Checking in on AFC Playoff Picture, Week 11 Edition

afc_championshipHere we are. Only seven weeks remain in the 2013 NFL regular season. If that doesn’t make you sad, the following will. About one quarter of the NFL is currently out of the playoff race. If you are a fan of one of those teams, it’s time to take a look at the youngsters, prepare for the draft (seven months away) and make sure your alcohol content doesn’t boil over.

For the remainder of the NFL, it’s all about playoff jockeying and seeing where your team stands through 10 weeks. In what will be a weekly feature here on Pro Football Central, we check in on the NFL playoff race, concluding with the AFC.

Check out my NFC progress report here. 

 

 

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

 

East

Courtesy of NY Times: Can Rex Ryan lead his Jets to a surprising division titel?

Courtesy of NY Times: Can Rex Ryan lead his Jets to a surprising division titel?

New England Patriots: 7-2

Strength of Schedule: 31-32 (.492)

It hasn’t necessarily been pretty, but the Patriots are now at the point where they are contending for a first-round bye in the playoffs. Statistically speaking, Tom Brady has struggled through the toughest season of his career with just 13 touchdowns and six interceptions in nine games. The primary reason for that is injuries to key skill-position players like Rob Gronkowski, who missed the first six games of the season. Shane Vereen has only played one game and Danny Amendola has been banged up all season. With those three players seemingly back in the fold, New England is primed for another late-season run. Its 24-3 in the months from November to January during the regular season since the start of the 2010 season.

New England has two difficult games coming up. It travels to Carolina to take on the Panthers tomorrow before hosting the Denver Broncos the following week. We should acquire a better understanding of where they stand after those two games as it relates to home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The other interesting dynamic here is that the New York Jets are just two games behind New England in the AFC East.

 

New York Jets: 5-4

Strength of Schedule: 28-35 (.444)

If the playoffs started today, the Jets would be in as the No. 6 seed. That’s simply amazing considering where most of us had them ending up when the season started back in September. While Geno hasn’t exactly played mistake-free football (16 total turnovers in nine games), he’s doing just enough to win football games. New York’s defensive front, led by rookie Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson has been downright dominating. Add a veteran in Ed Reed to the back end of that defense and we can expect a continual level of solid play heading into the stretch run.

Rex Ryan has done a tremendous job here, it’s now all about taking that next step and earning a postseason trip. The Jets only have one more game against a team with a winning record and that comes agianst the Carolina Panthers in Week 15. If they can build a few wins up in a row until then, we could very well be looking at a surprise playoff berth here.

Note: I talked with Brian Kenny of NBC Sports Radio on Friday about the Jets surprise season. 

 

Miami Dolphins: 4-5

Strength of Schedule: 33-30 (.524)

Miami wasted a golden opportunity to get right back into the AFC playoff picture last week when it lost to a previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. With things seemingly blowing up in their face due to the whole Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation. Outside of what it means off the field, the Dolphins are without two of their key offensive linemen for likely the remainder of the season. Considering that Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 37 times in nine games, most of those outings with Martin and Incognito in the fold, this doesn’t bode well moving forward.

Still just one game out of the final playoff spot and tied with multiple teams at 4-5, the Dolphins have a shot. The bad news here is that they have games remaining against the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and New York Jets and boast the toughest remaining schedule in the division.

 

Buffalo Bills: 3-7

Strength of Schedule: 20-35 (.364)

The remainder of Buffalo’s season will be spent giving rookie quarterback EJ Manuel much-needed experience after he missed four games due to injury earlier in the year. Manuel started out the season playing pretty good football, leading the Bills to a 2-2 record before being injured against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5. Buffalo has won a total of one game since then. Not much more to say about this team, as they are completely out of the playoff race.

 

 

South

Courtesy of ESPN: Andrew Luck and the Colts need to show more consistency.

Courtesy of ESPN: Andrew Luck and the Colts need to show more consistency.

Indianapolis Colts: 7-3

Strength of Schedule: 31-33 (.484)

At 7-3 and with a three-game lead in the division, Indianapolis is pretty much a lock for the playoffs and a division crown. The issue here has been consistency. Indianapolis has defeated three of the top teams in the NFL in the form of the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. It has also lost to the likes of the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams. That’s a tad bit alarming. Even more interesting, Indianapolis has been outscored 66-9 in the first half of its last three games.

The Colts will surely get tested against the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs later this season, but my biggest worry is when they go up against lesser competition. Listen, Indianapolis is just a half game behind the Patriots for a first-round bye in the playoffs. It cannot afford to drop a game to a team like the Houston Texans or Tennessee Titans down the stretch. One of the biggest things here is going to be how the Colts’ running game performs down the stretch. Trent Richardson has been an absolute dud since he was acquired from the Cleveland Browns. In fact, Donald Brown seems to be the better option at this point. Take that for what it’s worth.

 

Tennessee Titans: 4-6

Strength of Schedule: 31-35 (.470)

Tennessee blew huge opportunities to get right into the AFC playoff picture in each of the last two weeks. It lost to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars when it could have pulled to within one game of the Colts. Tennessee then blew a double-digit lead against the Colts this past Thursday and now sit three games back in the division. Needless to say, these past two weeks pretty much ended any chances that the Titans could contend for a playoff spot.

In even more disturbing news, Jake Locker was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury against the Jaguars in Week 10. If anything, I am pretty sure the Titans wanted to get a better look at Locker heading into the offseason. That’s not going to happen now.

 

Houston Texans: 2-7

Strength of Schedule: 30-32 (.484)

What a disastrous season for the Texans. Many expected them to compete for a conference title, but it has been downhill since Week 1. Matt Schaub was injured and then benched after throwing a ton of touchdowns to opposing defenses, which is going to be problematic moving forward. Schaub is still owed a lot of guaranteed money, so Houston may have to take a huge dead money hit if it decides to release him. In addition, Arian Foster is currently on IR and backup running back Ben Tate is set to become a free agent following this season. In just the matter of months, Houston went from legit title contender to bottom feeder.

The one positive in all this has been the play of Case Keenum, who is going to be given ever opportunity in the final seven games of the season to prove he can be the franchise quarterback. If not, the Texans may look for a quarterback early next May. Either way, Keenum is pretty much the only aspect of intrigue for the Texans right now.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars: 1-8

Strength of Schedule: 26-37 (.412)

Jacksonville has pretty much nothing to play for except the No. 1 overall pick. Neither of its quarterbacks can be considered long-term franchise options, which seems to indicate “Tank for Teddy” should be the theme of the second half for the one-win team. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is likely playing his final season in Jacksonville, while second-year wide receiver Justin Blackmon has been suspended for the remainder of the season for another alcohol related off-field incident.

It’s not all doom and gloom here. Cecil Shorts continues to prove that he can be a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. In addition, the Jaguars have a couple stellar young skill-position players in Denard Robinson and Ace Sanders, who I am intrigued by.  Defensively, it’s all about maturing with youngsters and building a solid core in the draft.

 

 

 

North

Browns need a win on Sunday to show the Bengals they are for real.

Browns need a win on Sunday to show the Bengals they are for real.

Cincinnati Bengals: 6-4

Strength of Schedule: 23-31 (.426)

The Bengals have been nothing short of madly inconsistent this season. At 6-4, they are actually playing an important all-Ohio matchup tomorrow against a surprising Cleveland Browns team. A win there and Cincinnati will have a three-game lead in the division with just five games left. A loss, and the AFC North gets extremely interesting. After winning six of their first eight games, the Bengals have lost each of their last two outings in overtime and have turned the ball over seven times during that span. This obviously isn’t sustainable if the Bengals are going to live up to the preseason hype they received.

Cincinnati has only one game against a team with a winning record remaining on its schedule. This means that the remainder of the year is nicely set up for playoff-position jockeying. It’s now up to the Bengals to actually show they belong among the elite teams in the AFC. After all, the talent is most definitely there.

 

Cleveland Browns: 4-5

Strength of Schedule: 30-34 (.469)

Two of Cleveland’s five losses this season have come by one score. That comes on the heels of losing five games by one score last season. If it wants to challenge Cincinnati for the division crown a few things need to happen. First, it needs to break that trend in the final second games. Second, it simply must win against the Bengals in Cincinnati tomorrow. Finally, quarterback Jason Campbell needs to continue playing mistake-free football. As Cleveland’s third choice for the starting gig, Campbell is completing over 60 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in two starts this season. Any type of consistency from under center and the Browns are legit playoff contenders.

If the Browns lose on Sunday, none of this will matter. They will be three games behind the Bengals with just six left. Unfortunately, Cleveland’s schedule is pretty difficult moving forward. Including the Bengals game, it takes on four teams who are currently over .500. Even if the Browns are unable to make a surprise trip to the playoffs, they have built a solid nucleus on both sides of the ball. It’s now all about getting a franchise quarterback. Sound familiar?

 

Baltimore Ravens: 4-5

Strength of Schedule: 34-30 (.531)

Don’t look now, but the defending champs are just one game out of a playoff spot after defeating the Bengals in overtime last week. Their 2013 season thus far has been filled with horrendous play calling on offense, lackluster play from quarterback Joe Flacco and a mediocre defense. Flacco has thrown just one more touchdown (12) than interceptions (11) and has struggled making plays in the passing game on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Ray Rice just doesn’t seem to be the same running back as we have seen in the past. He’s averaging just 2.5 yards per rush. Overall, the Ravens are dead least in rush average this season.

All of this needs to change if Baltimore is going to either nab the sixth playoff spot or catch Cincinnati for the division title. The interesting dynamic here is that its last four losses have come by one score. It has five games remaining against teams that are currently over .500, which isn’t exactly the best situation for a team that had a ridiculously easy schedule in the first half of the season and currently still sit under .500.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers: 3-6

Strength of Schedule: 33-31 (.516)

The Steelers’ season is pretty much over. With rumors that Ben Roethlisberger may seek a trade and Troy Polamalu may be released in the offseason, it’s likely that we are looking at a rebuilding process for a team that had been a Super Bowl contender for nearly two decades prior to a down 2012 season. Head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t appear to be on the hot seat, but general manager Mike Colbert, who has struggled with the draft in recent seasons, may be on his way out.

Either way, the Steelers are going to have to add some young talent to their roster in order to make up for what has to be considered regression from too many veterans. The larger question here will be whether they do in fact part ways with Big Ben. 

 

 

 West

Can Alex Smith prove skeptic wrong and do enough to beat Peyton Manning?

Can Alex Smith prove skeptic wrong and do enough to beat Peyton Manning?

Kansas City Chiefs: 9-0

Strength of Schedule: 36-27 (.571)

Are you ready for the rumble in Colorado? After winning just two games a season ago, Kansas City is currently the only undefeated team in the NFL heading into Week 12. Just think about that for a second. Alex Smith has improved the passing game simply by not turning the ball over. While he hasn’t done a lot in terms of statistics, it’s hard to question Smith’s ability to win games. He is NFL’s winningiest quarterback since November of 2010. Meanwhile, Jamaal Charles is on pace for almost 2,000 total yards from the running back position. Kansas City’s biggest strength is on the defensive side of the ball where it ranks second in points allowed and ninth in total defense. This is a primary reason why the Chiefs are 3-0 in one-score games. Some may look at their schedule as another reason for their undefeated record, but the Chiefs can only play who they are scheduled to play.

That schedule, however, gets much more difficult in the second half of the season. Outside of playing the 8-1 Broncos twice, Kansas City takes on a 7-3 Indianapolis Colts team and has two more games remaining against a vastly improved San Diego Chargers squad. As it is, whoever wins the AFC West will likely end up with home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs. My money is on the upstart Chiefs.

 

Denver Broncos: 8-1

Strength of Schedule: 38-25 (.603)

Everyone’s unquestioned favorites to win the AFC have been absolutely dominating throughout the vast majority of the season. Peyton Manning is on pace to break NFL records in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas are all on pace to nab 16 touchdowns, while Eric Decker is on pace to be one of four 1,000-yard receivers. Oh, and Knowshon Moreno has finally lived up to his first-round billing. This has all lead to a Broncos’ offense that is currently averaging 41.2 points per game.

But they’re not in first place and a loss to the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football could spell and end to their first-round bye and division-winning hopes. Imagine that.

One of the primary reasons that Denver hasn’t necessarily received a lot of praise recently is because its defense has been poor at best. It ranks 25th in the NFL in points against and is giving up the third-most passing yards in the league. That needs to change if the Broncos expect to capture the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. With the toughest remaining schedule of any team that currently sits above .500, the Broncos will be tested. Outside of taking on the Chiefs twice, Manning and Co. will have to travel to New England to take on a Patriots team that has lost two December home games in the Tom Brady era.

 

San Diego Chargers: 4-5

Strength of Schedule: 42-22 (.656)

At 4-5, the Chargers are right in the midst of the AFC playoff race. Unfortunately for Philip Rivers and Co, they have lost two games in a row by a single score after starting the season 4-3. Even more concerning, San Diego boasts the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL with two games remaining against Kansas City as well as games against Denver and New England. For his part, Rivers is having a great bounce-back campaign. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions after being picked 35 times in the last two years combined. The combination of Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews has also been pretty good in the backfield. They’ve combined for 1,235 total and eight touchdowns. Equally as important for the future of the franchise, rookie Keenan Allen may in fact be a true No. 1 wide receiver that they’ve been looking for since Vincent Jackson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to last season.

San Diego’s largest issues moving forward this season is the fact that it has such a terribly difficult schedule. I honestly don’t see it winning five of seven games to end the season, which would likely be needed to have a chance to earn a playoff spot. Barring a late-season meltdown, however, this has been a darn good season for a struggling Chargers’ franchise.

 

Oakland Raiders: 3-6

Strength of Schedule: 37-27 (.578)

Unfortunately for the Raiders, they are going to have to start Matt McGloin in lieu of an injured Terrelle Pryor on Sunday. At 3-6, their primary goal for the remainder of the season has to be getting Pryor reps and seeing whether he is the long-term solution under center. The more games he misses, the less of an opportunity Oakland has to gauge his ability. Either way, the Raiders have been far more competitive this season than most people originally anticipated, which is going to help them build a strong foundation moving into what promises to be an important offseason.

 

 

 

Playoff Standings

1. Kansas City Chiefs

2. New England Patriots

3. Indianapolis Colts

4. Cincinnati Bengals

5. Denver Broncos

6. New York Jets

——————————————————————

Miami Dolphins (-1)

Tennessee Titans (-1)

Cleveland Browns (-1)

San Diego Charger (-1)

Baltimore Ravens (-1)

 

If the Playoffs Started Today

 

AFC Wildcard (Bye: Kansas City and New England) 

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts

Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals

 

Conference Awards

MVP: Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver Broncos

Offensive Player of the Year: A.J. Green, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Player of the Year: Derrick Johnson, Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Keenan Allen, Wide Receiver, San Diego Chargers and Giovani Bernard, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Line, New York Jets

Coach of the Year: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

 

Final Predictions

AFC East: New England Patriots (13-3)

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

Wildcard (1): Denver Broncos (13-3)

Wildcard (2): New York Jets (9-7)

 

Wildcard Round (Bye: Kansas City and New England

New York Jets over Indianapolis Colts

Denver Broncos over Cincinnati Bengals

 

Divisional Round

Kansas City Chiefs over New York Jets

New England Patriots over Denver Broncos

 

AFC Championship Game

Kansas City Chiefs over New England Patriots