Commentary

AFC playoff races wrapping early

Three of conference's four division titles could be clinched Sunday

Originally Published: November 30, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

All of a sudden, the AFC stands for "All For Champagne.''

[+] EnlargeBolden/Brady
AP Photo/Bill WippertIf the Patriots win Sunday, they'll be able to celebrate another AFC East championship.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots can clinch division titles with wins on Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens can clinch the AFC North if they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals lose to the San Diego Chargers. The Houston Texans can't clinch the AFC South title this week, but they can lock up a playoff spot with a win.

Champagne in Week 13? I can't remember a time so many races have been wrapped up this early. And the weird part about it is the lack of change in the divisional lineup. All four teams are on the verge of repeating titles they won last year.

This is both good and bad. The good is planning. If they clinch, all of these teams have a chance to plan for the playoffs and make sure they enter the postseason healthy. The bad is the lack of drama and the potential that these teams could be flat when the playoffs begin.

The only mystery could be seedings. The Texans have the best chance to clinch home-field advantage. There is a pretty good battle for the No. 2 seed between the Baltimore, Denver and New England.

There are meetings among some of these playoff teams down the stretch, particularly Week 15. That might be the week to resolve some things. The Texans host the Indianapolis Colts, who are battling for a wild-card berth. The San Francisco 49ers visit the Patriots. The Broncos play the Ravens in a game that could determine the No. 2 seed.

It has been a strange season. The normal 50 percent turnover rate for playoff teams appears to be out this year. There may be as many as three new playoff teams, but that's about it. The "haves" remain the "haves."

Here are the 10 things we're watching in NFL Week 13:

1. Steelers' spot: The problem facing the Steelers -- aside from not having Ben Roethlisberger -- is location, location, location. The Steelers can't expect the 13-10 type of game played against the Ravens in Pittsburgh. At Baltimore, the Ravens' offense is king. The Ravens have won 15 consecutive games at home. The Ravens average 36.8 points a game at home compared to 16.5 on the road. Joe Flacco throws for 9.28 yards an attempt at home compared to 5.65 on the road. The no-huddle works at home. It struggles on the road.

The Ravens have enough distance on the Steelers in the standings not to worry about losing the AFC North to them. The Steelers are scrambling for a wild card, but they know they can't do anything without Roethlisberger.

2. Padding schedule in AFC East: A few years ago, the NFL's competition committee and commissioner Roger Goodell wanted more competition at the end of the season. He was concerned too many teams benched starters in the final two weeks after clinching playoff spots, so he moved more division games into the latter part of the schedule.

The Patriots can't complain. They have dominated the AFC East for more than a decade. Having more division games later in the season means more wins for them. On Sunday, they can wrap up the AFC East with a victory over the Miami Dolphins. The Pats have a 19-game winning streak in the second half of the season, the longest second-half streak since the merger. The Pats are 4-0 in the division this year and have dominated. They've averaged 47.5 points for the past four games and figure to put up good numbers against the Dolphins.

For the Dolphins, it's last call. They need to get to .500 to even think about the playoffs. A loss would drop them to 5-7 and pretty much finish their season.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III and Jason Pierre-Paul.
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireThe Giants survived against Robert Griffin III in their first meeting. Can they do it again?

3. Giant weekend for NFC East: With no more byes, the league is back to the 16-game weekly schedule, featuring eight divisional games. The best divisional race -- one of the few remaining -- resides in the NFC East.

The New York Giants hold a two-game lead over the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, but this week will determine whether there is a race or a lark. Fittingly, the NFC East games this weeks are in prime time. The Cowboys host the Eagles on Sunday night. The Giants visit the Redskins on Monday night.

By beating the Cowboys last week, the Redskins made the division race slightly interesting. Even though they are 5-6, the Redskins could move within a game of the Giants with a victory. The Giants know it won't be easy. Robert Griffin III put Washington ahead of the Giants 23-20 with a late touchdown pass Oct. 21. Eli Manning deflated the Redskins with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz with 1:13 remaining to win the game. Since then, RG3 has gained more confidence and become more effective.

As for the Cowboys, they are barely hanging on, and that must infuriate Jerry Jones. The Cowboys' owner is even admitting publicly his team might have to settle for an 8-8 season, not what he was anticipating. He was thinking Super Bowl. Wait until next year, I guess.

4. Secondary a primary problem: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded away cornerback Aqib Talib and have cornerback Eric Wright sitting out a four-game suspension. That's bad enough for a defense that is giving up 315.5 yards a game through the air. The bigger problem is the upcoming schedule.

This Sunday, Tampa Bay travels to Denver to face Peyton Manning. Over the final part of the season, the Bucs have to face Drew Brees, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan and maybe Michael Vick, if he's healthy. The Bucs easily could become the first team in NFL history to give up more than 4,800 passing yards in a season.

Last year, the Packers gave up 4,796 and won 15 games. The Patriots surrendered 4,703 and went to the Super Bowl. The Bucs are 6-5 and in the wild-card race in the NFC, but they know it's hard to stay up with these passing teams just running the football and getting timely completions from Josh Freeman. Freeman is having a great season, but he is learning it's hard to keep up with these 300-yard passing teams with a slower developing offense.

5. Dead coach walking tour: The Bengals have rebounded from a bad October and have put themselves back in the wild-card race. Their next three games are against head coaches who are on the hot seat.

On Sunday, the Bengals travel to San Diego to face Norv Turner, who is all but assured to lose his head coaching job with the Chargers. Next week, the Bengals host the Cowboys. Jerry Jones keeps saying he's going to keep Jason Garrett, but Dallas could be on the verge of falling out of playoff consideration by kickoff.

On Dec. 13, the Bengals face Andy Reid, who is expected to be let go by the Philadelphia Eagles after the season. In the cases of the Chargers and the Cowboys, the Bengals could deliver the final blow to those coaching tenures.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Browner, Richard Sherman
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePotential suspensions of starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman (25) and Brandon Browner hang over the Seahawks' heads.

6. Survivor, Windy City: The Bears and Seattle Seahawks head into Sunday's game with lots of questions.

The Seahawks know cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, who are appealing four-game suspensions for allegedly violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, are going to be able to play this week. But they don't know if or when they could lose them in the future. Losing two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks could kill the Seahawks' chances of making the playoffs. Winning this game is vital for the Seahawks.

The Bears have their own problems. Six starters were injured on Sunday. They've lost guard Lance Louis for the season. Guard Chris Spencer is hurt, and things are so bad along the line that they moved benched tackle Gabe Carimi to guard. Wide receiver Devin Hester has a concussion. Halfback Matt Forte has a sore ankle. Linebacker Lance Briggs has a bad ankle, as does tight end Kellen Davis. The Bears hold a big edge at home, but the injuries could make life tough.

7. Worried about the line: The Packers should feel confident about hosting the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday because Aaron Rodgers should be able to outduel Christian Ponder, but Mike McCarthy has to worry about his offensive line.

Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will be lining up against left tackle Marshall Newhouse, who has given up 6 sacks. T.J. Lang is filling in for the injured Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, and he has given up nine sacks this season. It's a worry. Rodgers has been sacked 37 times this season. McCarthy may have to do more max protection down the stretch.

8. Settling into Kaepernick era: The mystery is over. Jim Harbaugh has gone with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith and isn't looking back. Opposing defensive coordinators have two games of tape on Kaepernick, who has outdone the Bears' and Saints' defenses. This week, he visits the Rams.

We'll see whether Jeff Fisher can figure out ways to contain Kaepernick's running and ability to work the play-action game. The Rams managed to tie the 49ers in their previous meeting, the game in which Smith was injured. Harbaugh figures Kaepernick will maintain the magic.

9. Take the over: Andrew Luck and the Colts have a showdown against Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field in what should be a high-scoring game. Luck knows winning on the road isn't easy, even though he figures to throw for more than 300 yards. Stafford has a desperate group of Lions who were beaten on Thanksgiving and could lose all playoff hope if they get that eighth defeat of the season.

The Colts have been the league's best surprise team, in line to become the lone new entry to the AFC playoff picture this year. They are 7-4 and having a blast with Luck. They know the schedule gets more difficult, but so far they have been both lucky and good.

10. Bottom feeders: It's that time of the year when teams are playing out the string. In the Jacksonville-Buffalo game, Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne continues to try to prove he should be the quarterback of the present and future in Jacksonville. At 4-7, the Bills are just trying to keep a disappointed fan base interested.

The Tennessee Titans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer in hopes of sparking their offense. They host the Texans this week. Good luck on that one. There is little to say about the Cleveland Browns-Oakland Raiders game. The Browns aren't the easiest team to beat. The Raiders have been an easy target.

The New York Jets have the league's easiest schedule over the final five weeks, starting with Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, but they haven't played well enough to make anyone think these games could be easy to win. Losing would cause more push for change in New York.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer