NFL Week 10: AFC Playoff Picture
Now that we're at the early midway point of the NFL season I wanted too take a look at the teams that at least for now are primed to play past December.
As with every week their will be a Conference team, three teams that are ahead of their division, and two wild card teams.
Also will be a highlighted team that I believe is on the outside looking in and an emphasis on big games as well.
I invite fans of AFC teams to check this picture every weekend to see where their teams are. Until next week, enjoy the games!
AFC Conference Leader: Indianapolis Colts (8-0)
It's time for "Frazier and Ali" to do battle again as the NFL has found its attention getter this week in what has so far been some what of a lack luster season.
The Colts and Patriots have had one of the better rivalries in the league since both Manning and Brady have been on top of their games.
Last week in Houston the undefeated Colts survived a scare from the Texans who missed a field goal which could have taken it to overtime.
In that same game, TE Dallas Clark also saw his most receptions of the season with 14 and led his team in that category. This week, both teams will have their toughest test yet as we expect to see them battle again in January in what should be an even more memorable matchup.
Things to Watch for:
1. The Colts defense has only given up 13 1/2 points to teams so far as well as being third in sacks with the tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis inflicting most of the outside pressure.
2. The Patriots defense is first in the AFC in take aways but might need to rely more on the first level of the defense for those gifts this week as the Colts have a young secondary that has been playing well but hasn't faced the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and safety net TE Benjamin Watson. Their streak of 15 games with a turnover was ended Sunday against the Dolphins.
3. LB Tully Banta-Cain has become the Patriots top pass rusher this year as well as DT VInce Wilfork being his nasty self, plugging holes in the middle of the line but as he did vs. the Dolphins, can also play defensive end.
4. S Brandon McGowan will have the task of covering Colts sure handed and standout TE Dallas Clark, which will be tough, but shutting down Pro Bowlers Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow shows his play is up for the challenge.
5. While Laurence Maroney has emerged lately for the Pats and Kevin Faulk continues to be a reliable third-down back, the Colts should be looking to jump start their own rushing attack which is 28th in the league with a dose of Joseph Addai and the returning Donald Brown.
6. Lastly, the two possibly greatest quarterbacks of the modern football era should be at their best form. Manning is having success with a cast of newer receivers while Brady is relying on a more familiar crowd. While we love to debate who's better, let's all take Steve Young's advice by sitting back and just enjoying these "artists" at work on Sunday night.
AFC East Leader: New England Patriots (6-2)
Going into Sunday night's match up with the Colts it has been said that the game could come down to a display of the "have's and have not's" as the Patriots have a healthy secondary vs. the depleted one of the Colts who among other players out could really use the leadership of versatile safety Bob Sanders.
Randy Moss hauled in a 71-yard pass for a score after shoving rookie cornerback Vontae Davis out of his way and taking it to the house. Despite the promising coverage the Dolphins showed with interceptions of their own, Moss and Brady have apparently found their connection again.
The reception was Randy's highest reception yard total with 147 since 2007. That year Brady threw for a record 50 touchdown passes and Moss caught 23 of them for his own NFL record.
While Brady started off slow and at times has even missed a wide open Moss particularly in a crucial 20-17 overtime loss to Denver, the two are hitting their stride again.
Coming off of a very convincing win over the Dolphins and Brady's third 300-yard game, the Patriots will look to focus on the Colts rookie corners and hope for a big day from Moss.
If coverage is tight on Moss over the top, then going to him, Welker, and Watson underneath could leave him free down field as the game progresses.
Where the Patriots could be exposed is their 20th ranked rush defense. If the Colts can add at least an efficient running game to their arsenal as they have been one-dimensional thus far, Manning and Co. could have a serious advantage.
AFC North Leader: Cincinnati Bengals (6-2)
In week 10 the teams in the AFC North will stay in their division and the biggest game of them all will be between the Bengals and Steelers who are tied for first in the North.
The Bengals will be riding high into Heinz Field with a 17-7 crucial division victory over the Ravens last Sunday.
Sweeping the Ravens and Browns has given them an undefeated record in their division and with one victory over the Steelers, a leg up in the race to call themselves division champs.
They haven't been able to do so since 2005 when they lost to the Steelers in a wild card game that saw two teams both finish their seasons at 11-5.
Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer are also having one of their more impressive seasons. Another highlight is their defense which has been overlooked in the past but is beginning to make some noise.
This is certainly the other big contest of the weekend and for the Bengals sake let's hope the stage doesn't prove too be to much for them as the Steelers have been here plenty of times before.
Things to Watch for:
1. Except for decisive wins at home against Baltimore and Chicago all of the Bengals wins have been by close margins. They strung together four wins in a row in the final seconds, resulting in the nickname, "Cardiac Cats." As their previous 23-20 victory over the Steelers proved, Palmer and Co. will go down to the wire if need be and are no strangers to late-game dramatics.
2. Besides the sharpened connection of Palmer and Ochocinco, free agent acquisition Laveranues Coles is becoming a go-to threat while clutch receiver Andre Caldwell has come up with two fourth-quarter game deciding touchdowns.
3. Safety Troy Polamalu and running back Cedrick Benson can join their teams this time around as they both were out in the first meeting. Troy will provide that much-needed presence in the backfield, making it difficult for the Bengals as he is a dynamic threat who covers and tackles equally well.
Cedrick Benson was last year's outcast, but now with a new home is re-energized and is second in the NFL in rushing. He has averaged over 30 carries in the last two games and continuing to feed him the ball could result in a second straight 100-yard day.
4. Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall have surprisingly become one of the best corner tandems in the league as of late despite the 24th ranking of the Bengals pass defense.
They've done a great job covering their assignments and will need to against a balanced Steeler team who's becoming pass friendly as well.
5. Along with the focus by the Steelers of their passing game they have brought along second year back Rashard Mendenhall and with his recent showings should be poised to do well if the Bengals even give him an inch.
The Bengals have not beaten the Steelers for consecutive times since 1998.
When the Bengals have at least 25 rushing attempts under Marvin Lewis, they are 26-1.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is undefeated against the AFC North at home (7-0)
When Troy Polamalu has an interception, the Steelers are 16-3.
AFC West Leader: Denver Broncos (6-2)
After two disappointing losses, it seem as if the Broncos have come back down to earth and they aren't "who we thought they were" after all.
Thankfully for them, they can show us all that they are still a team poised to battle with the Chargers for a division title. First they must take care of a Washington Redskins team who is in complete disarray.
In their two losses, the Broncos have had trouble running the ball and stretching the field through the air due to the play of good defenses. Although the offense has been stifled vs. the Ravens and Steelers, Denver still has a very good and prideful defense of their own. Challenges for them coming up are the Chargers, Giants, Colts, and Eagles.
The defense needs to step up to a Washington team that's only averaging 14 points per game but despite having a dismal season has continued to improve defensively.
The (2-6) Redskins are able to hang their hat on their defense but as of late their No. 1 pass defense has been shining brighter than their rush defense which was torched by Michael "The Burner" Turner last week in Atlanta.
The Broncos need to test the Redskins in that respect with the combination of rookie tailback Knowshon Moreno and veteran Correll Buckhalter, as well as hope that Kyle Orton can revert back to his cool and calm self.
Moreno has yet to break the 100-yard mark and only has two touchdowns so far. Last year the Broncos dropped their final three games and lost the lead to the Chargers, eliminating them from the playoffs. If this is truly an improved team they must show it this week.
No team has ever missed the playoffs after having a 3.5-game division lead like the Broncos did, earlier this season. As the season winds down they'll certainly want to avoid another Colorado collapse.
AFC North Wild Card: Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
The Bengals may have the same record as the Steelers but pull ahead of them this week since they are undefeated in the division.
The Steelers are coming off an impressive 28-10 Monday night win over the Broncos. What made it so impressive is the adjustments they made in the half to turn around a 7-3 lead by the Broncos.
A Ryan Clark interception return provided the only score for the Steelers and they only managed three first downs. To their credit they adjusted in the second half and stopped the success the Broncos were having with the play-action pass as well as limiting them too a game total of 27 yards rushing.
Another interception by Troy Polamalu followed by two scores through the air closed the deal for the Steelers.
The Steelers showed the dominant defense they were always known for but most importantly their resiliency.
As the showdown in the North between the Steelers and Bengals approaches, you realize that both these teams are very resilient.
The Steelers defense is a step ahead but the Bengals aren't far behind. I can't wait to see what should be a very physical battle.
AFC West Wild Card: San Diego Chargers (5-3)
At (5-3) the Bolts narrowly escape the Giants with a 21-20 victory. In the above picture Shawn Merriman is doing his custom sack celebration as he takes down Eli Manning to close the book on the Giants and allow them to only fall one game behind the Broncos.
The Giants have now lost four straight games and while giving a valiant effort against the Chargers they failed to put them away.
With 2:07 left on the clock, a holding call on first down pushed them back 10 yards and unable to score in the red zone, had to settle for a field goal.
Only scoring on two of four red zone possessions, the Chargers took advantage by scoring on all three of their red zone tries.
While the Giants look like a lost team, the Eagles are also reeling a bit from a baffling loss to the Cowboys which saw coach Andy Reid poorly manage the clock in the final minutes.
The Chargers are looking too establish a four game winning streak with a win at Qualcomm on Sunday. The Broncos, Cowboys, and Bengals are teams that present them the most challenges left on their schedule.
With a win on Sunday and a Denver loss they would be tied for first. The outcome of this race will be definitely be interesting to watch as the NFL season rolls on.
In the Hunt: Houson Texans (5-4)
As you can see in the picture Kris Brown is upset with missing a 42-yard field goal for the Texans in the final seconds which would have taken the game to overtime.
The Texans battled back from a costly interception by Colts linebacker Clint Session to force a three and out and allow a chance for Brown to tie the game.
Unfortunately a Joseph Addai 2-yard score with 7:11 left would be the last score of the game, sealing the win for the Colts.
Once again, the Colts pull off another close victory as they also saw the 49ers come within three points last week.The Texans are 0-8 in Indy and 1-14 all time against the Colts.
Their only win against them came in 2006 at Reliant Stadium when Kris Brown kicked a 48-yard field goal for a 27-24 victory.
Although Manning seemed to be picking apart their zone coverage, they still managed an interception. The secondary has improved as its ranked 18th and finished 17th at the end of last season.
Brighter spots are the rush defense which is allowing just over 60 yards through the last six games and former USC rookie linebacker Brian Cushing.
Brian has won AFC defensive player of the week honors twice and leads the team including rookies with 78 tackles.
Coupled with 2006 Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans who is second on the team with 68 tackles, the future of their linebacker core is certainly promising. When former first round pick DE Mario Williams begins to warm up, the pass rush should improve as they only have 13 sacks thus far.
Offensively like the Colts. the Texans have been known as a pass first offense but if their backs can limit their turnovers, also like the Colts, the running game can prove to be effective when needed.
Steve Slaton has been fumble prone and his replacement Ryan Moats had a costly fumble at the Colts 1 which resulted in a touchback.
On the plus side as they've shown before, they move the ball through the air pretty efficiently as Andre Johnson had his fourth 100-yard game. Ironically the Texans will play their next three games against division foes.
While I think they have a fighting chance too knock off the Colts at home next time, beating the Jaguars and Titans could prove to be just as good, as the Texans are 1-2 and the Jaguars are 2-2 in the division.
After the three game stretch the Texans have Seattle, St. Louis, Miami, and New England. Is this the year they earn a playoff berth? Could turn out that way but when the season ends, the Jaguars seem like they'll have something to say about it.