The AFC play-off picture should clear up considerably this weekend, unless the teams in control fumble the ball.
Do-or-die day for Steelers
The AFC play-off picture should clear up considerably this weekend, unless the teams in control fumble the ball. That is the kind of season it has been though, to the point where even the once-defeated New Orleans Saints and highly regarded Minnesota Vikings are showing some vulnerabilities, while the once Cinderella-like Denver Broncos have begun to look like the glass slipper has been shattered.
The Baltimore Ravens (8-6) can finish off the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) with a win on the road tomorrow. A year ago the two were playing for the AFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl. The stakes are lower this time, but the Ravens know all they have to do is win to assure a post- season slot. The defending Super Bowl champions are in a far different situation. They are one of five AFC teams at 7-7 and will need help to make the post-season.
"We still have a pulse," said their head coach Mike Tomlin after the remarkable 37-36 win over Green Bay last weekend. True, but not if they allow the Ravens to get after Ben Roethlisberger, the league's most sacked quarterback. He is coming off throwing for a franchise record 503 yards against the Packers and may have to duplicate that to keep up with Baltimore's suddenly rejuvenated offence. The Ravens' quarterback, Joe Flacco, seems settled down after a shaky stretch of games and he is facing a defence who have allowed 121 fourth-quarter points, second highest in the NFL.
The Steelers' defensive problems are exacerbated by the continued absence of five-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who will miss his sixth consecutive game. In the three games Polamalu has started they are 3-0. Without him they are 4-7. This game may ultimately be decided by which offence makes the fewer mistakes. Historically that has been the Steelers, who are 8-2 against Baltimore at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001.
But past performance is no guarantee of future returns, and at this stage of things the Steelers' future seems bleaker than the Ravens. The New England Patriots (9-5) have struggled this season but can clinch the AFC East title with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-7). Jacksonville desperately need to upset them, but they have one of the league's least potent pass rushes and a weak secondary, two things that should allow the Patriots' quarterback, Tom Brady, to look better than he has recently.
Brady is battling nagging injuries and his normally accurate passing has suffered as his line has failed to provide him with consistent protection. Despite those issues New England hope to win unless their suspect defence cannot stop the powerful running back Maurice Jones-Drew and the scrambling David Garrard, who has the fewest TD passes among starting quarterbacks (13) but the second most rushing yards (273).
The Broncos (8-6) face a tough task keeping their play-off hopes alive against the Philadelphia Eagles (10-4). Although Philadelphia are assured of a play-off slot they want to keep their one-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. To do it, Philadelphia must run the ball effectively enough to open play-action passes for quarterback Donovan McNabb that will slow down Denver's pass rush. Defensively the Eagles want to force Denver into a one-dimensional passing game.
The scrappy Miami Dolphins (7-7) still have a play-off chance but face a difficult task in the Houston Texans (7-7) a game in which the loser will be eliminated. For Miami to avoid that fate they must stop the Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who has thrown for 4,181 yards, and receiver Andre Johnson, who leads the NFL with 1,433 yards, and avoid the kind of repeated turnovers that plagued them in an overtime loss to Tennessee last Sunday.
The New York Jets (7-7) need a lot of help and hope to get it from the undefeated Indianapolis Colts (14-0). There has been talk the Colts may rest some starters. The Jets' head coach Rex Ryan said that was a good idea. It is not and they will not. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org