We keep the flavor pretty Steelers heavy here on BTSC, with the occasional AFC North coverage mixed in. But with just three weeks left in the regular season and a number of playoff berths clinched this week, now's a good time to share some of my thoughts on the rest of the league. Jump on in with yours.
* Know how the AFC has been considered the dominant conference for basically this entire decade? Well, I don't think it's the case anymore. I don't have the time or inclination at the moment to make a legitimate case, but look at this past Sunday. The Patriots struggle to get past the hapless Seahawks. The Jets lay an egg on the road at San Francisco - those are (or perhaps were) two highly regarded and competitive teams in the AFC. Instead of Jacksonville striking fear into the league from the AFC, it's teams like Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta that are finding the right balance of ferocious defense, gritty resolve and timely big plays. I have zero stake in the outcome, but the MNF game between Tampa and Carolina becomes my insta-favorite to make the NFC Championship game at least. Anyway, the AFC has plenty of good football teams, but the NFC is no longer the disgrace it was in comparison to its sister conference for so many previous years.
* Any of y'all ever read Bill Simmons on ESPN.com? I used to read him more frequently - I just rarely get to much, period. Anyway, if you do you probably know that he's been totally shocked by the developments with Green Bay and the NFC Norris Division. He even mentioned placing a big wager three weeks ago after GB beat Seattle I believe on them winning the division.
Dumb move if you ask me, and I thought so at the time before their meltdown. Why? Well, it wasn't that I really thought too poorly of GB, but to me, the same logic applied as it did when I declared the Steelers the favorites in the AFC. The team with the best attribute is a safe bet when there's a big cluster of similar teams. In the case of the NFC North, which had the Vikings, Bears and Packers all tightly clustered a few weeks ago - I felt the team to beat was Minnesota because they had the single most dynamic and game-changing player of any team. That player is Adrian Peterson.
Fairly quietly, AP has put together another monster year. He has 1413 yards and 9 TDs on the year. He's put some distance between himself and Michael Turner, who''s nearly 150+ yards behind. His best performance of late was a 130+ outburst against the supposedly vaunted Bears defense (not at all vaunted anymore).
Anyway, bad move by the usually astute Simmons. Best player, not to mention the most superior run defense in the division. Those are two nice feathers to have in your cap when you're trying to win a division against other competitive but inconsistent football teams.
* Man, the AFC teams really hurt their chances to send two to the playoffs with their performances Sunday. New England won of course, and Miami handled a Buffalo team that's now in an emabrassingly precipitous decline since starting 4-0 and then 5-1. But New York losing really hurt. They may still win the division, but basically there's very little chance that 10 wins will be enough for any of those three teams for a Wild Card. Assuming Indinapolis and Baltimore gets to 10 wins, both would hold tie-breaker advantages with every last one of those teams. It's been a generally surprising up year for the division, but because of Baltimore and Indy's recent surges, it looks like it's going to be a singular playoff berth for the four eastern seaboard teams in the AFC. The only outside shot at two teams repping the division is if Miami or New York AND New England runs the table. Maimi and New York both can not - they play each other in Week 17. But the Pats have a winnable final three (@ Oakland, Arizona, @ Buffalo), and the Dolphins have a shot to win their next two (SF, @ KC) before playing New York in Week 17. Meanwhile the Jets also have winnable games (BUF, @ Seattle).
My prediction? I find it hard to believe that more than one, if any, of those teams runs the table, so I suppose I'd give the Pats the slightest of edges of winning the division due to tie-breakers. But I have been really unimpressed with them the past two weeks. A soft schedule favors them, but I still don't know if I can see that team winning three in a row, regardless of the opponent.
* Has Peyton Manning emerged as the favorite to win the MVP? He sure hasn't been part of the discussion, except amongst Indy faithful. But with Warner stinking it up in back-to-back weeks against marquee big market opponents prior to this week, and Drew Brees just killing his team's playoff chances with two late INTs in a must-win game on the road last week vs Tampa, I'm not sure if Manning has not quietly become the favorite, particularly if the Colts can close the regular season on a 9 game winning streak.
* The Jags are a total mess, but I'll tell you what. They're going to have a lot of new fans for at least a day in Week 17 when they take on Baltimore. There are going to be multiple teams that are going to need a Jaguars victory there. Jack del Rio better find a way to rally his team or he's going to start next year on the hot seat. Anyway, the Jags themselves will have nothing to play for, but Baltimore might be playing for its 10th or 11th win and a playoff berth in that game, with a handful of other teams needing a loss to get in.
* The Cowboys are in trouble. Despite actually improving their playoff position by nature of Atlanta sliding out of first place, the Cowboys have to be considered somewhat of a longshot now to make the playoffs. New York, Baltimore and Philly are left. They may need to win out unless the NFC South teams stumble to the finish line. Tough, tough development for the Cowboys, current standings be damned. The margin of error is now razor thin - and those aren't great teams to have on deck with no room at all to slip up.
* Congrats to the Arizona Cardinals. They will be hosting a playoff game for the first time since the 1940s, when the franchise was located in Chicago. Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm have things pointed in the right direction, but you have to think there are just too many missing ingredients for them to be taken too seriously this year. And perhaps even next. The problem then becomes will the Cards still sport such an explosive offense when the rest of the team catches up? Kurt Warner might not be around or playing so well for the most part if he were. Anyway, for now, a proud moment for a franchise that has very little at all to celebrate since...well, since forever.
* And finally, to give the other Western division its brief moment of attention - the Broncos's magic number is now 1 after this past Sunday. With one more SD loss or one more win themselves, the Broncos will be heading back to the playoffs after a two year hiatus. Next week Denver travels to Carolina while SD travels to KC. The race may be prolonged for another week, but if so, Denver will have a great shot to clinch it when they play the Bills at home in Week 16. SD travels to Carolina that week, and if the unthinkable happened and SD were to bring it within a single game heading into Week 17, the final act would be for all the marbles out West when those two meet to close the season. SD would win due to tie-breakers if both finished 8-8. Not likely, but not entirely improbable. But given what we've seen from Jay Cutler and the Broncos the past couple of games, there's little reason to think they won't take care of business themselves and not even have to think twice about what SD is or is not doing. I suppose it would be funny if the Chargers pushed the envelope to the absolute extreme and still found a way to win that sad division.
Time has flied this year! But there's still lots of juicy good stuff left.