AFC West embodies what will be frantic end to playoff race
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we stare down the last two weeks of the NFL's regular season, and the playoff chases that somehow still involve 22 of the league's 32 teams. That's right, it has taken us almost four months to eliminate all of 10 teams...
• I've decided there's no place like the wacky and wild AFC West this season. You want possible playoff permutations? Check. You want juicy storylines galore? Check. You want teams that rise and fall, with ridiculous momentum swings throughout the season? Check.
Here it is Week 16, and all of these things are true:
-- The AFC West is the only division where all four teams remain alive in the playoff hunt, and where a scant two games separates the top (Denver 8-6) from the bottom (Kansas City 6-8) in the standings. In the West, nobody's in, and nobody's out. All seven of the NFL's other divisions have at least one team that has been eliminated, and six of seven have at least one club that has clinched a playoff berth.
-- The AFC West features a first-place team (Broncos) that has been out-scored this season 343-292, a second-place team (the 7-7 Raiders) that has been out-scored 382-317 and a last-place team (Chiefs) that has been out-scored 319-192. Only the Chargers (7-7) have their nose above the break-even line in scoring (358-313), thanks to their three-game winning streak. But again, all four still have a path to the playoffs. Remarkable.
-- The AFC West in Week 15 was where it was at, and all four teams played games of great significance at home. The Chiefs stunning the undefeated Packers. The Broncos and Tim Tebow's showdown with New England and Tom Brady, which was simply the most anticipated regular-season game of the season. The Raiders perhaps ruining their season with that last-minute loss to Detroit. And the Chargers tearing big, bad Baltimore a new one in prime time. Nothing to chew on there.
-- The AFC West is drama central. Especially at the quarterback position. Tebow replacing Orton in Denver, sparking a national debate in the process. The risky Carson Palmer trade in Oakland. What's wrong with Philip Rivers (oh, never mind) in San Diego? And an injured Matt Cassel giving way to the over-matched Tyler Palko and now, remarkably enough, an effective Orton in Kansas City.
-- The AFC West is the land of equal opportunity. Every team in the division has taken a turn this season being the division's hot team, and every team has endured a swoon (or two). The Broncos started 1-4, then won seven out of eight. The Chiefs started 0-3, then reeled off four wins in a row to pull into a tie for first place. Then they hit the skids again, dropping four straight. The Raiders got off to a 4-2 start, grabbing a share of first place and making first-year head coach Hue Jackson look like the team's savior. Then they went two losses, three wins, and three losses, dropping five out of eight in the process.
And then there are those streaky Chargers. San Diego finally got off to a good start, taking a 4-1 first-place record into their Week 6 bye. But they never really got back to work after that, losing six in a row to seemingly drop out of contention. But that's nigh impossible in the AFC West. San Diego has rebounded to win its past three games, and now at .500, it still has some slight hope.
-- The AFC West hasn't lacked for coaching sub-plots either. Kansas City already fired the embattled Todd Haley and replaced him with Romeo Crennel on an interim basis. In his first game, Crennel simply went out and did what no full-time head coach has managed this season, crafting a game plan to beat Green Bay.
All but written off as a dead man walking three weeks ago, San Diego's Norv Turner might be in midst of a job-saving comeback. We shall see. As for the division's two new head coaches, Denver's John Fox has earned praise for his willingness to re-make his offense around Tebow's unique skills, and led the surprising Broncos into first place. Then there's Jackson in Oakland. He gambled big time with the franchise's future, making the blockbuster Palmer trade just a couple weeks after the death of longtime Raiders owner Al Davis. So far, it has not paid off. Only a playoff berth, Oakland's first since 2002, will render it a deal worth making.
And to think the best might still be to come. In the AFC West, the final two weeks promise to be just as ridiculous as the rest of the regular season. My favorite possibility is a four-way tie at 8-8, which would actually put Kansas City into the playoffs as the division champ, playing at home in the first round. Not bad for a team that lost a bevy of front-line players early in the season and then canned its head coach after Week 14.
A four-way tie would be fantastic, but I think we all know how this has to end in the AFC West this season: With Kansas City starting Orton against Tebow in Denver in Week 17. The mind boggles at the delicious irony that would be on display in one of the most compelling revenge games in memory. Orton either knocks his old team and his usurper, Tebow, out of the playoffs, or Tebow finds a way to beat his former teammate and competitor one last time this season, hopefully in quintessential fourth-quarter comeback style.
That sounds about right in the AFC West, where the implausible inches a little closer to becoming routine every week.
• How crazy was Week 15 in the NFL? Five of the six AFC teams that currently hold the conference's playoff seeds all lost, and lost big, with only No. 1 New England's win at Denver bucking the trend. No. 2 Baltimore, No. 3 Houston, No. 4 Denver, No. 5 Pittsburgh and the No. 6 Jets lost by 15 points or more, with the average margin of defeat for those five teams being 19.2 points.
In the NFC, things went a little better in Week 15. The only team currently holding a postseason seed to lose was No. 1 Green Bay, but that merely punctured the aura of invincibility the Packers had held all year long.
• It happens every year, but it still always surprises us when teams with everything to play for lose late in the season to teams that have little or nothing to play for. How is it that Houston came up flat at home against Carolina, that Green Bay stumbled at Kansas City, that the Titans mailed one in against the winless Colts, that the maddeningly inconsistent Giants disappeared against Washington, and that the Jets and Baltimore got blown out by teams residing on the fringes of playoff contention? And we're not even sure Chicago being routed at home by Seattle fits into the example, with both teams exiting the game 7-7.
It's the NFL. Bad teams beat good teams all the time, and every December has its share of these outcomes.
"We didn't match their intensity,'' Texans offensive tackle Eric Winston said of the Panthers.
"I didn't see the passion in us today,'' observed Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, after New York's most recent egg-laying.
"I never would have expected us to come out, and they're playing like the team going to the playoffs and we're the team that's 0-13,'' Titans head coach Mike Munchak said.
Well, you should have expected it, Mike. And we should have too. It happens the same way every year.
• Week 16 gets started with Thursday night's Houston at Indianapolis matchup, and somehow the T. J. Yates-Dan Orlovsky showdown at quarterbacks lacks a little of the sizzle that the NFL Network thought it was getting with Matt Schaub vs. Peyton Manning.
But we'll watch anyway. It's what we do.
• If you're wondering, some teams will have the advantage this week of knowing how their playoff races stand before they take the field on Saturday. For instance, when San Diego at Detroit is getting ready to kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET, the Chargers will know how the entire division fared in Week 16, because Denver plays at Buffalo and Oakland is at Kansas City, both in early games.
The same story exists in the tightly packed NFC East, where Philly is at Dallas at 4:15 p.m. ET, giving both the Eagles and the Cowboys the luxury of knowing what the Giants did in their early-game showdown with the Jets.
• Both teams are on the outside looking in and need some help to qualify for the AFC playoffs at the moment, but what if the Bengals make the postseason without Carson Palmer at quarterback, while the Raiders miss the playoffs with him?
I'm thinking Bengals owner Mike Brown might enjoy that scenario.
• There's obviously a chance the Lions will need to win their game against the Packers on New Year's Day at Lambeau Field to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, while the game could be meaningless for Green Bay.
If so, it raises an interesting question of how hard the Packers will attempt to win the game? Last year, it was Chicago that didn't need to win in Week 17 at Green Bay, with the Packers facing a must-win or miss-the-playoffs scenario. The Bears played it straight, but wound up losing 10-3, missing their chance to knock Green Bay out of the NFC playoffs. You know how that story ended.
The Packers would be in the same position Chicago was in, knowing they could eliminate a potentially dangerous division foe and keep them out of the playoffs with a win. Will that make Green Bay go for the win? Or will the Packers perhaps regret not doing so if the Lions wind up making some noise in the playoffs?
• The Steelers' loss at San Francisco Monday night dropped them back into the AFC's No. 5 seed, vaulting AFC North-leading Baltimore back into the conference's No. 2 seed. But those two rivals have been trading places in those slots in recent weeks, and could continue to do so in the coming two weeks as well.
If Baltimore winds up with a wild-card and the No. 5 seed, I'm putting my money on the Jets to hold onto their grip of the AFC's sixth seed. Why? Well, because it would mark the third consecutive year that Baltimore and New York have earned the AFC's two wild-card berths. In 2009, it was the Jets at No. 5 and the Ravens at No. 6, and then the teams traded places in 2010. For Baltimore, it would actually mark a fourth consecutive wild-card finish, with the Ravens holding the sixth seed in 2008.