November is the time in the NFL where we separate contenders from pretenders. Last week, I focused on the NFC; this week, I’ll turn to the AFC. Unfortunately, the Colts and Steelers didn’t play on Sunday, and the Texans Sunday Night game was played in weather conditions that affected the game (and the gameplan) 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 slow starts is about the only fault I can find with this team right now.
We already know how good Denver’s offense can be, and they score touchdowns : 22 TD's 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; a unit that has stepped up at times and gotten torched many other times.
What does this defense do well? First, they make 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 quarterback – Von Miller was an absolute beast in this ballgame, but 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.
I felt completely schizophrenic writing about Chargers QB Philip Rivers, a mystifying presence on the field these days. Rivers was brilliant in this ballgame, leading the team on three 80 yard touchdown drives before halftime. After going 18-20 passing against the Chiefs last Thursday, Rivers only threw two incomplete passes before halftime here, 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 too.
Yet for every good thing I wrote about Rivers, there was the flip side of the coin – when Rivers makes mistakes, he makes huge mistakes, like his careless pick six that was the difference in the ballgame. Brilliance alternating with incompetence is no recipe for winning a Super Bowl.
The Chargers defense dominated a good portion of this game. But once again, the running game sputtered -- Ryan Matthews 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 for this organization since he's been here. Another bad miscue -- this time a blocked punt returned for a touchdown -- turned the momentum of this game. When that was followed by Rivers pick six, it was lights out for San Diego today… and probably for their season as well.
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 blitzing today, 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 and making both yards and points very difficult to come by. However, Miami’s defense was not effective in the red zone today, giving up fairly easy TD's on each of the Titans first two possessions.
This offense is a long way from being 'playoff' caliber on a weekly basis. Ryan Tannehill has had some great games this year, but he's had some real clunkers too. One thing is for certain -- if this team 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' type team like Detroit or Denver.
The weakness of this receiving corps was on full display today – Tannehill didn’t complete a pass longer than 17 yards all afternoon. This offense sure could use a deep threat playmaker -- you know, like Brandon Marshall who they dumped this past offseason.
This offense is pretty close to being 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 frankly, 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 they've got Stephen Ridley and the running game working too. 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. This stat probably sums it up best – New England’s offense has only eight 'three and out's' all year (only one today), by far the best in the NFL.
But the Pats postseason success is going to rest on the shoulders of their defense; an inconsistent unit once again this year. They were certainly not at their best today -- Belichick was so disgusted 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.
This defensive line got abused today, completely unable to control the line of scrimmage. I’ll give them credit for forcing a pair of red zone turnovers with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. But 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 when they play 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.
The results don't lie -- look at these point totals: 44, 31, 23, 31 and 55 at home this year, compared to 23, 9, 13 and 25 in their 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 after playing a whopping eight road playoff games compared to only one home playoff game over the past four seasons.
But 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. Here against Oakland, they got pressure on Carson Palmer consistently, created turnovers, stuffed the run and with the exception of a missed tackle on a Raiders long TD pass, were fundamentally sound all afternoon.