Thursday, December 6, 2007
Stretch drive: What AFC teams must do in the final month
By Len Pasquarelli
Four weeks are left in the regular season. Four weeks to claim a playoff spot -- or begin planning for the draft. Here's a look at every AFC team -- what it has accomplished thus far, what it still needs to accomplish in the final month and its playoff outlook. Welcome to the NFL's stretch drive.
For the NFC teams, check out Jeffri Chadiha's report.
New England Patriots (12-0)
How far they have traveled: It says something about the dominance of a franchise when opponents talk about almost beating the Patriots. In routing most of its opponents with a scorched-earth policy that has been oblivious to down, distance and score, the Patriots have turned the focus from the NFL's favorite P-word, parity, to perfection. This already was a terrific team, but the video spying incident provided additional motivation for coach Bill Belichick and his charges, and they clearly are one of the top teams of the salary-cap era, perhaps in NFL history. With an offense that is threatening team and individual records, Belichick has the clear-cut Super Bowl favorite.
What they have left in the tank: The past two weeks have revealed a few chinks in the armor -- the linebackers have looked slow, the safeties vulnerable and wide receiver Randy Moss mortal -- but there is no reason to think the Patriots will let up on the accelerator. New England is a team on a mission and, while the games have gotten closer, the Patriots seem to understand they are poised to do something special. Look for the offense to get back in gear and for the defense to adjust to the loss of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
Road to the playoffs: The Patriots will play their next three games at Gillette Stadium, where they are particularly formidable, especially when the weather turns bad. After Sunday's game against Pittsburgh, they essentially have two gimmes against the Jets and Miami before finishing up at the Giants. Anything less than a fourth Super Bowl title will be an upset.
Buffalo Bills (6-6)
How far they have traveled: A four-game winning streak catapulted the overachieving Bills into postseason contention and, despite losing two of their past three games, they remain in the wild-card chase. Few coaching staffs have done so much with so little, and that has been magnified by the results Buffalo has gotten despite a crippling spate of injuries on defense and a lack of continuity at quarterback and tailback. Coach Dick Jauron and his staff have done a terrific job of cutting and pasting to hold things together, at the same time developing solid young players for the future.
What they have left in the tank: With a team this young and impressionable, loss of confidence and spirit always is a factor. But Buffalo has displayed resiliency, and gut-wrenching, last-minute losses to Denver and Dallas have not dented the Bills' kids. The problem for Buffalo is that its offense, which averages just 15.3 points, doesn't have enough playmakers yet, and the coaches still are reluctant to allow rookie quarterback Trent Edwards to cut loose. Speedy wideout Lee Evans isn't quite as explosive when Edwards is in the lineup, and the running game is flagging with first-round tailback Marshawn Lynch out of the lineup.
Road to the playoffs: Hard work and effort alone probably won't be enough for the Bills to leapfrog any of the three franchises currently ahead of them in the wild-card standings. And the remaining schedule, which features two playoff contenders and a game at Philadelphia, won't help the Bills' cause. They'll be in the playoffs
but not until 2008.
New York Jets (3-9)
How far they have traveled: Take their two victories over hapless Miami out of the equation, and the only highlight for the Jets was an upset win over Pittsburgh in overtime. There was some suspicion among pundits going into the season that the Jets' playoff berth in 2006 was a bit of a fluke. Although that F-bomb might represent a harsh analysis and diminishes the job coach Eric Mangini did in his debut season, the Jets haven't really done much to counter the claim. With the benching of quarterback Chad Pennington, who committed some atypical turnovers and lacked the strength to drive the ball up the field, the Jets became a franchise in transition and too often have looked the part.
What they have left in the tank: Three of the final four games are against teams that either are going to the playoffs or still are in the postseason chase. Although Mangini's team certainly hasn't quit on him, there's no reason to believe New York will mount much of a challenge in the final month of the season. Kids such as rookie linebacker David Harris and first-round corner Darrelle Revis have made good impressions and figure to be building blocks. But the jury remains out on second-year quarterback Kellen Clemens, and he's got to demonstrate some fire and playmaking skills in the final month.
Road to the playoffs: The Jets' road took a U-turn in 2007 and, after such a solid performance a year ago, this season was definitely a setback. No one is referring to the young coach as Man-Genius anymore, and there is plenty of offseason work to be done to get back into playoff contention.
Miami Dolphins (0-12)
How far they have traveled: Looking for any kind of silver lining for a team that has a chance to be the first 0-16 franchise in league history? Well, the Dolphins have lost six games by three points, tailback Ronnie Brown demonstrated that he might be one of the league's most versatile backs before he suffered a season-ending knee injury and first-rounder Ted Ginn Jr. has flashed big-play return skills. But the bottom line remains, well, the absolute bottom line. And while Miami has been competitive at times, this is a team that has gotten old very quickly on defense and hasn't made enough plays on offense. A franchise that collectively obsesses over the possibility of New England's going undefeated very well might suffer the ignominy of not winning a game.
What they have left in the tank: With this past Sunday's meltdown against the Jets, a game many felt the Dolphins could win, one has to wonder how much want-to remains among the players. Owner Wayne Huizenga has vowed a sweeping review of the football operation, and that cloud hangs over everyone, from general manager Randy Mueller on down. The veterans on the team aren't accustomed to such losing and seemingly have been beaten down by this year. The younger players don't know yet how to win.
Road to the playoffs: The year has been a road to perdition for the Dolphins, and it could take years to reverse the fortunes of the franchise. Miami will spend the final month trying to determine whether rookie John Beck, under whose guidance the offense has yet to score a touchdown, is the quarterback of the future. The scouting staff can get a leg up on identifying the top pick in the 2008 draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)
How far they have traveled: In his first season, coach Mike Tomlin has managed to maintain the Steelers' image as a physical, aggressive team on both sides of the ball and has earned the respect of even those veterans who groused about a more taxing training camp regimen. That said, bad losses at Arizona, Denver and the Jets, as well as a 3-0 home victory over Miami, have created some skepticism about just how deep into the playoffs the Steelers can venture. Pittsburgh owns the top-rated defense in the league, but Sunday's game at New England will offer a litmus test. A big plus is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who in the past has been reluctant to impose his will, has emerged as a real leader.
What they have left in the tank: Although the Steelers are a playoff shoo-in, they can't let up, because they still have a chance to get a first-round bye. And the schedule isn't a cakewalk, with New England on Sunday, then a home game against a tough Jacksonville team. Even the season finale at Baltimore, a rival with whom there is bad blood, will be a challenge. This is a team that can play with just about anyone in the league but sometimes plays down to the level of its opponent, and that can be a dangerous thing.
Road to the playoffs: Pittsburgh likely will be the No. 3 seed in the AFC, guaranteeing the Steelers a home game, possibly against divisional rival Cleveland. The Steelers are a battle-tested team, and Tomlin has a definite edge to his coaching style and persona. But it's going to be tough to hurdle New England or Indianapolis in the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns (7-5)
How far they have traveled: After a disastrous opening-game loss to Pittsburgh, the Browns made a bold move, dumping starting quarterback Charlie Frye and turning the job over to relatively untested Derek Anderson, who has been a revelation. The Cleveland offense, led by the passing game featuring tight end Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, and with a terrific left-side blocking tandem of tackle Joe Thomas and guard Eric Steinbach, can ring up a lot of points. In coach Romeo Crennel's first two seasons, he won just one of 12 games within the division. The one thing remaining on the to-do list in the AFC North now is to figure out a way to compete with archrival Pittsburgh. The defense needs a front-seven presence to better protect pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley.
What they have left in the tank: Cleveland is young and enthusiastic, and gaining confidence, and the Browns' schedule in December has not a single team with a winning record. The Week 13 loss at Arizona could come back to haunt the Browns, and they will have to rebound both on the field and emotionally this week, because the fading Bengals still have enough firepower in the passing game to challenge the Cleveland secondary. The specter of a wild-card berth should be enough to motivate the Browns, but they still could use a pass rush.
Road to the playoffs: Given the schedule, it's conceivable the Browns could win out and finish at 11-5, which would be a remarkable achievement for a franchise that totaled just 19 wins in the previous four seasons. The Browns don't have much margin for error, and they aren't good enough to win on "down" weeks, as the Arizona game demonstrated. But the guess here is that they will earn the franchise's first playoff berth since 2002.
Baltimore Ravens (4-8)
How far they have traveled: Currently in the throes of a franchise-record six-game losing streak, the Ravens still are a belligerent, all-out-effort team. But the limp offense, which was held to 14 points or fewer in four of the six defeats, and which was hampered by the various ailments of quarterback Steve McNair and his eroding physical skills, has been a drawback. The defense has played well at times and still features six Pro Bowl performers, but the sack total is down from a year ago and that side of the ball hasn't been able to carry the team as it has in some past seasons.
What they have left in the tank: As demonstrated in Monday night's emotional loss to New England, the Ravens still possess enough collective pride, fueled by veterans such as middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed, to make things difficult for opponents. Any team expecting a day at the beach against Baltimore could end up with sand kicked in its face, because Lewis won't let this team simply quit. The final month could be a referendum of sorts for former first-round quarterback Kyle Boller, who has to show he can make plays and do more than just hand off to tailback Willis McGahee.
Road to the playoffs: Baltimore's road to the playoffs has taken a permanent detour. And the Ravens would like nothing more than to be a pothole in the path of playoff contenders Indianapolis, Seattle and Pittsburgh, all of which the Ravens play in the final month.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-8)
How far they have traveled: Perhaps one of the NFL's most disappointing teams, but not for the reasons some people thought it might fall short of playoff status again. Defense continues to be a problem in coach Marvin Lewis' fifth season, but it has been the inconsistency of the Cincinnati offense, even from quarterback Carson Palmer, that has made the Bengals underachievers once again. Injuries at linebacker, on the offensive line and to tailback Rudi Johnson have been costly. But the Palmer-to-Chad Johnson connection also disappeared for a long stretch, and a defense that couldn't stop the run in the past can't handle the passing game this season.
What they have left in the tank: Give credit to the Bengals for this much: The bickering and infighting that normally accompany a talented team that falls so flat often go public, but the Bengals have managed to keep their grievances in-house. That might offer some sign of hope that the Bengals still will summon up enough energy to compete over the final month against a schedule that features just one team, in-state rival Cleveland, with a winning record. Look for Lewis to keep giving younger players a lot of snaps in December, especially in the secondary.
Road to the playoffs: For the fourth time in Lewis' five years, the Bengals have nothing to play for in the final month, and this is a team that should be much further along than that. This season represented a definite step backward, but don't buy into the suggestions that ownership might make a coaching change.
Indianapolis Colts (10-2)
How far they have traveled: Perhaps we all have been spoiled by the brilliance of the Colts over the past several seasons, because everyone seems to devalue the incredible coaching job Tony Dungy and staff have done with a team beset by injuries to big-time veterans such as wide receiver Marvin Harrison and defensive end Dwight Freeney. Even with those key personnel losses, and the fact that quarterback Peyton Manning has had to play games a little differently in 2007, the Colts are only a few plays away from being the lone undefeated team in the league. The defense, a unit that heeds Dungy's admonition to "play fast" and which is much more aggressive than it generally is credited with being, is significantly better than it was a year ago.
What they have left in the tank: It will be interesting to see when, or whether, Harrison returns. The suspicion now is that the Colts, with a two-game lead in the division, might simply keep the eight-time Pro Bowl receiver off the field until the playoffs. But getting Harrison back at any point would be a major boost. Opponents will test a young defensive line that, after Raheem Brock exited with a rib injury in Week 13, was forced to rotate three rookie tackles. The offense isn't as explosive without Harrison, but wideout Reggie Wayne and invaluable tight end Dallas Clark have done their best to compensate.
Road to the playoffs: Sunday's game at Baltimore will be more of a test that some people realize, but in general, the Colts should be able to hold off the competition and retain the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff bracket. This still is a team that will fiercely defend its Super Bowl crown. If Harrison comes back, the Colts could be dangerous.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4)
How far they have traveled: Jack Del Rio made the gutsy call to dump quarterback Byron Leftwich and give the starting job to David Garrard a week before the season began, and it is arguably the brainiest coaching move of the season. Garrard is a difference-maker, a
strong-armed quarterback with movement skills and the ability to make plays when things break down. With a physical running game to go along with the improving pass design, the Jags' offense is significantly better than in the past several seasons. The defense remains solid, but the tackle tandem of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson hasn't been as formidable. With all the progress, the one glaring deficiency remains the inability to beat Indianapolis and take command of the division.
What they have left in the tank: Getting Stroud back from a four-game suspension for a violation of the steroid policy is big. If middle linebacker Mike Peterson can make it back from a broken hand, that might be even bigger. The Jaguars are a confident team -- sometimes too much so -- but the veterans know they can play with just about anybody. They've got to figure out, though, how to win signature games to be able to take the next step. And a little humility, at least until they actually claim a division title, wouldn't hurt.
Road to the playoffs: A trip to Pittsburgh on Dec. 16 probably is the only tough spot left on the schedule, and Jacksonville almost certainly will be the AFC's top wild-card team. The only problem is, that means the Jags, who have yet to win a playoff game under Del Rio, eventually will have to go on the road. Regardless, this is a team you don't necessarily want to face in the playoffs.
Tennessee Titans (7-5)
How far they have traveled: A recent three-game losing streak, during which emerging defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was sidelined by a hamstring injury and quarterback Vince Young didn't play well, dented a surprising 6-2 start. But the Titans remain a good story and a playoff contender, a young team that plays hard almost every week. Young has improved as a passer, and second-year tailback LenDale White is starting to carry the load in the running game. The defensive front seven, at least when Haynesworth is in the lineup, is among the league's best.
What they have left in the tank: Ending their losing streak in Week 13 against Houston should give the young Titans some impetus, but they really need a victory Sunday at home over San Diego to create excellent momentum for the stretch run. The wide receivers have got to step up a little more than they have in recent weeks, and the Titans have to get better in the red zone, where they settle for too many Rob Bironas field goals.
Road to the playoffs: Tennessee figures to battle Cleveland for the second AFC wild-card berth. The season finale at Indianapolis could be a critical game.
Houston Texans (5-7)
How far they have traveled: Only two weeks ago, the Texans were 5-5 and at least on the fringe of the wild-card chase, but consecutive defeats have overshadowed some of the progress that has been made this season. Quarterback Matt Schaub looks like the real deal, but he has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries. The loss of wideout Andre Johnson to a knee injury for six weeks really hurt the passing game, but it did allow for the emergence of Kevin Walter as a viable complementary receiver. Unfortunately, there is no viable running game, and the addition of tailback Ahman Green now looks like a mistake.
What they have left in the tank: Although the spirit is willing, the flesh, especially on the injury-ravaged offensive line, is going to make it difficult to summon up a December push. The young Texans are playing a little better on defense, and end Mario Williams and tackle Travis Johnson are beginning to play up to their first-round press clippings. Three of the final four games are at Reliant Stadium, but the schedule still is a tough one, with a trip to Indianapolis and three games against likely playoff entries.
Road to the playoffs: Even with the progress the Texans have demonstrated in 2007, coach Gary Kubiak's outfit still is arguably only the fourth-best team in the AFC South. The Texans are getting a lot closer to being able to compete, but the first playoff berth in franchise history will have to wait for at least another year.
San Diego Chargers (7-5)
How far they have traveled: They say winning cures all ills, and certainly a stretch in which the Chargers have won three of four games has overshadowed the fact that San Diego still rates as one of the league's most underachieving teams. The consensus is that the Chargers have one of the most talented teams in the AFC, at least on paper, but San Diego hasn't played like the franchise that won 14 games in 2006. It has been a tough transition for coach Norv Turner and for defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, but the Chargers seem to have gotten back to the formula that made them so formidable last season and can clinch the diluted AFC West this weekend.
What they have left in the tank: Turner is starting to hand the ball more to LaDainian Tomlinson, and Cottrell has turned linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips loose again as pass-rushers. The result: The Chargers definitely are on the upswing. With a remaining schedule that includes only one game against a playoff wannabe (Sunday at Tennessee), there is no reason San Diego shouldn't roll into the playoffs with plenty of momentum.
Road to the playoffs: In terms of potential, the Chargers possess Super Bowl talent, but they don't always play like it. A lot will depend on the performance of quarterback Philip Rivers in the playoffs. And if the Chargers have to go on the road to unfriendly environs like New England in January, they could be in trouble.
Denver Broncos (5-7)
How far they have traveled: New defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who rebuilt the front four with beefier players, hasn't gotten nearly the return he anticipated, and the Broncos' unit has been in shambles at times. Denver doesn't plug the run very well, and the cornerback tandem of Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly hasn't shut down opponents the way everyone felt it would. The Broncos have been simply awful at times and have surrendered 30 or more points five times. Knee injuries to wide receiver Javon Walker and tailback Travis Henry, losses along the line and the inconsistency of second-year quarterback Jay Cutler have hurt the offense.
What they have left in the tank: The Broncos didn't play well in the Week 13 loss at Oakland, and that was hardly a good sign for coach Mike Shanahan coming down the stretch. Denver seems to have too many holes to fill and not enough talent with which to fill them. Maybe the biggest victory the Broncos will claim in December was Henry's win in his appeal to avoid a one-year suspension for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Road to the playoffs: There won't be a Rocky Mountain High in Denver this season, which represents a significant step backward. The Broncos couldn't overcome injuries and lineup changes, and probably face more offseason changes on defense.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-8)
How far they have traveled: A pleasant surprise at 4-3, the Chiefs then lost five games in a row to fall out of playoff contention. With star tailback Larry Johnson still out of the lineup and replacement Priest Holmes now retired, the offense has taken a beating. Coach Herm Edwards always will play the same way -- run the football first, play the Tampa 2 style on defense and keep games close -- but he's lacking personnel right now. There were times in the first three months when the defense played very hard, and end Jared Allen is a rising star in the league. But Edwards is trying to get younger, and the roster overhaul has been somewhat thwarted by injuries.
What they have left in the tank: The Chiefs have three road games in the final month and, while only one of their December opponents (Tennessee) is a playoff contender, it's not as if Kansas City is demonstrably superior to any of the foes left on the schedule. Edwards went into the year consciously attempting to continue the alteration of an aging roster, an exercise he undertook in 2006, and such a metamorphosis takes time. The anticipated return of Brodie Croyle at quarterback could provide some energy. The Chiefs need to spend the final month taking a look at the second-year signal-caller and assessing his viability for the long term.
Road to the playoffs: Given the schedule, it's not as if the Chiefs can be spoilers. But Edwards needs to stick to his blueprint to get younger and use the final month to test the mettle of some of his kids.
Oakland Raiders (4-8)
How far they have traveled: The poor record aside, there are indications from veteran players that coach Lane Kiffin has done a nice job in his rookie campaign in restoring a sense of order to what had been dire and miserable circumstances. The revolving door at quarterback has been a deterrent to progress, but there has been some improvement in the offensive line, and tailback Justin Fargas has been a late-season revelation in his fifth NFL season. And, not surprisingly, a secondary stocked with high-round draft choices has played well, allowing only eight touchdown passes. Still, the corner has yet to be turned.
What they have left in the tank: The December schedule is a grinder, with all four games against teams that will be in the playoffs. Given the caliber of competition, Kiffin might be reluctant to grant top overall pick JaMarcus Russell his first start. But the Raiders have to get their young quarterback's feet wet, and with more than just the cameo he had in Week 13, even if it means throwing him to some playoff-caliber wolves. It's going to be hard to carve out even one more victory with the daunting schedule, but if the Raiders can play hard down the stretch, they will take something away from another losing season.
Road to the playoffs: Check back in a couple of years, when Russell has actually logged some starts and Kiffin has had a chance to get a few more players into the system. There is some talent here but not enough.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.