November is the time in the NFL where we separate contenders from pretenders. Last week, I focused on the NFC; this week the AFC.
Unfortunately, the Colts and Steelers didn’t play on Sunday and the Texans Sunday Night game took place in weather conditions that affected the game (and the game plan) significantly. Who among the rest can challenge for AFC supremacy? Read on to find out.
Another slow start for a West Coast team traveling east – certainly not unusual. Slow starts have been a consistent problem for Denver all year. We saw them fall behind by three scores when they faced Atlanta, Houston and San Diego – three of the tougher foes they’ve faced. But that’s about the only fault I can find.
The offense scores touchdowns – 22 in 32 red zone possessions. The Broncos have an elite quarterback, a strong running game and playmaking WR’s. They can trade points with anybody. This team’s postseason future rests on the strength (or weakness) of their stop unit, which has stepped up at times and was torched many others.
The defense makes good in-game adjustments. I’m very impressed with this coaching staff, as Manning was when he decided to play for Denver. This pass rush is getting to the QB – Von Miller was an absolute beast at Carolina. He was one of six different defenders to pull Cam Newton to the turf.
This secondary is turning bad throws into interceptions. The linebacking corps is stuffing the run. If the D continues to play like this, I’d make Denver the favorite to reach the Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers
I felt completely schizophrenic writing about QB Philip Rivers, a mystifying presence on the field these days. Rivers was brilliant against Tampa Bay, leading three 80-yard TD drives before halftime. After going 18-20 passing against the Chiefs last Thursday, he only threw two incomplete passes before halftime, demonstrating truly impressive accuracy.
Rivers is a downfield thrower, not a dink and dunker – a good thing. He’s made his living in the NFL chucking the ball up and letting his receivers make plays on the ball, also a good thing. This receiving corps still has plenty of big play talent – look no further than Danario Alexander’s 80-yard catch-and-run TD on the opening drive. Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd and Eddie Royal all had receptions of 20 yards or longer.
Yet for every good thing about Rivers, there was the flip side. When Rivers makes mistakes they are huge. Evidence his careless pick-6 that was the difference in the ballgame. Brilliance alternating with incompetence is no recipe for winning a Super Bowl.
The defense dominated a good portion of this game, but again the running game sputtered. Ryan Mathews hasn’t exactly filled LT’s shoes. And perhaps most of all, Norv Turner’s lack of attention to special teams has been a problem since he’s been there. A blocked punt returned for a TD turned the momentum. When that was followed by Rivers’ pick-6, it was lights out for San Diego last Sunday and probably the season.
Last week, this pass defense was torched by Andrew Luck. I’m impressed with the week-to-week adjustments from the coaching staff. We saw more and effective blitzing that wreaked havoc in the Titans backfield, dramatically improving the performance in the secondary.
In the red zone this defense has stiffened all year, swarming to the football – making both yards and points very difficult to come by. However, Miami’s defense was not effective in the red zone against Tennessee, giving up fairly easy TD’s on the first two possessions.
This offense is a long way from being playoff caliber on a weekly basis. Ryan Tannehill has had some great games and real clunkers. If they can’t run, they can’t win. Trailing by three TD’s early certainly takes the running game largely out of the equation. Miami is not a rally-back-from-way-behind team like Detroit or Denver.
The weakness of this receiving corps was on full display. Tannehill didn’t complete a pass longer than 17 yards. This offense sure could use a deep threat playmaker like Brandon Marshall who they dumped this past offseason.
New England Patriots
This offense is pretty close to unstoppable when the opposing defense can’t create a pass rush. Tom Brady with time is as accurate as it gets. I still don’t love this receiving corps without both Hernandez and Gronkowski available. When an aging Deion Branch is a go-to guy, it speaks volumes about the lack of size on the outside.
But that’s just nitpicking. This is an elite level offense just as it has been for the better part of the last decade, particularly when Stephen Ridley and the running game are working. That’s a big part of the reason why the Pats have been relatively good as chalk in every recent season – weaker defenses have no chance to shut them down.
New England’s offense has only 8 “three and out’s” all year (only one against Buffalo), by far the best in the NFL. But the Pats postseason success rests with their defense; an inconsistent unit again this year. Belichick was so disgusted against the Bills he made the rare move of not being aggressive in the final minute before halftime; willing to let the clock run out without a single downfield throw.
The defensive line got abused, completely unable to control the line of scrimmage. Credit them for forcing a pair of red zone turnovers with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. When this offense scores 37 against a team like Buffalo, they shouldn’t be desperately trying to hang on for the win in the closing seconds.
This offense has a completely different level of execution at home compared to on the road just like last year. There’s a reason Baltimore has won 15 straight and 20 of their last 21 home games; 33-5 SU at home in the five years of John Harbaugh’s tenure. QB Joe Flacco simply has a very different comfort level on this field. I’d expect that from a rookie or a second year player; not from a veteran like Flacco.
Look at these point totals at home: 44, 31, 23, 31 and 55 compared to 23, 9, 13 and 25 in four road games. If this team is going to go to the Super Bowl, they’ll need as many home playoff games as they can get.
The most impressive thing about Baltimore’s two games since their pre-bye week disaster at Houston has been the defensive improvement for an injury riddled stop unit. Against Oakland, they got pressure on Carson Palmer consistently, created turnovers, stuffed the run and, with the exception of a missed tackle on a long TD pass, were fundamentally sound all afternoon.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]