In AFC, 4-6 teams still have hope
Conference poised to buck history; Manning vs. Brady highlights Week 12
An interesting stat that circulated last week was how 4-6 teams historically have only a 7 percent chance of making the playoffs.
History apparently never met this year's AFC. Not only do 4-6 teams have a chance, but some might be considered favorites. During the first 11 weeks of the season, the AFC operated with only five legitimate playoff contenders. A legitimate second wild card hasn't established itself yet.
Eight AFC teams are either 5-5 or 4-6, and the 5-5 teams have issues. The New York Jets are 5-5, but they have given up 85 more points than they've scored. The Miami Dolphins are 5-5, but they're being investigated for allegations of bullying practices in the locker room and have lost 60 percent of the offensive line without an injury that occurred on the field. Richie Incognito was suspended for allegedly bullying Jonathan Martin, who left the team Oct. 30. Center Mike Pouncey has gallbladder problems.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill already is getting sacked four times a game, and that could get worse.
Those question marks open the door for some 4-6 teams to make moves down the stretch.
Of the eight teams with 5-5 or 4-6 records, only two -- Tennessee and San Diego -- have scored more points than they've given up. This race to the playoffs in the AFC could turn into a stumble, but it bears watching.
Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 12.
1. Brady versus Manning yet again: For more than a decade, the most anticipated game most seasons was the one featuring Peyton Manning against Tom Brady. Brady has had the overall edge heading into this week's matchup. He's 9-4 against Manning and has two more Super Bowl rings. But Manning has the advantage this week. At 9-1, the Denver Broncos have a better chance of getting the AFC's top seed than the 7-3 New England Patriots, and home field could be the key to which AFC team goes to the Super Bowl. If Brady loses Sunday night, Manning would have a three-game advantage over Brady for home field along with the tiebreaker as long as the Broncos can beat out Kansas City for the AFC West title. The subplot behind this year's meeting is the decision by the Patriots to let Wes Welker walk and go to Denver. Welker is one of the reasons Manning is having a potential record-breaking season. He's a master of extending drives by making third-down catches. Not having Welker is one of the reasons Brady is completing only 58.7 percent of his passes. Welker's replacement in New England -- Danny Amendola -- has 29 catches for 341 yards. Welker has 61 catches for 648 yards. Brady has had to lean more on Julian Edelman, who has 52 catches. To Manning, Welker has been money. In the red zone, Welker has caught 17 of 19 passes with eight touchdowns. Brady has only 14 touchdown passes for the season. Welker suffered a concussion last Sunday night, but the team expects he will get through the problems and play.
2. The teacher sees his old pupil: One of the best stories of 2012 was what Bruce Arians did for the Indianapolis Colts. Arians was hired to break QB Andrew Luck into the league. But when head coach Chuck Pagano ended up missing a good portion of the season because of cancer, Arians stepped into the interim job and helped the Colts go 11-5 and make the playoffs. Arians ended up as the NFL Coach of Year and landed the Arizona Cardinals' head-coaching job. Luck, Pagano and the Colts travel to Arizona in what should be an emotional reunion. Arians is working his play-calling magic with Carson Palmer, who has led Arizona to a 6-4 record and is on pace for a 4,000-yard passing season. Since Week 8, things have clicked for Palmer and Arians. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Palmer's 74.4 QBR since then is the fourth best in the league. After Arians left, the Colts revised their offense to better protect Luck. The thinking was they didn't want him hit more than the 100 times he was hit in passing situations last year. The plan was to run the ball more and have Luck throw shorter, quicker passes. Although the plan has worked for a 7-3 start, Luck -- who's missing Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen because of injuries -- has watched his completion percentage improve only slightly, from 54.1 to 59.4. It was supposed to go into the mid-60 percent range. He's also been knocked down 78 times this year, third most in the league.
3. Can Chiefs turn up the heat? The Kansas City Chiefs return home after last Sunday night's loss to the Denver Broncos. They hope to bounce back and harass San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. The key to the Chiefs' season has been their defense. The Chiefs couldn't get to Manning last week. They hope to pressure Rivers on Sunday, particularly with the help of the home crowd. After averaging five sacks a game during the first seven weeks, the Chiefs' defense has hit the wall to a degree. It has only one sack in the past three games. Rivers has done a great job of getting rid of the ball more quickly and taking few sacks this year. He was sacked 49 times in 2012 but has been sacked only 19 times so far this year. Rivers faces the Chiefs twice down the stretch. The Chargers also have to play Cincinnati and Denver. This will be a tough stretch for them.
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4. Politics in D.C.: Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III seemed to think the Philadelphia Eagles anticipated Washington's plays in Week 11. Santana Moss called out Griffin on some leadership issues. Mike Shanahan is trying to hold things together in what has been a disappointing 3-7 season. The Redskins do have the No. 6-ranked offense in football, but the team isn't winning and people are trying to cover their reputations. RG III's numbers have improved somewhat after a poor start, but he's still throwing too many interceptions. On the positive side, he is getting more chances to run. Before the Skins' Week 5 bye, Griffin had only 15 read-option plays and kept the ball on only four occasions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since Week 5, he has 25 read-options runs in 58 read-option plays. But the Redskins' defense continues to struggle, giving up more than 30 points a game. The Redskins play the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. The 49ers have lost two in a row and will be pretty ornery.
5. Trap game for Panthers? The Carolina Panthers are red hot. They've won six in a row, and each week the stakes go up for the season. Two weeks ago, they beat the 49ers and moved into the top spot in the NFC wild-card race. With a 7-3 record, they now can set their sights on the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South. They trailed by a game heading into Week 12. But the Dolphins could pose a problem Sunday. The Panthers have had physical and draining victories over the 49ers and Patriots the past two weeks. Though the Dolphins have underachieved, they are still talented and dangerous. If the Panthers can get through this game with a victory, they can start thinking about the division. They play the Saints twice in the final four weeks.
6. Are Giants for real? After an 0-6 start, the New York Giants have won four in a row, but they've done it against teams with inferior quarterback play. The cycle started in Week 7, when the Minnesota Vikings served up Josh Freeman when he clearly wasn't ready to start. The next week, Nick Foles was recovering from a concussion and Michael Vick wasn't Michael Vick because of a hamstring injury. The Giants shut down Matt Barkley and won. They beat Oakland's Terrelle Pryor when he was playing on a bad knee, and last week they beat the Green Bay Packers with Scott Tolzien at quarterback. No wonder the Giants haven't given up a touchdown pass in the past four games. The real test comes this week because the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo is healthy and good. But the Giants are at home and motivated to avenge a Week 1 loss at Dallas. A victory would move the Giants within a game of idle Philadelphia in the uninspiring NFC East race.
7. Closeness counts, or does it? Last year, John Harbaugh converted close games into victories. This year, the Baltimore Ravens are just a little bit off. They have lost four of their past seven games by three points or fewer. Out of necessity, the Ravens made changes in the offseason. They had six new starters on defense. They tweaked their offensive line. Although the salary cap dictated many of the adjustments, the changes made the Ravens vulnerable. Their offensive line has struggled, and the running game has been missing most of the season. They still have a chance to stay in the wild-card race if they can beat the Jets on Sunday. Rookie QB Geno Smith has been consistently inconsistent in New York's 5-5 start. He leads the league with 20 turnovers, but if the Ravens let the Jets hang around, there could be problems. Smith does have four fourth-quarter comebacks. One interesting sight will be Ed Reed, the former Ravens safety who now starts for the Jets.
8. Backup quarterback derby: The NFL is considering asking the competition committee to find more ways to protect the quarterback. The reason is the number of backups who are now starting because of injuries. The Tennessee Titans-Oakland Raiders game is the type that concerns the league. Instead of Jake Locker going up against Pryor, it's Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Titans going against Matt McGloin of the Raiders. McGloin did a good enough job against Case Keenum of the Texans last week to earn another start. Keenum continues his starting assignment against Jacksonville and backup Chad Henne. What would have been an interesting Sam Bradford-Jay Cutler showdown in St. Louis instead has Josh McCown (Bears) facing Kellen Clemens (Rams). Jason Campbell gets the start for the Cleveland Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
9. Great matchup: Calvin Johnson has 746 receiving yards over the past four weeks, the best four-game stretch in NFL history. He needs 77 Sunday to best Lance Alworth's five-game mark of 822 receiving yards set in 1961. Can Megatron be lost on Revis Island? Darrelle Revis was acquired in a trade to shut down the likes of Johnson, and this might be the best matchup of Week 12. Revis has been beaten on 19 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns since joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
10. How the mighty have fallen: The Houston Texans face the Jacksonville Jaguars in what could be a great embarrassment if the Texans lose. The Jaguars are 1-9. The Texans are 2-8. For a team thinking about the Super Bowl coming into the season, the Texans could position themselves for one of the top picks in the draft if they lose. Reed ripped the coaching of the Texans' defense after being cut. Even though the Texans rank among the league's best for fewest yards allowed, they have forced only eight turnovers and have only four interceptions this season, fewest in the NFL. The Texans are on an eight-game losing streak.