Commentary

AFC stalwarts can gain separation

Four teams poised to solidify top-contender status; big opportunity for Ravens

Originally Published: November 15, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Week 11 will go a long way toward determining whether there will be any post-Thanksgiving drama regarding the AFC playoff race.

Five repeating playoff teams and one surprise team (the Indianapolis Colts) have emerged as the front-runners for AFC postseason spots. This weekend, four of those teams can continue to separate themselves from the rest of the conference.

    • The Denver Broncos can open a three-game lead in the AFC West and gain a tiebreaker if they win their home game against the San Diego Chargers Sunday. A three-game deficit with six games left would be hard for the Chargers to overcome, particularly if they were swept by the Broncos.

    • The Baltimore Ravens smell blood in Pittsburgh. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will likely be out for the teams' two showdowns over the next three weeks because of a sprained right shoulder and dislocated rib. The Ravens could open a two-game lead Sunday before playing the Steelers in two weeks at home, where Baltimore seems to be bulletproof.

    • The New England Patriots can continue to run away with the AFC East if Tom Brady can outduel Andrew Luck and the Colts. The Dolphins have been too inconsistent and the Jets have been self-destructive. The Patriots may leak yards with their pass defense, but they don't often blow too many home games.

    • It's just a matter of time before the Houston Texans clinch the AFC South. They host the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars this week in what should be an easy win. If the Texans win and the Colts lose, they will have a three-game lead in the AFC South with three division games left.

    Drama or no drama in the AFC? We'll get a bigger clue Sunday.

    Here are the trends for NFL Week 11:

    [+] EnlargeByron Leftwich
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesWith Big Ben sidelined, Byron Leftwich will try to keep the Steelers in contention.

    1. Winning without Big Ben? The Steelers' defense knows the margin for error shrinks with Byron Leftwich replacing the injured Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers average 23 points a game. Leftwich hasn't started a game since 2009, when he was with Tampa Bay, and he averaged 16.6 points a game. What the Ravens have to conquer is their offensive identity problems on the road. Joe Flacco's road problems are well documented. He completes only 52.2 percent of his passes on the road. His yards-per-attempt number drops from 9.32 at home to 5.29 in road games. What's missing are the big plays. Ravens No. 1 WR Torrey Smith has 13 catches in four road games for a 13.5-yard average. At home, he has a 20.3-yard average and six touchdowns. The key for the Steelers is keeping this a low-scoring game.

    2. Test in San Francisco: Chicago's Jason Campbell will start at quarterback in San Francisco on Monday night in place of Jay Cutler, who is still suffering the effects of a concussion. The status of Niners quarterback Alex Smith, who also was concussed in Week 10, is yet to be determined. Plenty is at stake. Both teams lead their divisions. If they meet late in the playoffs, this game could determine which team has home field. But there is more involved. The 49ers have the Seahawks breathing down their necks in the NFC West and the Bears still have to deal with the Packers to win the NFC North. Harbaugh hasn't hesitated to use Colin Kaepernick to spell Smith, albeit mostly on read-option running plays. Jason Campbell is a smart quarterback who knows how to work the short passing game.

    3. Manning flying a mile high: Peyton Manning has put himself in the MVP race with his leadership and throwing ability. Manning dominated the AFC South when he was in Indianapolis. Now in Denver, he's trying to lock up the No. 1 spot in the AFC West. The Chargers' defense was able to slow down Manning during his final years with the Colts. It appeared to have the same mastery on Oct. 15, when the Chargers jumped to a 24-0 lead. Manning answered with 35 points. The pressure in this game falls on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who has been struggling in pressure situations all year. Six of his 12 interceptions have occurred in the fourth quarter. His ability to throw downfield has been slowed in the second half. His yards-per-attempt average is 5.94 in second halves, compared to 8.94 in first halves. He's getting only 5.96 yards an attempt when he's trailing.

    4. Bay of Injuries: Going into the season, the Green Bay Packers appeared to have a clear path to the Super Bowl. They had the easiest schedule in the NFC. They had Aaron Rodgers. But injuries have taken a major toll. The defense has lost linebackers Desmond Bishop, Nick Perry and D.J. Smith for the season. The offense has right tackle Bryan Bulaga and halfback Cedric Benson on injured reserve. Wide receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Charles Woodson are out this week. This battered group of Packers knows what's on the line in Detroit on Sunday. The Lions can pretty much say goodbye to playoff thoughts if they lose, so they will be a desperate team. Plus, there is a budding rivalry between these rosters. The Packers don't like Ndamukong Suh, who has had numerous scuffles with the Packers. Expect a very physical game.

    5. The Holmgren Bowl: Plenty of people have jumped the gun in thinking outgoing Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren could end up in Dallas next year as the Cowboys' coach. For that to happen, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would have to give up on Jason Garrett and it doesn't appear he's willing to do that. But the potential mismatch of seeing the Cowboys host the Browns on Sunday will give plenty of people time to think about what Holmgren would look like on the Cowboys' sideline. Holmgren and Jones are good friends, a relationship that blossomed from their days together on the league's competition committee. Jones admits the window is closing on the Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware core group, and Holmgren wouldn't mind closing out his great career getting a talented team back to the Super Bowl. Even though the Browns are 2-7, Holmgren did a great job turning around the organization. The Browns have good, young talent. He has put together a great front office. But ownership change has Holmgren looking for one more chance. How 'bout them Cowboys?

    6. Jets circus comes to St. Louis: Another week, more controversy involving the most talked-about backup in sports. Now, anonymous Jets players are chiming in on the so-far disastrous trade for Tim Tebow. What's clear is how bad the offense is performing -- it hasn't produced a touchdown in eight quarters. The switching back and forth from Mark Sanchez to Tebow has led to false starts and mistakes. Losing to a good Seahawks defense was expected last Sunday. Losing to a 3-5-1 Rams team could doom plenty of Jets employees to pink slips after the season. The Jets have lost five of six games. Say what you want about the Rams, but Jeff Fisher has the players working together and playing hard. If Fisher catches a distracted roster of Jets not focused, the Jets can stop talking playoffs.

    [+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
    David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCTThe addition of Darrelle Revis should help take pressure off Josh Freeman and the Bucs offense.

    7. Big week for divisional games: Normally, the NFL likes to load up on key divisional games the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the Week 11 schedule is full of interesting matchups. The Eagles-Redskins game is more interesting because of the Michael Vick injury. Vick has a concussion that will prevent him from starting. That means rookie Nick Foles goes for the Eagles against Robert Griffin III. RG3 has an advantage in this game. This may be a minor point, but the Jaguars will be eliminated from the AFC South race if they lose to the Houston Texans Sunday. Blaine Gabbert tends to play better in road games than at home, but Reliant Stadium should be a tough place for that trend to continue. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has stopped plenty of better quarterbacks than Gabbert. The Cam Newton-Josh Freeman meeting should be interesting. Newton is struggling for the Carolina Panthers in his second season. Freeman has been hot of late in the Greg Schiano-run offense in Tampa Bay. With coach Ron Rivera fighting for his job in Carolina, the Panthers would love to put the Bucs' potential playoff run on hold.

    8. Brees-ing past Oakland? The Oakland Raiders have surrendered 97 points over the past two weeks and have given up at least 35 points in four of their nine games this season. Enter Drew Brees, who has 2,847 yards and 25 touchdown passes in nine games. He should put up big numbers. The Raiders can't generate much of a pass rush (only 11 sacks). Quarterbacks have a 98.4 passer rating and are completing 66 percent of their passes against them. Oakland QB Carson Palmer has been putting up good numbers this year, so this could be a high-scoring game.

    9. Figuring out third-and-short: The Falcons lost to the Saints in Week 10 partly because they couldn't score from the Saints' 1-yard line late in the game. Short-yardage problems have dogged the Falcons for a while, and coach Mike Smith needs to figure out solutions. Michael Turner is a big back, but as he's gotten older, it takes him a little time to get up to speed and pound through the line. The Falcons are tied for fifth worst in converting third-and-1s, hitting on only eight of 16. The Falcons face a tough Cardinals defense, but a team that is in the midst of a five-game losing streak. With an 8-1 record, the Falcons have time to work on situational problems.

    10. Staying in the AFC race: Even though the Bengals are 4-5, they still have hope. Roethlisberger's injury could make one of the six AFC playoff spots available if Big Ben is out a month or so. Plus, the Bengals' schedule could help. The Bengals face the Chiefs Sunday, the Raiders next week and the San Diego Chargers in two weeks. The Chiefs battled the Steelers hard Monday night, but Matt Cassel committed a costly turnover in overtime that gave the Steelers the win. Cassel remains the starter, so the Bengals' defense will be angling for turnovers.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer