- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 15:
The New England Patriots must figure out if they can trust starting tailback Stevan Ridley. He is having trouble holding onto the football late in the season for the second straight year, and mistakes like that can end New England's season in the playoffs. Ridley rushed for 23 yards on nine attempts, and his fumble was costly in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. This is the second straight week Ridley fumbled in a big game. Ridley's fumble was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez last week against the Houston Texans. The difference this season is New England is counting on Ridley. The Patriots can't bench him for the playoffs and hand the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who bolted in free agency. Ridley needs to tighten his ball security, or he will lose much of his playing time to backup Danny Woodhead.
The Patriots lost control of their own destiny for a first-round bye. Now, it's up to the Denver Broncos to win their last two games against the Cleveland Browns (5-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-12) to lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC. I don't see Denver losing either game at home. The only question in my mind is who will New England host at Gillette Stadium in the wild-card round? Will it be the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) or (gasp!) the rival Jets (6-7)? All three teams present different challenges. I think Pittsburgh, with a top-level quarterback and physical defense, is the scariest matchup for the Patriots in a one-game scenario. The Jets are probably the easiest matchup on paper, although the familiarity makes them dangerous in a one-game scenario.
The Buffalo Bills have lost some ugly games, but this is the first time I've questioned their effort. Buffalo suffered a 50-17 blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Toronto Sunday. The Bills fell behind 31-7 in the second quarter and never bothered to show up. The Seahawks are better than the Bills, but not 33 points better. Part of it can be blamed on sloppy play and poor game-planning. But I think poor effort was the main factor. You have to wonder how much this impacts coach Chan Gailey's job security. The Bills are 3-8 in their last 11 games. It will be important for Gailey to win these final two weeks.
The only good news about Sunday's performance is Buffalo's draft position improved. The Bills (5-9) would own the No. 9 overall pick if the season ended today. Being in the top 10 provides a chance that Buffalo could draft a quarterback (West Virginia's Geno Smith?) in the first round. Bills general manager Buddy Nix appears set on fixing his quarterback position in the offseason. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had three turnovers against Seattle, obviously is not the answer.
I liked the multiple designed runs the Miami Dolphins added this weekend for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He rushed for a career-high 52 yards in a 24-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, and most of it came on designed runs. This adds another option to Miami's offense, which needs to become more dynamic. Tannehill is a sneaky good athlete who played some at receiver in college. He can outrun some NFL linebackers and most defensive linemen. The difference at the NFL level is Tannehill needs to slide on nearly every play, which he did well against the Jaguars.
If the Dolphins want to reunite head coach Joe Philbin with former players in Green Bay, they will certainly get an opportunity in the offseason. The Packers reportedly are preparing to lose two key players on offense: No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings and starting tight end Jermichael Finley. Jennings is an unrestricted free agent looking to cash in big. The problem is he's been injured all season, and that may prevent Green Bay from overpaying to keep Jennings. The Dolphins have a ton of cap space next year and will be able to outbid Green Bay and others if Jennings is their top target. Jennings knows Philbin's offense well and would be the legit No. 1 receiver Miami is looking for. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel also reports Finley will be traded or release due to behavior issues and his high 2013 salary. Expect the Dolphins to at least take a look, especially with Miami tight end Anthony Fasano headed toward free agency.
The Jets still need a lot of help to get into the playoffs. Their head-to-head loss to Pittsburgh in Week 2 may turn out to be New York's downfall. The Steelers control their own destiny with that win. The Jets need to win out and have Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati next week. Then, the Steelers need to lose in Week 17 to the Browns to have a chance. That's a lot for the Jets to ask to go their way. But the fact that New York still has a decent shot is amazing consider how bad this team has been most of the season.