The league season is rapidly closing on the playoffs and curiously the AFC has become more muddled with three division leader upsets last week. A look at this coming week -
Bills over Dolphins - The last nine meetings between these two have been a 5-4 split favoring Miami, and the Dolphins in 2013 have taken a major step toward becoming a viable division contender. The Bills have gotten E.J. Manuel back and he showed some good form in a win over the Jaguars last week. Neither offense is all that hot, and it's worth remembering the Dolphins had their hands full with an ostensibly bad Patriots defense last week.
Browns over NY Jets - The NY Jets have become......well, the NY Jets. The Cleveland Browns meanwhile have flat-out found some offense the last three weeks and have been showing the league they're not the pushovers they once were even at 4-10 and with a five-game losing skid.
Panthers over Saints - The Panthers are showing a toughness the Saints don't have and this rematch of the ugly loss two weeks ago gives the Panthers a path to the NFC South title.
Vikings over Bengals - The Vikings took a substantial step in winning without Adrian Peterson last week, and remain eighth in the league in points scored. They take on a Bengals squad that got embarrassed by the Steelers and has given the impression they're not ready for primetime.
Redskins over Cowboys - Kirk Cousins is now the Redskins quarterback and he already is an upgrade over Griffin III and more trustworthy than Tony Romo. It remains baffling that Romo continues getting benefit of the doubt in some circles (notably the CBS Sports webpage) when he doesn't deserve it.
Broncos over Texans
- Houston appears to have given up on the season and the dome in Houston benefits Peyton Manning even though he's lost his last two starts against the Texans.
Chiefs over Colts - The Chiefs remain a stout playoff-bound team while the Colts have been an erratic division champ.
Titans over Jaguars - Their seasons wrap up in two weeks so there's no particular pressure here. The Titans remain a stronger team than the Jaguars, having shown fight some championship teams don't have.
Rams over Buccaneers - The Bucs got beaten the last time they faced Jeff Fisher's Rams and have only one road win on their season. The Rams may be out of the playoffs but they're not out of finishing 8-8, a record they haven't reached since 2006.
Lions over NY Giants - The Monday Night loss did more than drop the Lions out of the division lead - with the Panthers and 49ers unable to finish lower than 10-6 the only chance the Lions now have for the playoffs is the division title at 9-7. They get a break here against a Giants squad that was never in contention from Week One and which is now in their patented Tom Coughlin second half collapse phase of the year.
Cardinals over Seahawks - The myth of Seahawks home invincibility is bound to get punctured at some point as they've been a little shaky at home as the season has gone on. The Cardinals remain in wildcard contention having won six of their last seven games and have scored at least 27 points in all six wins (and even looked respectable in the loss at Philly with a comeback attempt that fell short).
Patriots over Ravens - The rivalry of the AFC right now. The Ravens looked abysmal early in the year and have surged to five wins in their last six games. A surprising number of people are now looking at the Patriots as damaged goods after the loss in Miami, but the reality is the Patriots have played generally better competition than the Ravens, and are generating offense where the Ravens aren't. The win at Detroit was all field goals, the last a quasi-impossible bomb; the Ravens have broken 26 points only four times all season, a point total the Patriots have broken all but once since Week Five. The history of Joe Flacco over the Patriots is well known, but the Patriots are far more battle-tested than the Ravens plus have the motivation of taking on the Ravens in their corner.
There has also been the criticism that the Patriots don't run the ball in the second half of games, as though running five more times in the fourth quarter in Miami than they did was going to go anywhere but force more punts - the fact is no one in the league is winning because of the run. Also worth noting is Stevan Ridley, who is considered in some media circles as the Patriots' best runner, but who has all but played his way out of Foxboro between fumbling, a now-known attitude of defiance of the coaches, and with a lower Yards Per Carry (4.3) than LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Vereen, and a noticeable lack of explosiveness in his last two games as he appears to be thinking instead of running (a result of overcoaching previously seen with the ruination of cornerback Devin McCourty after his 2010 season).
Packers over Steelers - Though Aaron Rodgers is campaigning to become starter again, the fact is Matt Flynn has made the Packers a different team - a team that now can rally to win instead of be frontrunning frauds as they've always been under "Pass The Buck" Rodgers. The erratic nature of the Steelers is too prevalent to trust them to pull off an upset here.
Chargers over Raiders - The Chargers have a slim playoff shot and get a beneficial game against a Raiders team going through yet another failure of a season.
Eagles over Bears - Jay Cutler can pull an Abraham Lincoln yet the end phrase of President Lincoln's famous saying - you can't fool all the people all the time - remains the truth. The Eagles have a division title in their grasp and the Bears are not good enough to stymie them.
49ers over Falcons - It is stunning how far and how fast the Falcons have fallen. The 49ers can realistically lock up a playoff spot on Monday Night.
We thus await Sunday hoping the snowstorms are over.