Judgements: Suddenly, AFC is wide-open rush to the finish line


(Alex Smith photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)

(Emmanuel Sanders cover photos courtesy of the Denver Broncos)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

With one upset ... with one more injury ... the AFC suddenly is a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. No longer are the New England Patriots a dead-bolt cinch to gain home-field advantage. Worse, they no longer may be the team to beat in the AFC, either. Reason: Not only did they suffer their first defeat, narrowing the gap between them, Denver and Cincinnati to one game, but they lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to what at first appeared to be a serious leg injury. Add that to the losses of Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola, and tell me what Tom Brady has left for targets. Brandon LaFell? Scott Chandler? Keshawn Martin? Please. I understand the "next-man-up," mantra, and I understand anything is possible as long as Brady is standing. But Gronk is irreplaceable. Same goes for Edelman. And both are gone, though initial reports on Gronkowski Sunday were encouraging. Brady has to have someone to trust, and tell me who or where that guy is now.

2. There can't be ... and won't be ... a decision on Peyton Manning. Not now. Not with how Brock Osweiler is playing. He's 2-0, rallied the Broncos to knock off New England and isn't making the turnovers Manning did. Moreover, he's the guy who called an audible on the game-winning touchdown Sunday -- checking into a play that turned into C.J. Anderson's game-winning score. Once I thought the Broncos were in trouble with Osweiler in charge, but they're not in trouble now. They're a half-game (tiebreaker) behind the Patriots, have the league's top-ranked defense and are getting production from their quarterback and running game. Translation: They're dangerous again.

3. Credit C.J. Anderson with great timing. His two best games this season were against undefeated teams (Green Bay, then 6-0, and the Patriots).

4. Not only are the Kansas City Chiefs legit, but, as implausible as it sounds, they could run the table, finish 11-5 and be one of the AFC’s two wildcards. And here’s why: The schedule. There's not a winner on it. The Chiefs’ remaining opponents are, in order, Oakland, San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland. Combined record: 19-34. If the Chiefs win out, it would mark one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history – with Kansas City getting off the mat at 1-5 without their best player, running back Jamaal Charles. If that happens, look for Andy Reid to challenge Ron Rivera for Coach of the Year.

5. This is what I like most about the Chiefs’ fifth straight win: They came back from a 10-point deficit. Kansas City is not built to dig out of holes, but it just did … and it did it vs. an opponent trying to make a playoff run. Then there’s this: The knock on quarterback Alex Smith is that he doesn’t throw deep, afraid to risk the turnover, and the criticism is fair. But that’s why you have to love what happened against Buffalo: Not only did a 41-yard TD pass put the Chiefs back in business; it was one of four … yes, four … Smith completions of 32 or more yards.

6. When people talk about halftime adjustments this is what they have in mind: Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins shredded Kansas City in the first half, with six catches for 158 yards and two TDs. Unfortunately for Buffalo, those are the numbers he ended with -- with quarterback Tyrod Taylor later saying the Chiefs "definitely changed the coverage." Well, something had to change. Watkins had zippo catches and only one target in the third and fourth quarters, one reason the Chiefs were able to overcome the Bills.

7. Another reason: Turnovers. The Chiefs don’t make them. Over their last five games – all wins – Kansas City is a +14 in the takeaway/turnover ratio. Opponents have made 14 of them; the Chiefs … zilch.

8. All those in favor of barring the NFC East winner from the playoffs please raise your hand.

9. Don’t go to sleep on Seattle. I know, losing Jimmy Graham for the rest of the season was huge. I also know the Legion of Boom is giving up more yards, more points and more leads than ever. But the Seahawks know how to make stretch runs … and they’re making one now.

10. That testy Jeff Fisher news conference tells you he’s feeling the heat. And he should be. With that loss, the Rams’ fourth straight, Fisher is 23-31-1 in four years in St. Louis. He not only hasn’t had a winning season there; he hasn’t had a winning season in his last six years, period. Draw your own conclusions.

11. Matt Hasselbeck for MVP? He won’t get votes, but maybe he should. He’s 4-0 as a backup, he kept the Indianapolis Colts in the playoff race and he's done the improbable – put a lid on scuttlebutt about the Chuck Pagano-Ryan Grigson feud.

12. At least there's this, New England fans: With the Patriots playing Philadelphia next week, they can afford to have Gronk sit. The Eagles are a mess now, losing their last two games by a combined score of 90-31 ... and that's to opponents with losing records.

13. The difference between David and Derek Carr: Little brother has the protection his brother never did. Derek has been sacked 12 times this season and is on track for 16 for the year; older brother David was sacked a single-season record 76 times in 2002 and 68 more in 2005, good for third all-time.

14. Yes, that’s Washington in first place in the NFC East, but please stand by. Three of the Redskins’ last five games are on the road where Washington is 0-5 and where Kirk Cousins has five touchdowns and eight interceptions.

15. Now the good news, Washington: None of the Redskins’ remaining opponents is a winner, with a combined record of 20-35 – including Dallas twice. Better yet, the Giants’ play three winners – including unbeaten Carolina – and have a schedule of opponents that are 33-22.

16. In Tennessee, it’s called a homefield disadvantage.

17. Apparently, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are speaking again.

18. Two words to describe Atlanta’s fading playoff hopes: Fork, please.

19. For those wondering if it’s the scheme or personnel with the Saints’ defense … you now have your answer.

20.I swear, Jim Harbaugh was NOT behind that “Jed and 49ers Should Mutually Part Ways” banner that flew over Levi’s Stadium.

21. Who says there’s no room for defense in the NFL? The Houston Texans allowed two touchdowns in the last 18 quarters and just kept the Saints out of the end zone for the first time under Sean Payton.

22. Sometimes it’s better not to get too cute … and, yes, that message is for Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. Passing on a sure field goal on fourth-and-2 at the Seattle 27 early in the second quarter, he has backup quarterback Landry Jones shift out of field-goal formation and throw a pass … that’s intercepted and returned and that leads to a Seattle touchdown. That’s a 10-point swing in a 9-point defeat, so, yep, that was a gamble not worth taking.

23. Maybe Todd Bowles should air out his team every week. That’s the best the Jets have looked in a long, long time.

24. Demaryius Thomas, report to headquarters. You just lost that Allstate endorsement.

25. The greatest threat to Carolina the rest of the way? Boredom. Though three of their last five games are on the road, only one opponent -- Atlanta -- has a winning record, and the Falcons are rapidly disappearing.


(Philip Rivers photo courtesy of the San Diego Chargers)

San Diego QB Philip Rivers. He not only surpassed 40,000 career yards; he threw for four TDs, passing Joe Montana and Vinny Testaverde for 11th on the all-time touchdowns list, and won his fifth straight over Jacksonville. Rivers is having a big year on a team that is having a miserable one.

Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson. The first back since Week 4, 2014, to rush for 100 yards against Atlanta – the league’s top run defense – he rushes for 158 and two scores to vault Minnesota back into first place in the NFC North.

Seattle QB Russell Wilson/WR Doug Baldwin. Take your pick. On his 27th birthday, Wilson throws for a career-best five TDs – with Baldwin catching three of them. But there’s more. The two hooked up for Seattle’s longest play of the season – an 80-yard score with two minutes left -- to drop the hammer on Pittsburgh.

Kansas City RB Spencer Ware. The Chiefs lose Jamaal Charles. They don’t have backup Charcandrick West. So they suit up this guy for his first NFL start, and this is what happens: Nineteen carries for 114 yards and one TD.

Oakland QB Derek Carr. The Raiders remain in the playoff picture, and this is the reason why. The guy leads the Raiders to another come-from-behind victory, throwing for 330 yards and the winning TD with just over a minute left.

Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger. He throws for 456 yards -- the most surrendered by Seattle, ever-- and loses? We don't make 'em up. Don't blame Big Ben for this loss. The Steelers' defense couldn't hold when it had to, and coach Mike Tomlin took a gamble that backfired big time. But that's not all. Roethlisberger had to leave the game late under the concussion protocol. With him, the Steelers are a serious playoff threat. Without him, forget it.

Denver RB C.J. Anderson. He not only has his best game of the season; he scores twice, including the game winner in overtime, to upset previously unbeaten New England.


(Matt Ryan photo courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)

Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. For the fifth time this season he throws for two or more interceptions – with five the past two weeks. Not good. Worse is the growing number of red-zone turnovers that are crippling the Falcons. He has a league-high four interceptions there, as well as three fumbles, and when you wonder what’s happening with these guys, start there.

N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning. So he threw for 300 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Big deal. He also threw three interceptions, including one in the fourth quarter … and in the end zone … to put the Giants in a 20-0 hole they could not escape. Talk about missed chances. Big Blue could have put some serious distance between them and the rest of the NFC field. And they blew it.

St. Louis QB Nick Foles. The more I watch the quarterbacks for the Rams, the more I wonder why they don’t run Todd Gurley every snap.

Tennessee DB B.W. Webb. His holding call with just under two minutes left not only kept Oakland’s last-gasp series alive; it basically cost the Titans a game. Afterward, Webb said he was innocent. "I personally think it was a terrible call," he said, "but I can't say much about it."

The Pittsburgh defense. Once it was the Steel Curtain. This looked more like the Shower Curtain. Bad tackling + poor coverage = 436 yards and 39 Seattle points in a tough loss. You score 30 on the Seahawks, you expect to win. But not with a defense playing like this.

Referee Pete Morelli. In a year of bad officiating, this was just another sad chapter. Scratch another guy from Super Bowl consideration.


Indianapolis QB Matt Hasselbeck. He’s 40, and he’s 4-0. Simple as that. In fact, he joins Hall-of-Famers Warren Moon and Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to win four straight starts after their 40th birthdays. That has to count for something … and it does.


“Kiss my (bleep).” – St. Louis Rams’ coach Jeff Fisher’s message to anyone who questions his team’s effort.


0-5 – Miami vs. the AFC East

1-3 – Kirk Cousins’ career record vs. the N.Y. Giants

1 -- Brock Osweiler turnover in two starts

5 – Andy Dalton games with three or more TD passes this season

11 – Straight home losses for Tennessee

12 – Tyler Eifert touchdown catches this season

13 – San Francisco penalties for 81 yards

13.5 -- J.J. Watt sack total

19 -- DeSean Jackson career TD catches of 60 or more yards, tied with Hall-of-Famer Lance Alworth

283 -- Alex Smith consecutive passes without an interception

538 -- Pittsburgh yards vs. Seattle


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