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Race For The Prize

In NFL on December 16, 2009 at 6:14 pm

The AFC playoff race is currently more complicated than a Stephen Hawking treatise, with 12 out of 16 teams still in the shake-up for a post-season spot. Things should look a lot clearer after this weekend though, as all four Divisions could conceivably be tied up and another few teams dropped from the conversation.

The first key game of a potentially classic weekend will see the 13-0 Indianapolis Colts take on the 7-6 Jacksonville Jaguars, who are just about clinging on to the second wild card spot thanks to their conference record. The chasing pack will be desperately hoping the Colts will continue to play their starters as they chase the perfect 16-0 season, and it’s more than likely that they will.

No team wants to lose to a divisional rival, and it’s a bit early in the season to be worrying about the post-season. It’s far more likely that a month of inactivity would be more damaging to Peyton Manning et al than a few bumps and bruises in mid-December.

Having said that, they won’t be risking any borderline injuries, and reports are already emerging that Pro-Bowl defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney may not start. This will give the Jags a big boost, but they will still be underdogs on Thursday night, and have an uphill battle to reach the playoffs.

Lying 2nd in the AFC race at 10-3, the San Diego Chargers are on a tear, with eight wins in a row. They badly need a win against the 9-4 Bengals on Sunday night if they want to secure home advantage for their Divisional play-off game though, as a win for the Bengals would put them into 2nd by virtue of their Northern sweep.

Coming off a disappointing collapse against the vengeful Vikings last week, the Cincinnati Bengals will probably have to wait until next week’s game in Kansas to clinch the AFC North, and a likely loss in San Diego could leave them looking over their shoulder as they stretch to hang on to their 3rd seed.

The Chargers haven’t sewn up the AFC West yet either, although the Denver Broncos will probably need to win out to snatch that title. That’s unlikely, but with winnable games against the Raiders and Chiefs coming up, they look a lock for the 1st wildcard berth.

The New England Patriots have struggled to a disappointing 8-5 this season, but with a game against Buffalo this weekend followed by match-ups with the Jaguars and Texans, they could very well finish the season with 11 wins. That could be enough to dislodge the Bengals in the 3rd seed, but the Pats have more pressing concerns.

They haven’t wrapped up their post-season spot yet, and can’t afford to lose concentration as they struggle to keep their noses in front of AFC South rivals the New York Jets and the Dolphins. The Jets should notch a win in the Meadowlands against the slumping Falcons this weekend, who need to win out to stay alive in the NFC.

But the Miami Dolphins have an altogether tougher assignment in Tennessee. The pressure is on them to win their final three games, and with the inexperienced Chad Henne under centre, the pressure will be on. A win in Tennessee is a big ask, and things don’t get any easier for them after that, with two awkward games against the dangerous Texans and an angry Steelers squad.

After a disastrous 0-6 start with Kerry Collins at the helm, the Tennessee Titans have had a revolution with Vince Young driving the offense. The Youngster has dragged them back into contention at 6-7, and they will be desperate to even up their record and stay in the playoff hunt. The bad news for them is that Collins may be back at quarterback this weekend after Young limped off in their rout of the Rams last week, but with running back Chris Johnson still moving mountains, they’ll fancy their chances against Miami. Having said that, it will be a bona fide miracle if they secure a wild card.

One other team on 7-6 has an excellent chance though, and that’s the hard-nosed Baltimore Ravens. With games against Chicago and Oakland still to come, they have a great chance of reaching 10 wins. But their season could hinge on next week’s collision with arch-rivals the Steelers. Should Baltimore take care of the Bears this Sunday, as they should, that match-up could be even more X-rated than usual.

As for the Pittsburgh Steelers, they can’t realistically hope to be anything more than spoilers. Last year’s champs have gone on a dismal run of five losses, which has seen them sink to 6-7 and almost out of contention. Injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and some shocking defensive lapses have left the once-mighty Pittsburgh praying for divine intervention. With their ugly conference and divisional records though, they’re not gonna get it, as those twin anchors will keep them rooted to the regular season.

The final team in the race are the Houston Texans, who are in the same boat as the Titans and Steelers on 6-7. They should get a 7th win against the woeful Rams this weekend, but an unkind schedule sees them facing tough tussles with the Dolphins and Patriots in the final two weeks. They probably won’t win both of those, so they can be all but counted out.

AFC Playoff Picture

Division Leaders:

Indianapolis Colts                13-0 (5-0 Div, 9-0 Con)

San Diego Chargers              10-3 (5-1 Div, 7-3 Con)

Cincinnati Bengals                9-4 (6-0 Div, 6-3 Con)

New England Patriots          8-5 (3-2 Div, 5-4 Con)

Wild Cards:

Denver Broncos                     8-5 (3-1 Div, 6-4 Con)

Jacksonville Jaguars             7-6 (3-2 Div, 6-3 Con)

Still Alive:

Baltimore Ravens                  7-6 (3-2 Div, 6-4 Con)

Miami Dolphins                     7-6 (4-3 Div, 5-4 Con)

New York Jets                        7-6 (2-4 Div, 5-5 Con)

All But Done:

Pittsburgh Steelers               6-7 (1-4 Div, 4-6 Con)

Tennessee Titans                  6-7 (2-4 Div, 3-7 Con)

Houston Texans                    6-7 (1-5 Div, 3-7 Con)

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