Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recapping Week 15: AFC Playoff Picture Experiences Shake-up

Heading into this past weekend, the Baltimore Ravens had a perfect shot at proving they belong with the top dogs in the American Football Conference. Taking on Peyton Manning and the then-10-3 Denver Broncos, a banged up Baltimore defense seemed poised for the challenge.

Needing a victory to clinch the AFC North title, Baltimore struggled early and often against Denver's 5th-ranked overall defense. The firing of Cam Cameron as the team's offensive coordinator earlier that week was supposed to fix the offensive problems, promoting Jim Caldwell as the OC and play-caller. With Ray Rice receiving just 12 carries throughout the entire game, Joe Flacco clearly struggled to get anything going.

If Baltimore wants to make it deep into the postseason, they will need to get Rice the ball early and often. I'm talking, 25-30 carries a game. With an All-Pro playmaker at your disposal, it's hard to understand why coach John Harbaugh has not done anything to address this problem yet.

During Baltimore's current 3-game losing streak, Rice has received just 44 carries (average of 14.6 per game) while Flacco has averaged nearly 32 pass attempts during those games. While Flacco's stat line looks near-perfect in the overtime loss to Washington (16/21, 182 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 121.4 rating), in the other two games he completed under 50% of his passes.
The truth is that Flacco has been one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the game this season, and has overthrown more receivers than a fifth-year quarterback should be.

There have been five instances in which Flacco had attempted 40 or more passes and Rice had received under 20 carries (at PHI, vs. CLE, at HOU and vs. DEN) this season, and Baltimore went 1-3 over that span while being outscored 117-76.

Need more proof that Ray Rice needs the ball in his hands more and Flacco should be throwing less often? I have one more vital piece of information for you: On six different occasions this season Joe has completed under 60% of his passes, and BAL's record during those six games is 2-4. Flacco has a combined 6 TDs and 6 INTs. During those two wins the defense surrendered just 19 combined points to the Chiefs (2-12) and the Chargers (5-9).

Hopefully, for Baltimore's sake, Caldwell will come to his senses and get Rice the ball early and often. He will need to in order to break Baltimore's current 3-game losing streak this weekend. All Baltimore needs is a victory over the next two games to clinch the AFC North for the third consecutive season. They did, however, manage to back into the postseason this past Sunday with the Dallas Cowboys' victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime.

In other news...

Houston Captures Second Consecutive AFC South Title

With a 29-17 victory over rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts (9-5), the Houston Texans (12-2) managed to capture its second straight (and second overall) AFC South division title. The victory came in stunning fashion, too, coming off a disappointing 42-14 defeat at the hands of the Patriots (10-4) a week prior, Houston's offense was clicking on all cylinders again.

Arian Foster ran for a season-high 165 yards and quarterback Matt Schaub threw for 261 more. Thanks to 5 total sacks of Luck, the Texans managed to keep its spot as the team with the best record in the AFC. Three of those five sacks were recorded by Defensive Player of the Year favorite J.J. Watt, who managed to tie San Francisco's Aldon Smith for most in the league, with 19.5. With two games to play, both Watt and Smith are just 3.5 sacks away from breaking Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5, set in 2001.
Luckily for the Colts, they still hold the No. 5 seed in the playoff picture and will get another shot at the Texans in a Week 17 showdown at home. This week against the Chiefs the Colts can clinch a Wild Card spot with a win or a Steelers loss to the Bengals.

Houston can clinch a first round bye and the No. 1 seed with a win over Minnesota or Indianapolis.

Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh: Week 16 Game to Watch

Regardless of what happens in the New York/Baltimore game, all eyes will be on Cincy (8-6) and Pittsburgh (7-7) Heinz Field this Sunday. With only three remaining teams that can clinch the final 2 spots in the AFC playoffs, this is the most important game left in the conference this season.

Cincinnati easily handled the Eagles on Thursday night, pulling away with a 34-13 victory and inching one game closer to Baltimore. Pittsburgh missed out on a huge opportunity with an overtime loss to Tony Romo's Dallas Cowboys. But, luckily for a frustrated Ben Roethlisberger, he can still clinch the sixth seed with wins over the Bengals and Browns these last two weeks.

It really will be a must-win game for the Steelers on Sunday. A win, and they control their own destiny Week 17, needing just a win over the Browns (they would hold the tiebreaker over the Bengals). But a loss would mean Cincinnati would clinch a Wild Card spot, and the Colts (whether they win or lose against the Chiefs) would capture the final available playoff spot.
Cincinnati is certainly the dark horse to squeeze into the postseason, despite winning 5 of its last 6 games. The victories over that span have come against just one playoff contender (New York Giants, 31-13). The rest of them: Kansas City (2-12), Oakland (4-10), San Diego (5-9) and Philadelphia (4-10) have a combined 15-41 record in 2012. A last-second loss to the Cowboys (8-6) two weeks ago, 20-19, has proven costly for the Bengals and may be the game everyone looks at if they lose to Pittsburgh on Sunday and miss the postseason.

The Bengals are 5-2 on the road this year, but are on a 5-game skid against the Steelers right now and haven't beat them and haven't beaten them on the road since November 15, 2009. Andy Dalton has improved vastly in his second season under center (62.5 comp %, 26 TDs, 14 INTs, 89.4 rating) and is just 86 passing yards away from surpassing his 3,398 rookie performance, but will need solid protection from his offensive line if he plans on recording his first career victory against Pittsburgh (0-3 all-time).

Establishing the run game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis early and often will be key and will allow Cincinnati to set-up the play-action pass and keep Dalton comfortable under center. Pittsburgh, to make up for its depleted defense, will need to play mistake-free football. That's exactly what they were able to do against Dallas prior to Antonio Brown's fumble on a punt return late in the game. If Brown doesn't fumble, Pittsburgh had a great shot at winning the game without going into overtime.

Must-win for both teams, obviously. But even bigger for Pittsburgh, as a loss will eliminate them from playoff contention.

New York Jets Embarrassed on Monday Night; Eliminated from Playoffs

Thanks to a porous performance from the offense (6-8) against the Tennessee Titans on national television, the Jets were officially eliminated from the AFC playoff picture last night. Both offenses, to tell you the truth, looked horrendous. But luckily for Jake Locker's Titans, Mark Sanchez (54.8 comp %, 2,678 yards, 13 TDs, 17 INTs, 67.9 rating) stole the show.

Sanchez's four interceptions and game-ending fumble with under 30 seconds to play led to a disappointing playoff run and basically a disappointing season. Sanchez, who should have been benched for good after 3rd stringer quarterback Greg McElroy led the Jets to a 7-6 win over Arizona two weeks ago, was finally benched by head coach Rex Ryan earlier today.

McElroy (5/7, 29 yards, 1 TD, 118.5 rating in 1 game this season) will make his first career start against the Chargers on Sunday. Long overdue for the second-year quarterback out of Alabama? Yes, I think so. All of New York would agree––well, half of New York anyways, I'm sure Giants fans love watching Sanchez.
The Jets offense had ample opportunities to put points on the board, as the defense managed to stall the Titans offense plenty of times, sacking Jake Locker four times and forcing 10 Tennessee punts. They even managed to limit them to just 12 first downs and, aside from one mistake that allowed Chris Johnson to run for a 94-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the front 7 limited CJ to just 28 yards on his 20 other rushing attempts. No turnovers were forced, but Tennessee committed 14 penalties for 111 yards, giving New York second chances and stalling offensive drives.

With just over two minutes to play, New York had the ball at Tennessee's 23-yard line (down by four points). Sanchez made the decision to lob a pass over the middle to tight end Jeff Cumberland, in triple coverage, as Tennessee's Michael Griffin picked off Sanchez for the fourth time of the game. It appeared to end the Jets' night, but after three Chris Johnson runs managed just four yards, the Jets had forced a 3 & out and set Sanchez up with 1st and 10 on Tennessee's 25-yard line (punter Brett Kern shanked a punt in his own end zone).

What does Sanchez do with this gift from heaven? Fumbles the snap out of shotgun formation on his first play. Game over.

I'm not even near being a Jets fan and we here at All-Out Blitz have gotten very frustrated watching this offense. Despite all of this guaranteed money Sanchez is due, I wouldn't be surprised if New York's front office somehow tried to dispose of him this offseason. Especially if McElroy is able to get something going in these final two games.

Rant over.

AFC Playoff Scenarios

*Texans clinch home-field advantage throughout playoffs with a win over Minnesota OR Denver and New England both lose.
*Broncos clinch first round bye with win over Cleveland AND Jaguars beat the Patriots.
*Ravens clinch AFC North with win over Giants.
*Colts clinch wild card with win over Kansas City OR Bengals beat Steelers
*Bengals clinch wild card with win over Pittsburgh.
*Steelers clinch wild card with wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Up next...Recapping Week 15: NFC Playoff Race Coming Down to Final 2 Weeks

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