With Patriots and Colts on the fringe, AFC race sports new look

Is the AFC suddenly the weaker conference? Weaker or not, the usual suspects like the Patriots and Colts are fighting for contention as we dive into December.

Originally Published: December 4, 2008
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com

Brett Favre/Chad PenningtonGetty ImagesAfter two straight huge road wins, Jets QB Brett Favre floundered against the Broncos in Week 13. Ex-Jet Chad Pennington has been a steadying force for the Dolphins. He has only six interceptions this season.
Looking for the typical AFC playoff power structure?

You came to the wrong season.

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• Clayton: Potential dark horses
• The big picture: Who's in now?
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There's been a power shift in the AFC, which many observers believe suddenly became the weaker conference in 2008. Weaker or not, these are definitely different times in the AFC playoff picture as we dive into December.

Usual AFC titans the Patriots and Colts have their fingers crossed that they'll make the six-team January party. Another AFC playoff mainstay, San Diego, which met the Patriots in the conference title game last season, has its playoff hopes on life support. This year, it's the Tennessee Titans who are the headliners. They're 11-1 and closing in on ensuring that the road to the Super Bowl will go through the Music City.

Upstarts New York and Denver also find themselves in good shape. The Patriots and Colts are no sure things while the Titans and Broncos are already scouting playoff opponents.

Your big brother's AFC? We think not.

Here's how are AFC bloggers see things shaking out:

AFC EAST

New York Jets (8-4, first)

Analysis: One week after the Jets asserted themselves as AFC favorites with back-to-back road victories over the reigning conference champs and the last undefeated team, plenty of doubt was injected for homestretch analysis.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: at San Francisco
Dec. 14: vs. Buffalo
Dec. 21: at Seattle
Dec. 28: vs. Miami

The seesaw Denver Broncos went to the Meadowlands and thumped them good. But the Jets still lead the AFC East by a game and control their own destiny.

The Jets will crisscross the country over the next four weeks. They will visit the San Francisco 49ers (5,146 miles round trip), play host to the Buffalo Bills, visit the Seattle Seahawks (4,804 miles round trip) and then play the Miami Dolphins at home in what could be a critical season finale for both teams.

Aside from the travel, the schedule seems favorable. The Jets already have beaten the Bills and Dolphins on the road.

Difference-maker: The X factor always will be Brett Favre. The daredevil quarterback can win a game with a laser-beam throw or lose it with an atrocious interception.

Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has done an efficient job of keeping Favre on point. When Favre throws one or zero interceptions, the Jets are 6-2. He has had four games with two or more interceptions. The Jets are 2-2 in those games, with their only victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs.

If running back Thomas Jones continues to play as brilliantly as he has been, then Favre's influence diminishes. But analyst Cris Collinsworth recently noted "the ticking bomb that is Brett Favre. It's going to go off -- in good ways and bad ways."

Ticket to Tampa? Fly standby. Any team that can stop the run like the Jets and has a balanced offense can make a long run.

New England Patriots (7-5, tied for second)

Analysis: The Patriots are tied with the Miami Dolphins at 7-5, one game behind the first-place Jets. While the Patriots have a chance to win the AFC East -- they'll need to go 3-1 at the minimum, and that's entirely possible -- they can get into the playoffs as a wild-card entry.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: at Seattle
Dec. 14: at Oakland
Dec. 21: vs. Arizona
Dec. 28: at Buffalo

Ahead of the Patriots in the wild-card standings are the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens at 8-4. The Colts' remaining opponents are the Bengals, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Titans. That slate should leave the Colts at 11-5. The Ravens, however, have a tougher road against the Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Jaguars.

The Patriots must win their next two road games, a difficult task because they'll be on the other side of the continent. The Patriots are staying out West between games as they did earlier in the year when they split games against the 49ers and San Diego Chargers.

If the playoffs are on the line in their season finale at Buffalo, one has to figure the Patriots will come through.

Difference-maker: When receiver Randy Moss gets involved, the Patriots win. When he doesn't make plays, they don't.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seems to have opened up the playbook enough for Matt Cassel that getting the ball to Moss hasn't been an issue. But Moss dropped a few biggies in the chilly rain Sunday, and the Steelers won easily.

In New England's seven victories, Moss has 38 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns. In five defeats, he has 20 catches for 187 yards and one touchdown.

Ticket to Tampa? Make sure it's refundable. Once the Patriots are in the playoffs, anything can happen, but they haven't won more than two games in a row all year.

Miami Dolphins (7-5, tied for second)

Analysis: Those who thought the Dolphins would be one game out of first place in December, please raise your hands.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Buffalo (in Toronto)
Dec. 14: vs. San Francisco
Dec. 21: at Kansas City
Dec. 28: at New York Jets

Thank you, Mrs. Sparano.

Now, anybody else?

The Dolphins' amazing turnaround has them on the verge of a playoff berth one season after being the NFL's laughingstocks. They have won five of their past six games and are 7-5, tied with the Patriots and one game behind the Jets.

The Dolphins put themselves within striking distance Sunday, when they were the only AFC East team to win. Their remaining schedule is kind enough that they actually can win the division. No opponent owns a winning record until they visit the Jets in the season finale.

Also of assistance is the Dolphins' game against the Bills. It will take place in a Toronto dome rather than the western New York elements.

Difference-maker: The Dolphins give themselves a chance to win each week because they rarely cough up the ball. They have committed only 10 turnovers through their first 12 games, tying an NFL record for that span.

Chad Pennington is the main reason for that. One of the three other teams in NFL history with 10 turnovers a dozen games into a campaign was the 2004 Jets, whom Pennington also quarterbacked.

Pennington has thrown six interceptions and ranks fifth with a 92.8 passer rating. He is the most significant on-field reason for the Dolphins' resurgence, and as long as he remains his prudent, efficient self, they'll play well.

Ticket to Tampa? Take a magic carpet. That would be an appropriate aircraft for a team that was 1-15 a season ago.

-- Tim Graham, AFC East blogger

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos (7-5, first)

Analysis: What do the New York Giants, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos all have in common?

Here's a hint: They don't all have 11-1 records.

Each has a three-game lead in its respective division, along with Arizona. While the Giants and Titans have both rolled out 11-1 records, they have the same advantage in their divisions as the Broncos and Cardinals enjoy. Both of those teams are 7-5.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Kansas City
Dec. 14: at Carolina
Dec. 21: vs. Buffalo
Dec. 28: at San Diego

Believe it or not, the Broncos are a near lock to make the playoffs. The Broncos, who haven't made the postseason since 2005 and won a combined 16 games the past two seasons, are slugging their way to a decent season. They will most likely advance to the postseason because prohibitive preseason favorite San Diego has stumbled badly. San Diego is 4-8. The Broncos' magic number to win the AFC West is two.

Denver will be an interesting playoff foe. While the Broncos have lost to Oakland and Kansas City, they also have some nice wins on their 2008 résumé, most notably on the road against Atlanta and the New York Jets. Denver dominated the Jets on Sunday, cooling off New York, which had back-to-back road wins at New England and Tennessee.

If Denver can keep the turnovers to a minimum on offense and get healthy on defense, it could be a factor in the postseason. Barring a major collapse, Denver will get the chance to make some noise in the playoffs.

Difference-maker: A player to watch down the stretch is left cornerback Champ Bailey. He could be a game changer for Denver in the postseason. Besides quarterback Jay Cutler, Bailey is Denver's best player, but he has been out with a severe groin injury since Oct. 20.

Bailey, expected to return this week against the Chiefs, makes Denver a better defense by his mere presence. He is rarely challenged, he shuts down half the field in the passing game and he is a standout in run support. In the postseason, Denver could face a pass-happy team such as Indianapolis in the first round. Bailey's return will be a much-needed bonus as the playoffs approach.

Ticket to Tampa? Denver has a puncher's (Cutler) chance.

-- Bill Williamson, AFC West blogger

James Harrison/Chris JohnsonGetty ImagesSteelers linebacker James Harrison, a candidate for defensive player of the year, already has 14 sacks. Speedy Chris Johnson (958 yards rushing) has changed the face of the Titans' offense.
AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3, first)

Analysis: The Steelers are well on their way to reversing a trend. Pittsburgh is trying to become just the fourth team out of 13 to make the playoffs when entering the season with -- or tied for -- the NFL's toughest strength of schedule since 2002.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Dallas
Dec. 14: at Baltimore
Dec. 21: at Tennessee
Dec. 28: vs. Cleveland

The Steelers can clinch a postseason berth in the AFC as early as Sunday with a win over the Dallas Cowboys and losses by the New England Patriots (7-5) and Miami Dolphins (7-5).

Pittsburgh, winner of three straight, is hitting its stride at the right time because in the next three weeks, the Steelers have brutal games against Dallas, at the Baltimore Ravens and at the Tennessee Titans. Those three opponents have a combined record of 27-9. The only "gimme" left on the schedule is Dec. 28 against the Cleveland Browns (4-8), who are down to their third-string quarterback.

The Steelers hold a one-game lead over the New York Jets (8-4) for the coveted No. 2 seed in the AFC, which would give Pittsburgh a first-round bye. With injuries to key players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and tailback Willie Parker (shoulder), a week off in the postseason would be the Steelers' best chance to get to Tampa.

Difference-maker: Few teams have been able to block linebacker James Harrison this season.

Harrison is third in the NFL with 14 sacks. He also has 80 tackles, six forced fumbles and an interception. Not only is Harrison putting up tremendous numbers, but the timing of his plays is changing the momentum of games.

This type of production makes Harrison a strong candidate for defensive player of the year and someone to watch closely in the playoffs.

Ticket to Tampa? As good a chance as anyone.

Baltimore Ravens (8-4, second)

Analysis: Coming into the season there were two AFC North teams -- Pittsburgh and Cleveland -- expected to fight for playoff positioning. But the Ravens easily took over the Browns' spot this year as that second team trying to give the division two postseason berths.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Washington
Dec. 14: vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 20: at Dallas
Dec. 28: vs. Jacksonville

The Ravens' defense is No. 2 in the NFL. That is no shock. But their offense is tied for No. 10 in scoring (24.3), which has caught the league completely by surprise.

In many ways, Baltimore controls its own destiny. The Ravens hold a one-game lead for the final wild-card spot over the Dolphins and Patriots. And Baltimore owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami, which might come into play.

If there is reason for concern, it's that Baltimore is just 2-4 against teams with winning records. The Ravens face three very good teams in December, starting with Sunday's game against Washington. But three of Baltimore's last four games are at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens are 4-1 this season.

Difference-maker: There are not many difference-makers among NFL rookies bigger than Joe Flacco. Unlike Atlanta rookie QB Matt Ryan, Flacco was not expected to contribute much right away. He was given the starting job by default and spent the first month of the season adjusting to the speed of the game.

No longer playing like a rookie, Flacco has had the reins removed and he is challenging teams vertically with his strong arm.

But can a rookie quarterback do damage in the postseason?

Ticket to Tampa? Just a puncher's chance.

-- James Walker, AFC North blogger

AFC SOUTH

Tennessee Titans (11-1, first)

Analysis: In line to clinch the AFC South with a win over Cleveland at LP Field on Sunday, the Titans will get their best gauge of the season in Week 16 when they play host to Pittsburgh in what could be a preview of the AFC Championship Game.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Cleveland
Dec. 14: at Houston
Dec. 21: vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 28: at Indianapolis

The Titans aren't a star-driven team, though defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is being overlooked in too many conversations about defensive player of the year and maybe even MVP. They are built to close games out in the fourth quarter, but have found themselves needing to do it less often because they not only have the league's second-best scoring defense (14.6 points per game) but also the No. 7 scoring offense (25.3).

It's rare the Titans aren't the most physical team on the field. While the Titans lack a true No. 1 wide receiver, rookie running back Chris Johnson gives them the dynamic playmaker they've lacked for so long. Kerry Collins has responded when he's needed to carry the offense, but his chief trait is that he won't make killer mistakes -- he's thrown an interception on just 1.2 percent of his pass attempts and has been sacked only seven times.

Tennessee plays good defense, runs effectively and limits mistakes. It's a framework that's worked before and it could work for the Titans in the playoffs, particularly if they need only to win twice at home to get to the Super Bowl.

Difference-maker: Johnson is a constant threat to go all the way and dictates a lot of the coverages the Titans are seeing. He runs behind a line that has been quite good at creating creases for him.

Coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is generally good about remaining patient with the run to maximize the chances of the big play. And his other back, LenDale White, helps Johnson avoid being overworked, taking most of the short-yardage and goal line work.

Ticket to Tampa? As good a bet as anyone in the AFC.

Indianapolis Colts (8-4, second)

Analysis: The Colts have weathered all sorts of things that would kill a lot of teams. They were decimated early by injuries to their offensive line as quarterback Peyton Manning needed time to round into form after missing all of training camp and the preseason after two knee surgeries.

Remaining schedule

Sunday: vs. Cincinnati
Dec. 14: vs. Detroit
Dec. 18: at Jacksonville
Dec. 28: vs. Tennessee

But they survived 1-2 and 3-4 starts, and another rash of injuries to the defensive backfield. The Colts are riding a five-game winning streak in which they've consistently found clutch plays they needed to win close games.

This team has a similar look and feel to the 2006 version that won the Super Bowl. It has functioned for a good share of the regular season without safety Bob Sanders -- just like that championship team did. The Colts hope to have him lined up and healthy for a postseason run. They'll enter as a wild card.

Indianapolis has fallen short a lot more than it has succeeded in the postseason, but these Colts are gritty. They still have Manning running the show and could be a dangerous draw in January.

Difference-maker: Presuming Sanders' knee injury settles down and allows him to play in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, the key Colt come January could be center Jeff Saturday.

In an offense with Manning, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai, Saturday's sometimes underappreciated. But he works in sync with Manning and communicates the calls to the offensive line. He's currently out with a calf injury, with Jamey Richard playing in his spot.

Odds are to make a run, the Colts will have to beat a team or two with an imposing defensive tackle like Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth, the Jets' Kris Jenkins, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton or Baltimore's Haloti Ngata.

Saturday's going to need to be recovered from his calf injury and ready to go to maximize the Colts' chances.

Ticket to Tampa: They aren't a favorite, but don't be surprised.

-- Paul Kuharsky, AFC South blogger

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter