Rather than the traditional Tuesday evening QB post this week, I thought wait until Wednesday and unpack the mess at the back end of the AFC playoff picture. However, before I get there, one other major thing stood out this weekend. The Arizona Cardinals are a sinking ship. After losing starting QB Carson Palmer for the year due to a knee injury, they have lost two straight, Drew Stanton is reminding everyone why he was the backup QB, and the defense suddenly looks average. With four tough opponents remaining, including three division games, this group has a real shot at losing out and becoming the first team ever to start 9-1 and miss the playoffs. I think that’s exactly what will happen. You heard it here first. Elsewhere, there are 6 teams at 7-5 in the AFC. They are fighting for likely one or two playoff spots. I will do a breakdown of each. Note: I have not calculated tie-breaker scenarios.
Buffalo- This group is scrappy, physical, and underrated. Kyle Orton has stabilized the offense and the defense is better than people think. However, the schedule is not kind. Three of their four remaining games are against Denver, Green Bay, and New England. Arguably, the three best teams in football. In short, I like the team, but don’t like their chances.
Cleveland- They are maybe the most interesting team in this mess. They have a major QB decision looming. Brian Hoyer has been dreadful the last few weeks. Calls for high profile backup Johnny Manziel are getting loud, and head coach Mike Pettine said a change was an option he would consider after the loss in Buffalo Sunday. For what it’s worth I’d go with Johnny Football. The schedule is middle of the road in terms of difficulty, the defense is really good, but I can’t trust a team w/ QB issues in a playoff race.
Kansas City- They are my favorite team’s rival, but I really like this team. They are smart, well coached, and physical. However, they have gotten away from their trademark top of the line running game led by Jamal Charles over the last two games. If they get back to that, I like them to finish 10-6 and snag a wildcard.
Miami/Baltimore- I’m doing these two teams together for a very simple reason. They play each other Sunday in what essentially amounts to an elimination game, as it will be very difficult for the loser to find their way into the playoffs. Both teams have good but not great offenses led by Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill. Baltimore has the slightly better offense and Miami the slightly better defense. Both teams are very solid. I like one of them to reach the playoffs. Find out which one when I preview their game as part of Friday’s usual NFL preview post.
Pittsburgh- I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think very highly of the Steelers. I still do. They match up really well with division leading Cincinnati and play twice in four weeks to close the year. I expect two Steeler blowouts in those games. One additional win should be enough to get them in the playoffs, either as a division champ or wildcard. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, not one of these other 7-5 teams can come close to matching that kind of offensive personnel. Barring major injury, they are a lock to reach the playoffs. This big wad of 7-5 teams is a product of the most competitive NFL season in years. Whatever happens down the stretch, it will be fun to watch.