Analysis of four AFC playoff contenders

Dec 4, 2012 3:10 AM

It’s December and time to shift my focus to four AFC Playoff contenders with both the potential to do some damage when January rolls around or turn into frauds.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are not a Super Bowl contender, but given that they were 7-point underdogs at 4-7 Detroit, the betting markets aren’t even calling them a playoff caliber team. Even with starting cornerback Vontae Davis back in the lineup following a four game injury absence, the pass defense spent all afternoon getting torched. Where’s the pass rush? Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were non-factors.

The offensive line got dominated by Detroit’s front four for most of the afternoon. Andrew Luck was beaten up, taking one big hit after the next. Coming into the game with four fumbles and 10 INT’s in five previous road games, Luck’s emphasis was on ball security. 

That emphasis didn’t work. He hit seven different receivers in the first half, but also threw a pair of bad passes to Lions defenders, and followed that up with a poorly thrown third INT that nearly doomed their chances of a fourth quarter comeback. And this running game is as pedestrian as it gets; nothing but plodders getting two or three yards at a time.

With all that being said, this team still has the potential to give a playoff opponent fits. Luck is clutch and at his best on third downs, hitting a pair of tough third and long completions on the Colts first touchdown drive. And he’s at his best with the game on the line – not many rookie QB’s are going to lead five game winning fourth quarter drives in their first dozen NFL starts.

The Colts have downfield weapons – lots of them. T.Y. Hilton, emerging as a deep threat, had a 60 yard catch. Donnie Avery caught the game-winning TD pass. Coby Fleener, Luck’s tight end from Stanford and back in the lineup following a four game absence, caught the first TD of his NFL career. LaVon Brazzil got his first career TD catch. Reggie Wayne leads the NFL in receptions. This passing game is dynamic, and that’s what you need to cover point spreads in January.

Indy was -2 in turnovers and still won in outright fashion as a road underdog. Their -16 turnover margin speaks volumes about the weakness of this pass defense (dead last in the NFL in interceptions). But when you’re still in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot, clearly something is being done right.

New England Patriots

I don’t often include post-game quotes in my analysis, but this one from Bill Belichick really stood out to me. “It’s always good to win. It’s not about the stats, it’s about wins.” That’s the core of the Patriots philosophy. With 12 straight winning seasons and nine division titles in the last 10 years, it’s clearly been proven right. And this win over Miami was the epitome of that thought process.

No team in the league is more willing to change their offensive approach depending on the opponent. Last week against the Jets, the Patriots had 39 rushes and only 18 completed passes. This week against Miami’s strong run defense, they spent the game throwing very efficient dinks and dunks. Other weeks, it’s all about the downfield passing game. Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels live by the cliche “take what the defense gives you.”

This defense is clearly getting better. The pass rush was there all day. The linebackers did an excellent job stuffing the run and the secondary didn’t allow many open receivers. And the playmakers were making plays – Brandon Spikes, Aquib Talib, Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich all stepped up. But as the defense has become Super Bowl worthy, there are offensive concerns now – particularly up front. OL Dan Connolly got hurt here and the line didn’t get much push up front against a quality defensive front. 

Brady took four sacks after only one in his previous four games. A good pass rush is kryptonite for New England’s offense. Brady’s sacks were the primary reason why New England’s extended streak of OVERS – nine in a row dating back to Week 3 – finally ended. 

The last team to return to the Super Bowl the year after a loss was 1993 Buffalo Bills (and the ‘92 Bills, and the ‘91 Bills). It doesn’t happen very often. In fact the only NFL team to reach back-to-back Super Bowls in the last 14 years was the non-spread covering Patriots from ‘03 and ‘04. 

Baltimore Ravens

Why does this offense falter for quarters and halves on a near weekly basis? It’s hard to fathom – there’s no obvious area of weakness. The offensive line is solid – Joe Flacco isn’t taking many sacks or hard hits. The running game is strong – Ray Rice is as good as any back in the league this side of Adrian Peterson, and FB Vonta Leach is an absolute monster; an underrated element of their success. 

Flacco has 0weapons – Torrie Smith is a dangerous deep threat; Anquan Boldin is as tough as nails catching passes in coverage and tight end Dennis Pitta is a big target over the middle. Flacco is a clear step below the truly elite QB’s in the league, but there are at least 20 teams that would love to have him as their starter. The play calling seems fine – I just don’t get it. 

On the field, Baltimore is unable to gain separation from even weak foes. The stats (mediocre offensively, below average defensively) tells me that this team is more than a little bit fraudulent. With four tough games remaining on their slate, don’t be surprised if the Ravens fall back to earth in a big way over the final month of the regular season.

Houston Texans

I’ll give Houston credit for taking care of business in a very tough spot – off three down to the wire games, with a Monday Night Football showdown in New England on tap for next week. But the Texans don’t look like a Super Bowl caliber team. 

The offense had only five first downs after halftime, unable to grind out the clock against a bottom tier stop unit. The defense gave up more than 300 passing yards to Jake Locker running a brand new offense – four different Titans receivers had catches of 25 yards or longer. Chris Johnson had room to run. 

The injuries are mounting defensively too; missing linebackers Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed and Bradie James, along with pro bowl cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Left tackle Duane Brown got hurt as well, leaving concerns at both offensive tackle positions. Despite their AFC best 11-1 record, I’ve got both the Patriots and Broncos power rated higher than Houston right now, and I’d probably look to bet against the Texans in a playoff matchup with either team.

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]

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