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Halfway home, Patriots still best in AFC

Nov 9, 2004 12:04 AM

We are at the halfway mark of the NFL season, which is a good time to look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of teams looking to claw their way to the Conference championship games in January. As usual, there are teams that were expected to be good mixed in with some surprises.

The next two weeks, we’ll be examining the league’s best teams. In this issue, it’s the AFC.

New England: The defending champs haven’t seemed to miss a beat, running their remarkable winning streak to 21 games before finally losing at Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Newcomer RB Corey Dillon has provided balance offensively and the sideline staff rarely gets outcoached. New England is 4-0 SU/2-1-1 ATS at home and hasn’t lost a home game since December, 2002.

However, there are some concerns. The young run defense is No. 23 in the NFL, a weakness that has been evident in games against the Colts, Bills and Steelers. Failure to stop the run was the main reason New England failed to repeat as champions after winning the 2002 Super Bowl. The Patriots allowed over 200 yards rushing to the Colts and Steelers. The most in one game the Pats allowed in 2003 was 119. The number was below 100 in 15 of 19 games.

Indianapolis: After that 4-1 SU/5-0 ATS start, the mighty Colts hit a snag. Defense, no surprise, is the Achilles heal. The pattern is similar to last year when Indy finished No. 20h against the run allowing 4.5 yards per carry. This season the problem is pass defense — the Colts are last in the NFL allowing over 300 yards in the air each contest.

Injuries have been part of the story, so they hope to get healthy and return to the 2003 form when Indy was No. 3 against the pass. Still, the run defense is allowing 4.4 yards per rush, which has been a factor in their 5-2 start "over" the total.

NY Jets: There was a lot of criticism about playing a weak schedule after the Jets began 6-1 SU/4-2 ATS. Playing the Bills, Bengals, 49ers and Dolphins (twice) is certainly not murderer’s row. Regardless, this team is playing well behind healthy QB Chad Pennington, RB Curtis Martin and speedy WR Santana Moss.

A big surprise has been the play of the defense under first-year coordinator Donnie Henderson, who preaches an aggressive, attacking unit. New York was No. 28 against the run in 2003, but is eighth this season. They held the Patriots to just 13 points at home, yet allowed 24 and 28 points to the Bengals and Chargers. Playing three of four road games in November will present a mini-challenge for them.

Pittsburgh: Steelers fans are ga-ga over rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger. Can you blame them? Especially after that 5-0 SU/ATS run in which Big Ben threw 9 TDs, 4 INTs with a sizzling 70 percent completion percentage. Big Ben helped end the Patriots 21-game win streak by throwing 2 TDs with no picks on 18-of-24 passing.

Often overlooked is the play of RB Duce Staley (4.7 ypc) and an offensive line that ranks No. 4 in the NFL in rushing. That kind of balance has taken some pressure off the kid. The No. 5 rated defense has been sharp, although they held only two of their first seven opponents under 20 points. That partly explains why the Steelers started 6-1 "over" the total.

Denver: A difficult team to figure out. All the pieces appear to be in place for a strong run to the playoffs, especially a defense ranked No. 5 in the NFL aided by newcomer CB Champ Bailey. Offensively, Denver has its usual flexible running back depth and excellent balance, ranked fifth overall in total offense. Any team would yearn for those kind of rankings.

However, there’s still erratic QB Jake Plummer, who has the talent to throw for 499 yards in one game (against the Falcons), yet in back to back losses to Cincinnati and Atlanta tossed five interceptions. Denver started 6-2 "under" the total with a -7 turnover margin. The Broncos also have given up a lot of big plays lately, including 467 total yards to the Falcons. The defense hasn’t been able to get much pressure on the quarterback. Denver is without Pro Bowl DE Trevor Pryce (back). Pryce has been sidelined since Week 1 and may return after this week’s bye.