By Sunday Picks
Over the next four weeks of NFL play the good teams should separate themselves from the bad ones. The desperate teams will either come out on top, or swallow their pride after week 17 and start enjoying time away from the field. A few headlines to keep an eye out for are the “Undefeated’s” (Colts & Saints), the NFC-East division battle, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ attempt to repeat. So let’s take a look at where I predict everyone will end up in the AFC:
#1 Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are currently 12-0 and have clinched the AFC-South Division. The Colts are a heavy favorite to come out of the AFC and reach the Super Bowl. With Peyton Manning having a career year, the Colts have played terrific football all season long. What makes them successful is the consistent play of Manning. His poise in the pocket is second to none, and his game management is impeccable. What concerns me about the Colts is their secondary. With Sanders, Jackson, and Hayden injured all year, the Colts have allowed 225 yards per game through the air. However, they will have home field advantage (more than likely) throughout.
The Colts play better at home, the Indy fans have been tremendous all year, and it almost seems like Peyton Manning is destined to make the big game this season. This Colts team is very dangerous, and the fact that they will be at home for the playoffs makes them even more dangerous. Look for the Colts to play deep into January.
#2 San Diego Chargers – The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, and with a 12-0 record the past 3 seasons during the month of December, I do not expect them to cool off at all. LaDainian Tomlinson is running the best he has all season, and Phillip Rivers has had a career season. Rivers is 3rd in the NFL in QB Rating, 7th in passing yards, and has a 21:6 touchdown to interception ratio. In his career, Rivers has a 96 QB rating in the month of December. This is a dangerous team in the AFC. I picked the Chargers to win the Super Bowl before the season started and they are looking like a team on a mission as of late.
A concern that I have is their defense. The Chargers defense was dreadful for the first few weeks of the season, but they have shaped things up since their bye week. Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera is a coach that demands his players play 60 minutes of hard-nosed football. And the high-motor play makers (Merriman, Phillips, and Weddle) are expected to set the tone. If the defense can play well for the Chargers, stop the run and get stops on 3rd down, then this team is the biggest contender to upset the Colts in the AFC Championship game. I’ll take Phillip Rivers any day of the week with my team down four with under two minutes to play. The guy is a beast in the two-minute drill. The Chargers are a force to be reckoned with in the AFC.
#3 Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals have been the surprise story in the AFC, sweeping the division and storming their way into the playoff picture. The Bengal defense has been the reason why they’re 9-3 entering Week 14, but in order for Cincy to win a few games in January, the offense will have to be running on all cylinders. I have them #3 is because I believe they’ll finish 11-5, San Diego 12-4, and New England 10-6. The Bengals have the Vikings this week, the Chargers after that, and then two wins against Kansas City and the Jets. The Bengals have proved all season that they are for real, and you have to take them seriously in the playoffs because of Cedric Benson. Benson’s running can control the clock.
The pickup of Larry Johnson will pay dividends in the playoff games because the Bengals will be running the ball 40+ times in the attempt to control the time of possession. The Bengals are for real and with solid quarterback play, a fantastic running attack, and aformidable defense this Cincinnati team will have a great shot to play themselves deep into January.
#4 New England Patriots – I predict the Patriots will lose one more game and finish at 10-6. The Patriots have holes in their defense, and when Wes Welker is contained throughout a game, the Patriots offense sputters. Tom Brady is Tom Brady and I expect him to shine in December and continue his tremendous play into January. But I am very concerned about the Patriots defense. Just because they are the “Patriots” does not mean they are Super Bowl bound this season. The experience on this team still exists, but let’s not forget about the defensive weapons this team had when they were winning all those Super Bowls just a few years ago (Harrison, Law, Vrabel, Brushi , and Samuel). This is not the same team that we are used to seeing from New England, but I can tell you that come playoff time they will be just as dangerous as the Chargers in my mind.
#5 Denver Broncos – The Broncos are a crazy story this year. Josh McDaniels coming in to take over as Head Coach, Jay Cutler being traded for Kyle Orton and then Orton having the better season. And let’s not forget Brandon Marshall changing from cry-baby to hugging the coach during games. It’s been wild all season. The hot start, the losing streak, the Thanksgiving Day romp over the New York Giants, and now the playoffs. The Broncos will finish with at least 10 wins as they have Indy, Philly, Oakland, and Kansas City left on their schedule, but I think they will sneak out a win against Indy this week which would lead me to predict them to win 11 games this season.
This team has what it takes to make a deep playoff run. Solid quarterback play, two running backs that have been running hard all season, a big time receiver, and a defense peaking at the right time.
#6 Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are my Cinderella pick at this point in the AFC playoff picture. With Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Oakland left on their schedule, I have the Ravens finishing 9-7 and advancing into the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with Pittsburgh (Baltimore would win the tie breaker of AFC Conference record in the event that both teams finished 9-7). Ray Lewis will right the ship of the Baltimore defense over the next four weeks and have this team ready for a January run. Jellico has slumped this season after a fantastic rookie season last year, but I expect Flacco to rally around his veterans and mature very fast over the next four weeks to get his team moving full steam ahead. If the Ravens are able to make the playoffs like I am predicting, they could become very dangerous if they commit to running the ball. Let’s not forget the Ravens have three legitimate running backs in their arsenal (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and McClain who was a Pro Bowl RB last season). Flacco will have to play smart and safe football, but with a rejuvenated defense led by All-Pro MLB Ray Lewis, the Ravens are a threat to everyone in the playoffs.
AFC TEAMS THAT HAVE A CHANCE, BUT I THINK WILL FALL SHORT:
–Pittsburgh Steelers – Even with the loss to Cleveland, the Steelers have an outside shot at the #6 seed. By winning out they put themselves at 9-7 and have to hope that Baltimore loses to Oakland, Miami and the Jets both lose two games, and the Jaguars would have to lose three. So, clearly they are not eliminated, but one more loss by the defending Super Bowl champions and they will be out of the playoff picture. It is astonishing to me how poorly the Steelers defense has played without All-Pro Safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers are 2-6 without Polamalu and the chemistry in the locker room and on the players’ faces does not seem like they believe in themselves. I do not see the Steelers advancing to the postseason this year, but if they win out and other things happen their way, imagine if Polamalu came back in January for a playoff run…
-Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins with Ronnie Brown would have a great chance at making the #6 spot in the AFC this season, but unfortunately Brown is down and out for the season and so are the Dolphins, unless they win out against the Jaguars, Titans, Texans, and Steelers. I see two wins at best for the Phins, but this is an exciting team with a fiery defense that can come up with turnovers and create big plays for their offense. The Dolphins could win out and force a pivotal week 17 matchup against Pittsburgh in Miami. Keep an eye on this team.
–New York Jets – The Jets have an injured rookie quarterback and have ruled him out against Tampa Bay this week. Tampa Bay would love nothing more than to ruin the season for all Jets and Jets fans by winning in Tampa bay this Sunday. The Jets have an opportunity to make a push at the playoffs this season by winning in Tampa Bay this week, getting a win at home against an injury-plagued Atlanta team, and then hope that the Colts and Bengals are resting their stars in the final two weeks of the season. But, with Kellen Clemens starting this week and either Clemens or Sanchez finishing out the season, I will not trust the Jets team to make things happen down the stretch in December.
–Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars have a tough remaining 4 games (Miami, Indy, New England, and Cleveland) facing four teams with a combined record of 26-22 and the first three with a combined record of 25-11. Clearly the Jaguars, sitting at 7-5, have a great chance to make the playoffs only needing to win 2 games, but I do not know if their schedule will permit that to happen. I do not think they will win this week against Miami, and Peyton will still be playing in Week 15, Brady will be playing all sixty minutes in week 16, and as shown on Thursday night, the Browns are not throwing in the towel by any means. The Jaguars have a very tough road ahead of them, and I predict that if they do not make the playoffs Jack Del Rio will get the axe.
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