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.
Here's how are AFC bloggers see things shaking out:
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.
Sunday: at San Francisco
Dec. 14: vs. Buffalo
Dec. 21: at Seattle
Dec. 28: vs. Miami
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.
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.
Sunday: at Seattle
Dec. 14: at Oakland
Dec. 21: vs. Arizona
Dec. 28: at Buffalo
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.
Analysis: Those who thought the Dolphins would be one game out of first place in December, please raise your hands.
Sunday: vs. Buffalo (in Toronto)
Dec. 14: vs. San Francisco
Dec. 21: at Kansas City
Dec. 28: at New York Jets
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
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.
Sunday: vs. Kansas City
Dec. 14: at Carolina
Dec. 21: vs. Buffalo
Dec. 28: at San Diego
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
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.
Sunday: vs. Dallas
Dec. 14: at Baltimore
Dec. 21: at Tennessee
Dec. 28: vs. Cleveland
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.
Sunday: vs. Washington
Dec. 14: vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 20: at Dallas
Dec. 28: vs. Jacksonville
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
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.
Sunday: vs. Cleveland
Dec. 14: at Houston
Dec. 21: vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 28: at Indianapolis
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.
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.
Sunday: vs. Cincinnati
Dec. 14: vs. Detroit
Dec. 18: at Jacksonville
Dec. 28: vs. Tennessee
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