NFL Nation: Final Word AFC 2012 Week 15

Final Word: AFC North

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Big Ben looking to bounce back: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty at times in his first game back since injuring his rib and shoulder. His two turnovers led to touchdowns, as the Chargers pulled the upset. But Roethlisberger has had one of the most consistent seasons of his career. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 10 straight games, tied with 2007 for the longest single-season streak of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has 20 touchdowns and five interceptions this season, and that plus-15 differential trails only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Josh Freeman. The Cowboys have made only six interceptions this season, the fewest in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger struggled at times in his return game against the Chargers.
No home losing streaks for Harbaugh: The Ravens had their 15-game home winning streak ended by the Steelers this month. But Baltimore has never lost back-to-back home games in the five-year John Harbaugh era. The last time it happened was December 2007. This streak will be tested by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has won five straight in Baltimore. Since the Ravens' loss to Manning in Week 11 of 2009, the Ravens have won 22 straight home games against teams other than the Steelers.

Surpassing Jim Brown: It's impressive that running back Trent Richardson could pass Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown on a couple of Browns rookie records. It's remarkable that he has done this while not being healthy for most of the season. Richardson missed the entire preseason after having his left knee scoped. He then injured his rib, an injury that likely won't heal until the offseason. Still, his nine rushing touchdowns are tied with Brown for the most by a Browns rookie. Richardson needs 74 yards to pass Brown for the most rushing yards by a Browns rookie.

Dominating the NFC: The Steelers have lost three of their past four games following a four-game win streak. But all of those losses have come against the AFC. When it comes to playing the NFC, few teams in the AFC are better than the Steelers. Pittsburgh has won four straight against NFC opponents and 12 of their past 14 against that conference. The Steelers' interconference record since 2009 (12-3) is second-best in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers' last game in Dallas was 2004, when they overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and sealed the win with a Jerome Bettis touchdown in the final minute. It was Roethlisberger's fourth career start and he finished 21-of-25 for 193 yards and two touchdowns.

Grounded in December: Running back Ray Rice gained a season-high 121 yards last Sunday, and that shouldn't come as a surprise. During the Harbaugh era, Baltimore has rushed for 159.1 yards per game in December and January. Only the Panthers (175.3) have averaged more. That trend could continue against the Broncos. In his two games against Denver, Rice has 217 yards rushing yards and three touchdowns. Rice needs 83 yards from scrimmage to reach 1,500 for the fourth consecutive season.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Manning and Broncos have had different Ravens’ results: Peyton Manning was great against the Ravens in his career while with the Colts. His new team, the Denver Broncos, have not been great against the Ravens in Baltimore. Including the playoffs, Manning is 8-2 with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Ravens and he has won eight straight games against them. Denver, on the other hand, is 0-5, including the postseason, at Baltimore. Something has to give. The Broncos will feel good about their chances of getting their first win against the Ravens on the road if the game is close in the second half. Manning has been masterful in the second half of games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has 19 touchdowns in the second half of games this season. In the fourth quarter, Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning is 8-2 with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Ravens.
Chargers miss Tolbert: The Chargers' running game is struggling. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher this season and the run game has been particularly flat in recent weeks. Ryan Mathews has been just so-so and there is a need for a back that can get tough yards. San Diego misses Mike Tolbert. They will see him Sunday. He left San Diego in free agency for Carolina, but hasn’t helped the Panthers much. He has 90 yards rushing on 30 carries and he has 24 catches. He was a big part of the Chargers’ offense in recent seasons. He was always there for tough yards, timely catches and he was a special teams star. Not signing Tolbert goes down as one of the team’s bigger recent miscues.

Oakland draft status will be closely watched: The Raiders, 3-10, are currently on pace for the No. 3 pick. But they can end up anywhere in the top 10. The Raiders’ three final games are at home against Kansas City on Sunday, at Carolina and then at San Diego. Kansas City is on pace for the No.1 pick. Carolina is on pace for the No. 5 pick and the Chargers are on pace for the No. 9 pick. Thus, each Oakland game will have a direct impact and in tiebreakers in determining the top 10 picks.

Chiefs are lousy in divisional games: The Chiefs hope their AFC West luck changes Sunday at Oakland. The 2-11 Chiefs are 0-4 against AFC West opponents and the games have not been close. The Chiefs have been outscored by 53 points in division games. Heading into Week 14, that was the worst division-game point differential in the NFL. However, the Cardinals left the Chiefs off the hook by taking a 58-0 drubbing at Seattle. The Cardinals are now 0-5 in NFC West games and have been outscored by 103 points in division games. The Chiefs certainly don’t want to overtake the Cardinals in that category this week.

Broncos, Ravens going in different directions: Denver, which is 10-3 and on pace for the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, has won eight straight games, which is the current longest win streak in the NFL. Baltimore saw its 15-game home win streak snapped against Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens haven’t lost two straight at home since 2007.

Final Word: AFC East

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Strength vs. strength: The New England Patriots' front seven on defense will have arguably their biggest test of the season against the physical San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco will look to slow the tempo by establishing the run. The 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing at 161.5 yards per game. Stopping the run also happens to be the Patriots' strength on defense. New England is eighth in the NFL against the run, and defenders such as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are playing at a high level. Something has to give in this matchup of strengths. Expect a lot of big collisions Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

Patriots looking for assistance: New England needs to take care of business against a tough opponent this weekend. But the Patriots also will do some scoreboard watching of their own. There is a tight race for the top two seeds in the AFC. New England (10-3) trails the Houston Texans (11-2) by one game, and the Texans have a tough game against the AFC South-rival Indianapolis Colts. The Denver Broncos (10-3) and Baltimore Ravens (9-4) also play each other and both are trying to catch New England. The Patriots have the same record as Denver, but New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. By the time the Patriots take the field Sunday night, they will know the outcome of these two important games.

[+] EnlargeHenne
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesChad Henne has made his case to be a starter in the league following the season-ending injury to Blaine Gabbert.
Henne returns to Miami: The Miami Dolphins will see a familiar face Sunday when they host quarterback Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Henne was a second-round pick for Miami in 2008. But injuries and inconsistency made Henne a draft bust during his four years with the Dolphins. Henne got a second chance in Jacksonville this year due to an injury to former starter Blaine Gabbert. Henne is auditioning for a starting job next season. He has thrown for 1,217 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in five games. Expect a motivated Henne in his return to Miami. He was open to staying with the Dolphins. But Miami's new coaching staff, led by rookie head coach Joe Philbin, wanted to go in a different direction and drafted Ryan Tannehill in the first round.

Huge stretch for Gailey: No coaching seat is hotter in the AFC East than Chan Gailey of the Buffalo Bills. Gailey is 15-30 in three seasons as Bills coach, and his long-term future with the team could come down to these final three weeks. The disappointing Bills (5-8), which had playoff aspirations, will play the Seattle Seahawks (8-5) in Toronto. Gailey's poor decision-making has cost the Bills games. That was never more evident than in last week's 15-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams. Gailey needs to finish strong to make his case to return in 2013. The Bills were 4-12 and 6-10 in his first two seasons.

Sanchez-Kerley connection: Not much has gone right for the New York Jets' offense this season. But New York may have found something between quarterback Mark Sanchez and second-year receiver Jeremy Kerley when throwing the deep ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez is an impressive 8-for-11 (72.7 percent) on passes of 20 yards or more to Kerley this season. Expect those two to try to connect for big plays again when the Jets travel to face the Tennessee Titans on "Monday Night Football." Kerley has taken over as New York's No. 1 receiver after the season-ending foot injury to Santonio Holmes. Kerley has 52 receptions for 728 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

On the verge: A year after finishing 2-14, the Colts can clinch a playoff spot with a win OR a loss by the Jets. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, only two teams have made the playoffs the year after going 2-14 or worse: the 2008 Dolphins and 1982 Patriots, both of whom lost their first playoff game. The Texans, meanwhile, will clinch the AFC South with a win and can wrap up a first-round bye with a win, Patriots loss and Broncos loss. Houston, which won the division for the first time last season, can become the only team other than the Colts to win consecutive AFC South titles since the division was created in 2002.

Bad beginnings: The Titans' slow starts have been a major problem. ESPN Stats & Information points out the Titans have allowed 38 more points in the first quarter than any other team. They are minus-66 in the first quarter. The Raiders are second worst (minus-57). The Titans have allowed 131 first-quarter points, 38 more than the Saints, who are second worst. The Jets are averaging only three first-quarter points. They are trying to take pressure off struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Titans need to stuff Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell on the ground and put the game on Sanchez’s shoulders.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/Aaron M. Sprecher'J.J. Swatt' has deflected 35 passes this season, tops in the league.
Watt vs. Luck: The Texans have batted or tipped a league-high 35 passes this season, including 15 by J.J. Watt. Andrew Luck has a league-high 21 passes batted or tipped this season. That’s a major issue to keep an eye on, particularly if the Texans can turn tipped balls into interceptions. Luck has the most drop backs under duress in the fourth quarter this season, but he has handled the pressure. Luck has been his best under duress in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdowns (as opposed to one in the first three quarters) and no interceptions.

Back home: Chad Henne will face the Dolphins, who drafted him in 2008 with the 57th overall pick. In 36 career games and 31 starts with Miami, Henne completed 60.7 percent of his passes. That is the highest completion percentage in franchise history (minimum 200 attempts). If he’s to play well, ideally he’ll be looking to Cecil Shorts, who is coming off a concussion. He has a receiving touchdown in four straight games. Only Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have scored a touchdown in five or more consecutive games in team history.

Play-action at issue: Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has 10 touchdown passes on play-action throws this season, tied for the league lead with Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. The Colts have struggled to defend play-action this season, allowing the fifth-worst Total QBR (84.1) on those plays with 9.4 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and no interceptions. If Houston can get Arian Foster going and make play-action believable, it could be a long day for Indianapolis.

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