win behind the legs of Michael Vick. The Falcons are flying under the radar right now, but we really don't know how good this team is since they play in the NFC South and got blown out at Kansas City by 50+ points. They aren't better than Philly, but they sure could steal home-field advantage in the playoffs.

6. Philadelphia 49 Dallas 21 – At some point in this game, I wondered why the Eagles weren't doubling up on Jason Witten. I mean he was the only Dallas play that was any threat on offense.


Power Core Post Season Monitor

AFC - Current Seeding
1. Pittsburgh
2. New England
3. Denver
4. Indianapolis
WC1: Baltimore
WC2: Jacksonville

Holding their own destiny: San Diego, NY Jets
Need help: Cincinnati, Houston

NFC - Current Seeding
1. Philadelphia
2. Atlanta
3. Green Bay
4. St. Louis
5. Seattle
6. NY Giants

Holding their own destiny: Minnesota
Need help: Detroit, Arizona, Chicago, New Orleans


Apple Six-Pack

1. Dallas Cowboys at Baltimore Ravens (GOTW) – This is a really big game for the Ravens. The Cowboys are now playing for pride, but the Ravens are playing for a playoff berth and are trying to catch Pittsburgh. This is one of the games the Ravens should win, pretty easily at this point. But, and there's a catch, the Cowboys' weakness (the secondary) is playing against the Ravens weakness (passing game). The Cowboys will probably send the house at Baltimore a few times and should get some pressure on Boller. Boller has proven to be a consistent clutch passer, in that when the game's on the line, he's found a way to make a few completions. If the Ravens are within 3, tied or ahead at the 5 minute mark, they'll win.

2. New England Patriots at Kansas City ChiefsI'm not sure how the Chiefs lost to the Saints, but for them to beat New England they'll need to put on a decent defensive performance (which they have shown they are capable of) and they'll need to run up and down on the Pats. The latter will probably happen anyway, but the question will be whether they can limit mistakes.

3. Atlanta Falcons at NY Giants – Eli Manning gets his first start this week, but the real story is whether the Giants can truly hold onto a lead. They led the Bears by 14 and the Cardinals by 11 and lost. Those weren't two of the big powerhouse offenses in the game. The Giants offensive line is perhaps the worst line in football. The Falcons have won their past two visits to the Meadowlands, but more importantly, they must win to have any shot at making sure that the NFC Championship game is in Georgia.

4. Green Bay Packers at Houston TexansThis is a tale of two teams going in opposite directions. The Texans weak secondary was torched by Peyton Manning and Co. This week, Brett Favre gets his shot at this sorry bunch. If you have Favre in your fantasy league, you'd be best advised to start him and every Packer receiver you have.

5. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars – It's hard to believe that the Titans are the same team that crushed Green Bay in Lambeau earlier in the season. Although the season is over, the Titans can still crash the Jaguars' post-season party. The Jags are in decent shape with tiebreakers, but they'd much prefer to win the division and force Indianapolis play on the road.

6. NY Jets at Cleveland BrownsIf last week wasn't a must-win for the Jets, this game is all of that and more. The Jets must win this game to have any hopes of winning a wild-card. The division seems to be a little out of reach at this point, especially with the way the Patriots are playing. The Jets can't afford to fall behind to many teams for a playoff berth. They are currently behind Jacksonville and San Diego for the last spot.


Seeds Of Wisdom From the Girl Apple

Girl Apple: So the guy at the bar predicted the Steelers wouldn't lose again, huh?

Apple: Yeah, I'm inclined to believe him.

Girl Apple: Really. He sounded foolish.

Apple: Well he was. The idiot really thinks we won't win again. But, you did say last week to "believe."

Girl Apple: Yes, but don't get cocky.

Apple: You've used that before. It was a Star Wars reference.

Girl Apple: Yes, but I have another one for you: Who is more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?

Apple: Touche.


Apple's Fantasy Football Results

TheDallasCowboysSuck 152 (5 - 5) IPeeOnSteelers 147: Next Week vs. Los Locos Leprechauns (6 - 4)
This week Monday night did me good as Witten and McNabb helped me overcome a 35 point deficit.

The Woodside Geminis 40 (9 - 1) Dogs Of War 26: Next Week vs. TBA
The Gemini were ahead of the Dogs 9 - 7 before Monday's game. The Gemini had T.O. and McNabb and the Dogs had Witten. Easy, right? Well, it was McNabb's 300+ yard game that sealed the deal, not T.O.'s touchdowns. The Lemmiwinks lost last week so I have a two game lead for the #1 seed and a bye for the playoffs with three weeks left.

DCFB 108 (4 - 6) Patsies 73: Next Week vs. The Coventry Road Bling Bling (5 - 5)
Big games by Favre, the Steeler defense and Derrick Blaylock hand me another win. Could a late push be in the making?


Bites

  • Gotta love Dick Enberg. Many on the boards were happy to have him back. I'd like him more without that dunderhead beside him.
  • I used to really like Gus Johnson, but I can't stand him anymore. He makes we wish for Don Criqui or even Greg Gumble. Gus seems to get overly excited about mundane plays. Here is a tip about play-by-play announcers. They can get excited with the action, but it's not their job to show us how exciting the game turns out.
  • It bears repeating, so I will: I thought what Porter did was just plain dumb. Especially since Warren and Ben had made nice before that. It didn't hurt us this week, but it could in the future. Porter's got to realize that it's not about respect anymore. It's about the Super Bowl. That's been the problem with Cowher teams. When they play with a chip on their shoulder because they haven't gotten respect, they play really well. Once they've gotten that respect, they don't have anything to fall back on.
  • It's not about Cleveland, Philadelphia, Warren or Ray Lewis. It's about the Super Bowl. That's what you work towards and when Joey Porter goes out and gets himself ejected before the game, it's not about the Super Bowl anymore. It's about Joey Porter.

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