Listen up AFC South teams—–Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1990, 20 clubs with a losing record after nine games have made the playoffs. Most recently, in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles (4-5) and San Diego Chargers (4-5) both had losing records through nine games before advancing to the postseason. However, in the ultra-balanced and parity laden NFL this season, possessing a losing or even .500 record heading into Week 11 may already spell doom for some teams.
In the AFC, eight teams have at least six wins, with 11 total teams having at least five or more. Over in the NFC, the craziness continues as eight teams have five or more victories on the season. While it’s such an overstated phrase, if the season were to end following Week 10, the 6-3 Green Packers and the 5-4 San Francisco 49ers would both be watching the playoffs from home while the 4-5 New Orleans Saints march to playoffs as NFC South champs.
That’s not even the half of it. Consider that the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals host the 7-2 Detroit Lions today for the right to see which team reigns supreme in the NFC and to say that parity is in full effect is severely understating the situation. This season marks the first time the Cardinals have owned the best record in the NFL after nine games since 1966, when they started 7-1-1 and the Lions are off to their best start since 1993.
Thursday’s primetime game took place in Miami where the Dolphins got the better of Buffalo Bills. Trailing 9-3 late in the third quarter, Fins QB Ryan Tannehill rallied his team, outscoring its AFC East rival 19-0 over the final 18 minutes, as Miami rallied for the 22-9 win. The Dolphins improved to 6-4, their best record after 10 games since 2008. Thursday’s game also marked the first time both clubs have met this late in a season with winning records since 2000. All the Dolphins did with their victory was create even more confusion in the AFC playoff picture, where nothing has been decided and nothing is as it appears to be.
Last year, the Seattle Seahawks proved once again that great defenses beat great offenses in the Super Bowl. The Legion of Boom lowered the boom and stymied the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning during the Seahawks 43-8 win. The victory was the fourth in the past five matchups that the top scoring defense beat the top scoring offense. It was the second Super Bowl since the merger featuring the No. 1 total offense (yards gained) versus the No. 1 total defense (yards allowed). The defense dominated on both occasions as the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneer and 2013 Seahawks won their Super Bowls by a combined score of 91-29 over the Oakland Raiders and Broncos. Super Bowl XLVIII also marked the 19th time that a regular-season offensive scoring champ had reached the Super Bowl. Denver’s loss dropped those teams to 10-9 in the big game while it was the 16th time that the defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL made the Super Bowl since the merger. The Hawks improved that record to 13-3.
I only bring that up because during the regular season, offenses and quarterbacks get the headlines and reign supreme—2014 is no exception. Heading into today’s games, (not counting Thursday night’s contest) teams have combined for 6,862 points this season, the most points through 10 weeks in NFL history. The previous high was 6,836, which was set last season. Teams have also combined to score 781 touchdowns and have thrown 499 touchdown passes, both of which are the most ever through Week 10. The previous highs were 762 TDs and 462 TD passes—again, set last season. The biggest passing contributor from the AFC South is Colts QB, Andrew Luck. So far this season, Luck leads the league in passing yards and is second in touchdowns. He is on pace to break Peyton Manning’s record of 5,477 passing yards.
The AFC South doesn’t have to worry about defense reining supreme this season. The highest ranked defense in the division heading into Week 11 is the Indianapolis Colts, who rank No.18. In terms of the divisional power index across the league this year, the AFC South has not scared very many teams in or out of the conference. The Division has 13 wins in 2014 with six of them coming off the arm of Andrew Luck and the Colts. Aside from the Colts being ranked first in total offense, the division hasn’t been able to do much there this season as well. The Texans, who are replacing starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick with from Arkansas signal caller Ryan Mallet, rank as the next highest team in the division at No.16. The Titans and Jags, who both have rookie signal callers leading the way are 31st and 28th respectively in total offense.
Here is a preview of today’s AFC South’s match-ups and what to watch for:
GAME OF THE WEEK AFC SOUTH:
NEW ENGLAND (7-2) at INDIANAPOLIS (6-3)
8:30 p.m., NBC
Opening line: Colts by 2 ½, Series record: Patriots lead 48-29
Last meeting: Patriots won 43-22, Jan. 11, 2014
Last week: Patriots had bye, beat Broncos 43-21, Nov. 2; Colts had bye, beat Giants 40-24, Nov. 3
The Colts enter tonight’s contest looking to end their miserable recent play against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. However, the Patriots are the hottest team in the league when you look at all facets of the game. Since their Monday drubbing in Kansas City, the Pats have won five in a row and are scoring 40.2 points per contest. One more win will assure Pats of a 14th consecutive non-losing record, which is the longest active streak. Only two other coaches have accomplished the feat, Tom Landry (20) and Curly Lambeau (14). Winning 38 of 52 games since 2001, the Patriots own the NFL’s best record in the month of November. Tom Brady has been white hot during the five game run. Brady has 16 TD passes in his last four games, while the Pats have 23 TDs over their last seven — all but one on a Brady scoring pass. Brady’s 0.9 season INT rate is No. 1. The healthy return of TE Rob Gronkowski has been a big reason for the success. Gronk has 36 catches for 516 yards and five TDs in that span. Tom Brady’s next 300-yard game will break tie with Brett Favre for No. 4 on NFL’s career list and tie Dan Marino (63) for third.
Speaking of 300 yard games, Colts QB, Andrew Luck has topped 300 yards in seven straight contests. Luck leads the NFL in passing yards, is second in touchdowns and has won six of his past seven games. During this span, Luck has 21 TDs, six INTs, an average of 363.3 yards and a 104.5 rating. However, he has struggled mightily in his matchups vs. New England. Including the playoffs, Luck is 0-2 vs the Pats and has tossed seven interceptions.
Key to the Game:
Somehow slow Rob Gronkowski—-The Colts simply so not have the personnel to slow the big man. At 6-foot-6, and 265 pounds he is too quick for most linebackers and too strong for safeties. He had seven catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns the last time he faced the Colts in 2012. Indy has already been beaten like a drum vs some of the league’s top TE’s this season. It started in the preseason with New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. It carried into the regular season with Denver’s Julius Thomas in Week 1. Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz in Week 2. Baltimore’s Owen Daniels in Week 5. Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller in Week 8. Indianapolis has been using linebackers on tight ends with little success this season. In their three losses, the Colts gave up a combined 14 catches for 302 yards and four touchdowns to Thomas, Ertz and Miller. The enforced illegal contact rule outside of the five yards from the line of scrimmage makes it even tougher on the defense. The Colts may want to try to use safety LaRon Landry on him. Landry returns from a PED suspension but will not start, However, if you have seen his recent pictures, he appears to have the strength to handle the match-up.
Turnovers—The Colts have turned the ball over nine more times than the Patriots have, by a tally of 15-6. While the Patriots rank first in the NFL in that category, the Colts rank 21. The two teams have combined to force 33 turnovers, protecting the ball is paramount tonight when it’s likely that scoring drives could last two to three minutes. One turnover could lead to a 14-point swing in the blink of an eye.
Be Who You Are—The Colts success comes from putting the ball in the air–so does the Patriots. The Colts have the first ranked offense and passing attack while the Pats are eighth and ninth respectively. The Colts are averaging nearly 74 more passing yards a game than they are allowing, while the Patriots have thrown for 31 more yards than their opponents. If either team deviates from what’s made them successful in 2014, it could spell doom in the dome tonight.
Tonight could truly be the coming out party of Colts QB Andrew Luck. It’s not that Luck isn’t already recognized as one of the elite QB’s in the game but he hasn’t’ really taken down the big name QB’s in the big games yet. The Colts No.1 ranked offense has the fire power to stay with Brady and Gronk. But in the end, when working with an extra week it’s awfully tough to pick against Bill Belichick, especially when you consider he lost on Monday night last year in Charlotte after the bye week dropping his record to 10-4 following a week off. Belichick’s never lost two years in a row following a bye week and even though the Colts are also coming off a bye, the Pats are the hotter team with the better secondary. CB Darrelle Revis was signed for games like this and could be the difference maker for New England and their 14th ranked pass defense tonight. Indy ranks 28 out of 32 teams stopping the pass—–take the points and the Patriots….New England 44 Indianapolis 38
Other AFC South Matchups:
HOUSTON (4-5) at CLEVELAND (6-3) 1 p.m., CBS
Opening line: Browns by 3
Series record: Texans lead 4-3
Last meeting: Texans won 30-12, Nov. 6, 2011
Last week: Texans had bye, lost to Eagles 31-21, Nov. 2; Browns beat Bengals 24-3
During bye week, Texans coach Bill O’Brien benched QB Ryan Fitzpatrick for Ryan Mallett, who will make first career start. Mallett has appeared in five games during his career and attempted just four passes, completing one. He becomes the 10th QB to start a game in Texans franchise history. It’s easy to see why the move was made, despite having shown marked improvement over last year’s 2-14 team, Houston has lost four of their last five games. Texans RB Arian Foster, who is second in the NFL in rushing yards with 822 and second in the league with 10 TDs is out of today’s game with a groin injury. This will be the second game Foster will miss this season. He missed the Texans’ Week 3 loss to the New York Giants with a hamstring injury. Rookie Alfred Blue will start in Foster’s place today against Cleveland.
Houston’s defensive stud DE J.J. Watt has 8 1-2 sacks and leads the league with 29 quarterback hits but the Texans defense isn’t what it has been over the last few years. Ranked 28th overall and 29th vs. the pass, the Texans may struggle against Browns QB Brian Hoyer, who is starting to settle into a veteran like rhythm with a few of his offensive weapons. The Browns have won more games this season than they have in any of the previous six seasons, and they enter this game in first place this late in the season for the first time since 1994. Former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel continues to sit and watch as Brian Hoyer moved his record to 9-3 as the starter for Browns with an impressive win at Cincinnati 10 days ago. Hoyer is 7-1 at home during that span. The defense stunk for the first month but has come on strong under the leadership of Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger and Donte Whitner. They rank 28th vs the run but will not have to face Arian Foster today. CB Joe Haden’s 77 passes defensed since 2010 lead the league while the Browns 13 INTs in 2014 are second most in the NFL through 10 weeks
This is a game that the Browns would surely have found a way to lose since returning to the league. However, look for head coach Mike Pettine to have his guys ready to play four quarters of football vs a team they are better than and should beat—even on the road. It’s hard to take Houston seriously with Mallet at QB and no Foster today, Cleveland should control this game from start to finish- Browns 30 Texans 17
PITTSBURGH (6-4) at TENNESSEE (2-7)
Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN, Opening line: Steelers by 5 1/2
Series record: Steelers lead 44-32
Last meeting: Titans won 16-9, Sept. 8, 2013
Last week: Steelers lost to Jets 20-13; Titans lost to Ravens 21-7
The offensive wizardry of Ken Whisenhunt is not working in Nashville and Monday night could be even tougher if the Titans have to play without TE Delanie Walker. Last week in Baltimore, with about two minutes left in the first half, Ravens rookie safety Terrence Brooks leveled Walker by putting his right shoulder into him and causing Walker to land on his back without the ball. It knocked the Titans’ leading receiver out of the game with a concussion, and it also took out the Titans offense. Before the hit Titans rookie QB Zach Mettenberger was 11-of-16 (68.7 percent) for 116 yards and one touchdown. His passer rating was 110.4. After the hit, he was 5-of-11 (45.4 percent) for 63 yards and one interception. His rating was 25.9. Five of the Tians seven losses this season have been by double digits, as they have struggled mightily on both sides of the ball. The Titans offense is next to last in the league in total yards per game and 22nd on defense. They are 29th at stopping the run. Mettenberger threw for 299 yards and 93.4 passer rating in only home start Oct. 26 vs. Houston. The Titans are indeed looking towards the future. In last week’s loss, Whisenhunt started eight of the Titans last 14 draft picks vs the Ravens.
The Steelers enter the contest coming off their second embarrassing loss of the season. Earlier this season, Pittsburgh became they only team this season to lose to the Buccaneers and last week, dropped an uninspired effort to the one win NY Jets. After tossing 12 TD’s with no interceptions in wins over the Colts and Ravens, Steelers QB Big Ben Roethlisberger was picked off twice by Jets safety Jaiquan Jarrett and as result, Pittsburgh fell 20-13 in East Rutherford New Jersey. Roethlisberger is 3-3 against Titans as starter and has thrown for 1,692 yards with 12 TDs and seven interceptions for 99.4 passer rating in those games. The Steelers are 40-5 when Roethlisberger’s passer rating is 110 or higher. WR Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 1,070 yards receiving and has five or more catches and 50 yards or more receiving in 26 straight games, the longest streak in NFL history.
QB Zach Mettenberger is trying to become first rookie to win as starter for Titans since Vince Young did so in 2006. Dating to 2002, the Steelers have lost four of their last five trips to Tennessee, fitting in with the theme of their 2-3 road record and 4-1 record at home this season. However, this one has all the makings of a Steelers blowout road win. With their loss to the Jets last week, it’s hard to imagine head coach Mike Tomlin accepting anything other than perfect practices this week. The Steelers are very much in the hunt for the AFC North title and with the division so close, can ill afford a loss in the conference. It won’t happen, not on Monday Night Football in front of the world to see—will it? Pittsburgh 30 Titans 14
Bye Week Team(s)
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a bye this week but enter the week off on unfortunate familiar ground. Following their 31-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on the pitch across the pond, the Jags dropped to 1-9 this season. In doing so, Jacksonville became the first team in NFL history to lose at least nine of its first 10 games in three consecutive seasons. However, head coach Gus Bradley continues to remain optimistic.
Jags at the Bye:
QB Blake Bortles leads NFL rookies with 1,921 passing yards and has eight touchdown passes. He aims to surpass Byron Leftwich’s club rookie passing records (2,819 yards and 14 touchdown passes in 2003) and has also been an effective runner, posting 204 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.0 average).
After totaling 31 sacks all of last season, the Jaguars have 27 sacks already this season, tied for 3rd-most in the NFL. However, they’ve been on the field for the 2nd-most snaps this season (618).
So far this season, the Jaguars offense has committed 22 turnovers while scoring only 18 touchdowns. Last season, they finished with 27 and 23 respectively and 26 and 25 the year before. If the Jaguars are going to get better, this is one stat that simply must stop heading in the opposite direction.
Up next for the Jags is a trip to Indianapolis to play the Colts. Jacksonville has dropped four straight vs the reigning AFC South champs.