AFC review

Dec 28, 2010 7:06 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the NFL playoffs approach, Teddy Covers turns his focus towards all the postseason contenders from each conference. This week: Breaking down the top AFC teams as ‘contenders’ or ‘pretenders.’)

PATRIOTS: Contender

The Patriots haven’t just been winning the turnover battle every week – they’ve been destroying other teams in that department. New England’s +7 turnover ratio against Buffalo last Sunday was nothing new or different. Tom Brady hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 6 (24-0 TD/INT ratio in last 10).

Last year, Green Bay led the NFL by a wide margin with a +24 turnover margin. Since Week 10, the Patriots are +22 – a seven-week stretch of true excellence protecting the ball while creating havoc for opposing offenses. The defense is not the most fundamentally sound unit in the NFL, allowing a very mediocre 5.6 yards per play.

Projection: The Pats are sure to be fully focused after losing their playoff opener at home to Baltimore last January; clearly the team to beat in the AFC with home field edge.

JETS: Pretender

Prior to last week’s win at Pittsburgh, the Jets had won eight games since Week 3. Those eight wins came against Miami (7-8), Buffalo (4-11), Minnesota (5-9), Denver (4-11), Detroit (5-10), Cleveland (5-10), Houston (5-10) and Cincinnati (4-11). That’s certainly not a who’s who of elite teams!

The Jets are suffering some serious injuries. QB Mark Sanchez has a bum shoulder, bad news for a mistake prone QB with a terrible track record in cold weather. Starting center Damien Woody is hurt. Defensive leader Jim Leonhard is on IR and fellow safety Eric Smith hasn’t been able to suit up either, leaving their defense extremely vulnerable.

Projection: The Jets enjoyed a great postseason run last year, but I don’t expect them to be able to do it two years in a row.

RAVENS: Contender

Baltimore plays defense. The Ravens defense has held four of their last six opponents to 13 points or less. Ten of their 15 opponents this year have scored 17 or less against this stop unit. We’ve seen them win outright in hostile environments. They are the only team to beat the Pats at home in the last two years.

The offense is balanced, extremely tough to stop. Joe Flacco had a 35-24 TD-INT ratio in his first two years in the league. This year, he’s thrown 25 TDs compared to only 9 INTs, while averaging a career high 7.4 yards per attempt.

Projection: Flacco’s got playmaking weapons all around him, both in the running game and the downfield passing game. Don’t sell this team short!

STEELERS: Pretender

The Steelers offense has been broken for weeks. Pittsburgh is loaded with skill position talent. Head coach Mike Tomlin has two time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, a 1,200 yard rusher with breakaway speed (Rashard Mendenhall) at running back and the most explosive pass catcher in the AFC – Mike Wallace and his conference best 20.2 yards per catch average.

Against quality defenses this season, the Steelers have produced 9 points in regulation against Atlanta, 14 and 13 against Baltimore, 17 against the Jets and 10 against the Saints – not exactly lighting up the scoreboard. Pittsburgh’s best defender, Troy Polamalu, is not expected to be anywhere near 100 percent for the start of the playoffs.

Projection: The Steelers are 14-4 with Polamalu in the lineup but just 6-7 without him over the past two years.

COLTS: Pretender

After a string of Peyton Manning interceptions left Indy in the midst of a rare midseason three-game losing streak, the Colts have bounced back with three consecutive December wins. Manning threw a whopping 11 interceptions during Indy’s three-game skid, but he’s enjoyed a 7-2 TD/INT ratio during their current winning streak.

With Manning stretching the Jaguars defense, RB Donald Brown ran for 129 yards, averaging more than nine yards per carry. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai split carries against the Raiders, combining for 143 yards on the ground between them. Indy’s offense has shown legitimate balance for the first time all year in recent weeks.

Projection: The injury woes continue to pile up on both sides of the ball. The run defense has been spotty at best all year and opponents have scored over 24 in 5 of last 6 games. Bad news.

JAGUARS: Pretender

Jacksonville isn’t likely to make the playoffs – it’ll take a collapse from Indy at home against Tennessee and a Jags road win at Houston for Jack Del Rio’s squad to capture the AFC South. But I’m still obliged to include the Jaguars as a pretender in this report – they’re still alive for the postseason heading into Week 17.

That being said, Jacksonville is missing two key elements for postseason success. First, the Jags don’t dominate at home; suffering at least three home losses in each of the last three seasons, including home defeats at the hands of the Eagles, Titans and Redskins in 2010. The Jaguars will have to win at home in the Wild Card round if they sneak into the postseason.

Projection: Jacksonville ranks 32 out of 32 NFL teams in yards per play allowed, giving up a whopping 6.3 yards on every opposing snap. Playoff teams don’t win without a defense.

CHIEFS: Contender

Kansas City runs the football as well as any team in the NFL, leading the league in rushing yards by a wide margin. Jamal Charles’ full season mark of 6.4 yards per carry ranks with the likes of Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown; one of the quietest ‘legendary’ seasons from any back in league history.

The Chiefs are also playing outstanding football in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Their ability to avoid negative plays in the running game, consistently putting them in positive down and distance situations, opens up the play action passing game for Matt Cassel. As a team, the Chiefs have committed only 12 turnovers all season.

Projection: Cassel has taken only 21 sacks on 438 dropbacks. K.C. is 7-0 SU at Arrowhead this year with at least one home game on tap for the postseason.