AFC East: AFC North
It's only fitting: The Ravens and Patriots have been the best teams in the AFC all season, so it's only right that they settle it on the field to see who represents the conference in the Super Bowl. Baltimore and New England did not meet during the regular season. The teams last met in 2010 when New England won in overtime. The Patriots and Ravens also split two meetings in 2009, with New England winning in the regular season and Baltimore winning in the playoffs.
Quarterback disparity: New England's biggest advantage will be at the most important position: quarterback. The Patriots have Tom Brady, who is coming off an NFL-playoff record six touchdown passes and 363 yards passing against the Denver Broncos. Brady is peaking at the right time. Meanwhile, Baltimore counterpart Joe Flacco is inconsistent. Flacco had another shaky postseason outing against the Houston Texans on Sunday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly, Flacco must play better at New England.
Patriots' D needs to keep momentum: Was it New England's defense, or was it the opponent? The Patriots played their best defensive game of the season, holding the Broncos to just 10 points and 252 yards. New England baffled Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, holding him to 136 yards passing and sacking him five times. New England will be tough to beat if its defense maintains this level of play. Of course, the Ravens have more dynamic weapons on offense and present a stiffer challenge than the Broncos.
So who wins Saturday's playoff game between New England and Denver? Take your pick.
Will it be Tom Brady and the Patriots advancing to the AFC Championship Game? New England is a huge favorite. The Patriots romped the Broncos in Denver, 41-23, in Week 15. Should we expect more of the same at Gillette Stadium?
Or will Tebow's magical run continue? Denver looked good against a tough Pittsburgh team. The Broncos now have momentum and will try to take advantage of New England perhaps gaining rust after two weeks off.
Using our SportsNation poll, vote for who wins Saturday's divisional round game between the Patriots and Broncos. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Mike Garafolo of the Neward Star-Ledger reports Bradshaw suffered a cracked bone in his foot and will be out indefinitely. This severely hurts New York's running game. Brandon Jacobs most likely will start Sunday against the Patriots and has been disgruntled and unproductive this season.
New England (5-2) is coming off another poor defensive performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots rank last in the NFL in yards allowed.
Bradshaw's injury should make New York's offense less balanced and easier to defend. The Patriots need all the help they can get defensively.
New England is favored coming off the bye week. But is that correct? Pittsburgh is heating up and won three games in a row. The defense is ranked third in the NFL and the offense has big-play capability with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and speedy receiver Mike Wallace.
But New England also has played very well this year and holds the best record in the AFC. Brady has given Pittsburgh headaches in his career. Will New England continue to beat Pittsburgh in big games?
Using our SportsNation poll, take your pick in Sunday's high-profile matchup between the Patriots and Steelers. You can also share your thoughts and predict a score in the comments section below.
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
Result: L, 34-24 vs. Oakland
Stats: 27-43, 369 yards, two TDs, one INT
Analysis: I'm starting to think the Total Quarterback Rating doesn't like Sanchez. This is the second time I thought Sanchez played a solid game, but the QBR says he was well below average. Sanchez threw for 369 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. I was particularly impressed since Sanchez had virtually no help from the running game and the Jets' usually stout defense. Sanchez was by no means perfect. But I just don't see how 21 other quarterbacks had better games in Week 3.
Walker's Grade: B
Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins
Result: L, 17-16 vs. Cleveland
Stats: 19-29, 255 yards, one TD, one INT
Analysis: I don't think Henne played twice as well as Sanchez this week, as the QBR suggests. He started extremely hot, completely 11 of his first 12 passes. But Henne and Miami's offense once again struggled in the red zone and that was the difference in a last-minute loss to Cleveland. Henne spread the ball to seven different receivers. That's solid. But Henne hasn't been clutch this year. He had plenty of chances to put the Browns away in the second half but failed. Henne also had an opportunity to win the game in the final drive but threw a pick to Cleveland safety Mike Adams.
Walker's Grade: C+
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills
Result: W, 34-31 vs. Patriots
Stats: 27-40, 369 yards, two TDs, two INTs
Analysis: Fitzpatrick had nearly identical numbers with Sanchez. But the difference is Fitzpatrick led the Bills to a dramatic, second-half comeback over the New England Patriots and Sanchez's Jets blew an early lead to Oakland. Fitzpatrick thrives this year in the clutch. His play at the end of the first half and the end of the fourth quarter was masterful. Fitzpatrick made a few bad throws. He was picked off three times, but one was called back because of a pass-interference call. But overall Fitzpatrick earned the best grade in the "Sanchez-Henne-Fitz Watch" for the third week in a row.
Walker's Grade: B+
This week's winner: Ryan Fitzpatrick (three points)
Second place: Mark Sanchez (two points)
Third place: Chad Henne (one point)
1. Fitzpatrick (nine points)
2 (tie). Sanchez (five points)
2 (tie). Henne (five points)
Fitzpatrick is separating from Sanchez and Henne. We will have another installment of the "Sanchez-Henne-Fitz Watch" after Week 4.
Miami's Jake Long and Cleveland's Joe Thomas -- both multi-time Pro Bowlers -- often are compared to one another. Long said this week he has a lot of admiration and respect for Thomas.
"He's been good since day one in the NFL," Long said. "He just has a smooth pass pro. He's good with his hands, quick feet and a very good player."
The two were just one draft class apart. Thomas was drafted No. 3 overall to Cleveland in 2007. Miami took Long No. 1 overall in 2008. The pair have combined for seven Pro Bowls.
Opinions differ on who's better. The NFL Network recently surveyed hundreds of players who voted Long (No. 28) ahead of Thomas (No. 43). ESPN.com rated Thomas narrowly ahead of Long this past offseason.
"I don't read into all that stuff. I just work and try to be the best," Long said. "It's something I work for and I want to earn the respect. But I'm never satisfied. So, I always want to get better."
Thomas recently became the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman. He agreed to a seven-year, $84 million extension with Cleveland. Long, who is signed through 2013, also is due for a raise in the next year or two. But that wasn't on his mind with the Dolphins 0-2.
"Honestly, I don't care about that stuff right now," Long said. "I'm worried about the game and what this team has to do."
In our latest SportsNation poll, we ask is the AFC East the best division in football through two weeks? It has three undefeated teams (New England Patriots, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills) rated in the top 16 of ESPN.com's Power Rankings.
The NFC North also is off to a good start. The division is 5-3 and has the No. 1 team in the defending champion Green Bay Packers. The NFC East also is deep with zero winless teams.
The AFC North has two clubs -- the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers -- in the top 10. The AFC South also has the Houston Texans in the top five. Should either be considered the best division in football?
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on whether the AFC East or another division is the NFL's best after two weeks. You also can share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Here is how things turned out for the AFC East division:
New England Patriots
Walker's vote: No. 1
Cumulative vote: No. 2
Analysis: The Patriots were the near-consensus No. 2 team behind the Green Bay Packers. I was the only panelist who went out on a limb and didn't vote for the reigning Super Bowl champs. The Patriots are stacked. They also have a favorable schedule in the first month of the season and could get off to a fast start. Three of New England's first four opponents (Miami, Buffalo, Oakland) failed to post winning records in 2010.
New York Jets
Walker's vote: No. 7
Cumulative vote: No. 7
Analysis: The Jets were all over the place with our panel. ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox voted New York No. 4, while ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton rated the Jets No. 9. I was somewhere in between, voting the Jets No. 7. They are strong contenders but still have some kinks to work out. Sunday night's matchup against the Dallas Cowboys will be an interesting matchup between two talented teams still working to get on the same page.
Walker's vote: No. 23
Cumulative vote: No. 24
Analysis: The Dolphins finished about where I expected. It's hard to get a good feel for this team, which has some talent but also some questions. The Dolphins were rated as low at No. 28 (NFC West blogger Mike Sando) and as high as No. 21 (Clayton). Chad Henne and Co. have a chance to make a huge statement in Week 1, hosting the Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Many in our AFC East community are predicting a Dolphins upset.
Walker's vote: No. 30
Cumulative vote: No. 30
Analysis: As we predicted last week, the Bills were rated ahead of the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals. But it could be a tough go for the rebuilding Bills in this competitive division. Buffalo struggled in the preseason. The Bills went 1-3 and scored more than 10 points once in four exhibitions. The Bills will travel to play the reigning AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
We have a big Week 1 showdown in the AFC East to start the season. The New England Patriots will travel to Sun Life Stadium to play the Miami Dolphins on "Monday Night Football."
So, which team will begin 1-0 and pick up the first win in the division?
Will it be quarterback Tom Brady and Co.? The Patriots are looking to make up for last season's quick playoff exit at the hands of the New York Jets. New England can start by picking up a division win on the road against Miami.
Or will the upset-minded Dolphins make a big statement? The Dolphins have talent, but can be a difficult team to gauge. Will quarterback Chad Henne, receiver Brandon Marshall and new tailback Reggie Bush score enough points at home to keep up with New England?
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on who wins this battle of AFC East rivals. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Soon I will be leaving the AFC North to take over as the new AFC East blogger.
Hello. I'm James, the new guy in town. I spent the past three seasons writing about the Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals for ESPN.com. In that span I covered two Super Bowls in three years. Thank me later when my good luck propels one of your AFC East teams to the big game this season.
As I mentioned in the AFC North blog, the switch will not happen overnight. I will go back and forth between divisions until the changeover is complete.
But in the meantime, I want to know about you. Tell me about the AFC East community and what you expect from the AFC East blog. Share your thoughts below or send them to my personal inbox. I will read every comment I receive this weekend.
It's been pretty dormant around here lately. I came to spice things up -- like Ryan did in New York and like Ochocinco may do with the Patriots if Bill Belichick allows it.
I look forward to joining the AFC East party!
This is a nice rebound by Baltimore's front office. The Ravens miscalculated their receiver situation in free agency by releasing Derrick Mason and pursuing a younger, more dynamic Malcom Floyd. Baltimore eventually whiffed on Floyd and it was too late to turn back to Mason, who signed a one-year contract with the New York Jets.
That left the Ravens with a pair of rookies as their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss may become good players down the road. But if Baltimore is serious about winning a championship in 2011, it can't rely on Smith and Doss to lead that charge this season.
Evans brings deep speed and a veteran presence. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Evans is third in yards per catch (15.7) among active receivers with at least 300 receptions. Only Greg Jennings (16.2) of the Green Bay Packers and Braylon Edwards (15.8) of the San Francisco 49ers are ahead of Evans.
Starter Anquan Boldin will be the top target underneath, while Evans can blow the top off the defense. Fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco finally has the speedy receiver he needs to take advantage of his beautiful (but rarely used) deep ball.
Overall, this move makes a lot of sense for the Ravens -- and not just because I suggested it.
But this time we're going to narrow our focus to the heart and soul of both teams: the defense. That is what brought the Jets and Steelers this far. The better defense Sunday likely will make the difference in the AFC Championship Game.
So which defense has the best chance to dominate? ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break it down.
James Walker: I like the fact that both of these defenses attack first and often can dictate to the opposing offenses the tempo of the game. But when you start comparing the two teams by the numbers, New York's defense doesn't stack up to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have the advantage over the Jets in every major statistical regular-season category, including average total yards allowed (276.8 to 291.5), points allowed (14.5 to 19), total sacks (48 to 40) and forced turnovers (35 to 30). Pittsburgh's run defense also was fifth best all-time since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. The Jets allowed an average of 90.9 rushing yards per game. New York also gave up 72 more points than Pittsburgh in the regular season. And based on their average, that's about five games' worth of points for the Steelers. If you want to compare current numbers in the playoffs, the Steelers are also No. 1 in postseason defense, allowing just 126 total yards in a divisional win over Baltimore. The Jets played in two playoff games and are not in the top six. New York has allowed an average of 342 total yards in the postseason, which is a very big discrepancy of 216 total yards per game.
JW: If you want to throw away the Jets' postseason statistics, then Pittsburgh's superior regular-season numbers over 16 games still apply. There is no way to ignore both, Tim, because Pittsburgh's defense was better no matter how you cut it. In terms of Week 15, I think you're conveniently leaving out that the game was won on special teams. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the difference. The Steelers' defense allowed just one touchdown, while Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's offense 17-13. The Steelers also racked up 377 yards against the Jets' defense, which is worse than the 342-yard postseason average I mentioned earlier. In terms of which defense can dominate the AFC title game, you have to take into account the offenses these two teams are facing. There is zero debate that Roethlisberger is a superior quarterback to New York's Mark Sanchez. In fact, if I were ranking the four remaining playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez would be dead last behind Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and even Jay Cutler. Credit Sanchez for having some success against the Colts and Patriots, but those defenses were ranked in the 20s this season. Even Jets linebacker Bart Scott admitted New England's defense "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and he's right. Sanchez has yet to face a defense in the playoffs like Pittsburgh's once it's at full strength with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who missed the first meeting. Sanchez threw for just 170 yards in Week 15, and even then Polamalu’s absence limited what Pittsburgh could do defensively. The Pro Bowl safety makes a huge difference in coverage, stopping the run and freeing up others to pressure the quarterback. The "Polamalu factor" cannot be overlooked with the Steelers' defense, and I think he's going to be a huge headache for Sanchez, especially since Sanchez didn’t get to face Polamalu in the first meeting.
TG: I didn't ignore either the Jets' regular-season or postseason statistics. We simply cannot compare the Jets' postseason numbers to the Steelers'. The sample size is too small, they haven't played the same number of games, and they've played a different caliber of opponent so far in the tournament. The Jets were road underdogs for both of their games, while the Steelers were a home favorite coming off a bye week. You cannot compare them that way. It's apples and grapefruits. You're right when you say Sanchez has yet to face a defense like the Steelers' with Polamalu on the field. But Polamalu didn't exactly look like a superstar against the Ravens -- two tackles, no passes defensed and a whiffed tackle or two. I'll grant that nobody can expect Polamalu to have two straight subpar games, but he just showed there are no guarantees he's going to take over Sunday's game. Maybe the injury is hampering him. But let me ask you: How is Roethlisberger going to solve a mystifying, multilook defense that Manning and Brady couldn't master in the past two weeks? Oh, and one Roethlisberger couldn't defeat five weeks ago? And if you're thinking about replying with "He's had five weeks to figure it out," remember that Brady had no idea what he was looking at last Sunday, and he played the Jets twice this year.
JW: Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Jets and the offense notched 25 first downs, compared to New York's 17. Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall led the game in rushing with 99 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It's safe to say the Steelers were not mystified in the first meeting after gaining 377 total yards of offense. If anything, I think the Jets' defense needs to make more adjustments to stop what Pittsburgh's offense was able to do well in Week 15. Roethlisberger has played against Rex Ryan's defenses plenty of times when Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. This will have the familiarity of a division game for Roethlisberger, where Sanchez is seeing Dick LeBeau's defense for only the second time in his entire career and the first time with Polamalu in the lineup, which is a huge difference. Plus, here is the key advantage Roethlisberger has over Manning and Brady: Pittsburgh's elite defense. The Colts and Patriots need their quarterbacks to play lights out and take more risks to beat the Jets because they have shoddy defenses. This game isn't nearly as much on Roethlisberger's shoulders. He can simply play sound, complementary football with the Steel Curtain defense, which will do much better holding down the Jets' offense compared to New York's previous two playoff opponents.
JW: Tim, I really appreciate you repeating my points from earlier about the "Polamalu factor," the Steelers allowing just one touchdown and New York winning the first meeting via special teams on Smith's 97-yard kickoff return. I think you're finally seeing things my way. At this stage of the season the old saying still applies that "Defense wins championships." That is why both teams are here. Since the Steelers have the better defense in the regular season, the better defense in their previous meeting and the better defense in the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh's defense will be better on Sunday -- and that will be the difference in the Steelers advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Hey, there. Just wanted to check in and let you know I was passing through Tennessee, and gosh darn it if I didn't run into some old college buddies who want to hang out for the weekend and ...
Who are they?
Well, there's um ... Fred ... and, uh, Joe. Yeah. And Elmer ...
No? Not buying it?
OK, I'll level with you.
I've been seeing the AFC North on the side since the Cleveland Browns started flirting with Eric Mangini. Now I'm in Nashville for ESPN.com to cover the Baltimore Ravens in Saturday's playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.
I'm sorry it had to come to this, but the AFC East just wasn't giving me what I needed anymore, and the AFC North had so much to give with a pair of teams still alive.
I was asked to drop by and look after the Ravens while AFC North blogger James Walker covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
So feel free to drop by the AFC North blog on Saturday as I write about the Ravens.
I hope you'll understand.
And, no, I don't love the AFC North. It's purely professional.