Commentary

Week 13: AFC bracket taking shape

Broncos, Patriots take big steps toward byes; Colts not looking the part

Originally Published: December 1, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Denver Broncos' sweep of the Kansas City Chiefs in a three-week span pretty much establishes where the AFC playoff race is heading.

The Broncos and New England Patriots, who beat the Houston Texans 34-31 Sunday, are destined to be the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Victories by the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts pretty well set up the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.

The Colts visit the Bengals next Sunday in Cincinnati to firm up where those seeds are heading. The Bengals lead the AFC North by two games and the Colts are one win away from clinching the AFC South after beating the Tennessee Titans. Both teams are 8-4.

It's becoming apparent, though, that the many of these AFC teams have the potential to make quick postseason exits. The Bengals have been one-and-done the past two years. The Colts were one-and-done last year and have problems on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs aren't the same team if they can't generate a pass rush, and they have been able to do that over the past month.

Only Denver and New England look solid. As it turns out, they have the chance to get even healthier if they can secure those playoff bye weeks. As for the last wild card, Baltimore and Miami have a leg up, but at 6-6, neither can afford to falter.

Here's what we learned in Week 13:

1. Colts' success is all Luck: Last year, the Indianapolis Colts were lucky, clinching an AFC wild-card spot thanks to Andrew Luck comebacks even though they gave up more points than they scored. On Sunday, the Colts moved closer to clinching the AFC South title with a 22-14 victory over Tennessee, but they didn't feel lucky. In fact, they didn't feel all that good.

Even though the Colts have progressed from a wild card to a likely division winner, they have major issues. After performing poorly as a team in November, the Colts benched halfback Trent Richardson, guard Mike McGlynn and cornerback Cassius Vaughn. Enter halfback Donald Brown, guard Jeffrey Linkenbach and cornerback Darius Butler. The result was a victory, but not a convincing one. Heading into the game-clinching, 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter, the Colts had only 169 offensive yards, no touchdowns and plenty of mistakes. Fortunately for them, Luck is perhaps the best closing quarterback in the game.

The Colts go as Luck goes. He's becoming a solo act on offense. The switch to Brown provided 54 yards on 14 carries, but it's Luck who controls the show. That became clear in the final quarter.

On a third-and-2 at the Colts' 43-yard line with 4:51 left, Luck ran a designed bootleg that gave him two options -- a pass to fullback Stanley Havili or a keeper. Luck ran for 24 yards to the Titans' 33. Four plays later, the Colts scored their first touchdown of the day to secure the victory. Luck had been sacked five times before that drive. Without Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen, his passing options are limited. Earlier in the game, Darrius Heyward-Bey killed a potential touchdown drive with a drop while wide open near the Titans' 20.

For the Titans, they are 5-7 and face major changes after the season. "We can't finish games,'' coach Mike Munchak said. Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was responsible for four turnovers -- one of the reasons he lost a starting job in Buffalo. The division belongs to the Colts, but it's hard to figure out what that means as shaky as they are these days.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
John Geliebter/USA TODAY SportsCarson Palmer, who threw two interceptions Sunday, is having trouble connecting on the deep ball.

2. Mistakes return for Palmer: For four weeks, Carson Palmer found the fountain of youth. Three times during the Arizona Cardinals' recent four-game winning streak, Palmer completed at least 70 percent of his passes. His quarterback rating was never lower than 93.4 during that stretch and he was getting the ball downfield. In Sunday's 24-21 loss in Philadelphia, he went back to the problems that nagged him for the past four years.

On his third play, he was sacked and lost a fumble. On Arizona's next possession, he underthrew a long pass toward Michael Floyd that was intercepted by safety Nate Allen. Palmer's lost the ability to hit the home run and needs to settle for the single or double, if you talk baseball terms. Coming into the game, he was only 12-for-47 with five interceptions on passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the air. Sunday, he tried four passes that sailed at least 30 yards. One went to a Cardinal and two to Eagles. For the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Palmer has completed only 20 percent of his passes that have gone 30 yards, which ranks 29th.

If anything, Palmer needs to learn something from Eagles second-year quarterback Nick Foles, who has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Foles knows his limitations. Despite his experience, Palmer hasn't learn that lesson, and that weakens the Cardinals' bid for a wild card in the NFC.

3. Defense is Bears' undoing: The Bears wasted some great efforts and might be done in the NFC North. Alshon Jeffery caught 12 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. For a moment, Robbie Gould became the most accurate place-kicker in NFL history. Matt Forte ran for 120 yards and caught two passes for 31 more. So how did the Chicago Bears lose a 23-20 overtime decision to the Minnesota Vikings? The answer is simple. Their defense simply has hit the wall, and it goes beyond the injuries to Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs.

Adrian Peterson burned Chicago for 211 yards on 35 carries. Matt Cassel replaced an injured Christian Ponder (concussion) and completed 20 of 33 passes for 243 yards. In the end, the Bears blew a 20-10 third-quarter lead and surrendered 13 unanswered points. At 6-6, the Bears are only one game behind Detroit in the NFC North, but their chances of making the playoffs are in serious jeopardy.

"As hard as we played, we didn't play well enough to win," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "The accountability starts with me. We didn't do it well enough today to win and that starts with me and I take responsibility for that."

Trestman deserves a lot of credit for what he's done with the offense. When he was working with Jay Cutler, Trestman had an offense averaging about 29 points a game. He's done wonders with backup Josh McCown. Against the Vikings, the Bears had 480 yards of offense with McCown behind center. But the Bears need Cutler back from a high ankle sprain if they want to make a Hail Mary run at the playoffs.

If Cutler is available, the Bears could win three of four and make it competitive, but their problem lies in the tiebreakers. The Lions swept the Bears and are 4-1 in division games. The Bears are 2-3 in the NFC North. If the Lions, who are 7-5, get to nine wins, the Bears need to get to 10. The losses of Cutler and Aaron Rodgers to injury gave the Lions the chance to take control. Despite blown games and numerous mistakes, the Lions have squeaked out a lead.

What the Bears will lament is the drive after Gould missed a 47-yard field goal with 4:07 left in overtime that left Gould in tears. Peterson ran through the defense for 30 yards on four carries. Cassel completed one pass, setting up an easy Blair Walsh 34-yard field goal. The decision whether or not to keep Cutler will be the No. 1 topic of the offseason, but rebuilding the defense might be a bigger priority.

4. Helping hands for Niners: The return of Michael Crabtree, making his 2013 debut after an Achilles tear, provided a little bit of a spark for San Francisco and helped to make Colin Kaepernick look more like the Colin Kaepernick of 2012. Crabtree caught two passes -- a 60-yarder and an 8-yarder -- in a 23-13 victory over the Rams.

"It means a lot just to be out there and help contribute to the win," Crabtree said.

Crabtree started and provided a key third option for Kaepernick, who has been restricted all year. Coming into the game, Anquan Boldin had 52 catches, but other wide receivers caught only 25 passes in 11 games. Man coverage teams were matching up against Boldin and then bracketing tight end Vernon Davis.

Sure, it will take time for Crabtree to catch up to the nearly six-catch-a-game average he had last season, but Sunday was a start. At 8-4, the 49ers could be headed to an 11-win season and a wild card.

5. Broncos can overcome: The Broncos are leading the AFC West because of how they handle adversity. Peyton Manning was at his best in a 35-28 victory over the Chiefs Sunday in Arrowhead, but what Denver has done over the past month has been amazing. Think of the adversity. Head coach John Fox needed heart surgery and Jack Del Rio took over as interim coach. The defense lost safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson for the season with injuries. Defensive end Derek Wolfe had a seizure on a bus Friday and is in a Denver hospital. Manning himself was playing with a high ankle sprain.

Despite all of that, the Broncos went 3-1 in what was considered one of the toughest four-game stretches of football in NFL history. They are now 10-2 and have the AFC West in hand. Fittingly, a game ball was handed to Del Rio Sunday by team president John Elway. Sunday's win started strangely -- Denver fell behind 21-7 -- but was predictable. Chiefs LB Tamba Hali was playing on a bad ankle. Linebacker Justin Houston was out with a dislocated elbow. Last week, when the two were out against San Diego, the Chargers scored 38 points in 32 minutes and averaged 8.8 yards a play. Hali had two tackles and no hits on Manning.

In the meantime, Manning kept finding Eric Decker, who had eight catches for 174 yards and four touchdowns.

"It shows that Peyton is going to find you if you are open,'' Del Rio said.

SHORT TAKES

Even though the New York Jets are trying to get younger with rookies, they have hit a tough stage of their season. Cornerback Dee Milliner and quarterback Geno Smith were each benched Sunday in a 23-3 loss to the Dolphins. For the struggling Milliner, it was his third benching this season. For Smith, it was long overdue. He's completed only 29 passes over the past four games, and he's completing less than 45 percent of his throws during that time. Backup Matt Simms didn't do much in the second half replacing Smith, so the Jets might go to David Garrard. ... The courageous player award goes to Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who admitted he's been playing with a fractured wrist since October. ... Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith seemed to think Spygate was alive for the Patriots. "It's miraculous they changed some things on offense that keyed on what we put in this week to stop what they were doing," Smith said. "They did things they never did all year before." In the first half, Tom Brady completed only two of seven passes against five-man-or-more pressure. He averaged 3.1 an attempt. In the second half, he was 7-for-9 with a 15.2-yard-an-attempt average. Spygate goes back to 2007. ... Brandon Weeden's return to the starting lineup didn't go well and his days are numbered in Cleveland. He threw two interceptions and had two fumbles in 32-28 loss to Jacksonville. Weeden, who's' averaging about a turnover a quarter in the past three games he's played, was diagnosed with a concussion after the game. With Jason Campbell out with a concussion and Brian Hoyer on injured reserve, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski might have to turn to Alex Tanney.  ... Two of the keys to the Philadelphia Eagles' most recent surge is the pass-catching of Riley Cooper at receiver and the development of Zach Ertz at tight end. Ertz had five catches for 68 yards Sunday. ... Cam Newton's scrambling and ability to score in the red zone are two reasons the Carolina Panthers won their eight consecutive game. They blew out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-6, and Newton led the Panthers with 68 yards rushing. His 56-yard run in the first quarter was the second longest of his career. ... The Atlanta Falcons' 34-31 win over Buffalo gave the NFC a 30-24 lead in the inter-conference battle. Three more wins clinch it for the NFC.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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