All four AFC division titles are decided but seven teams remain in the hunt for the final two play-off spots.
Seven into two will not go
All four AFC division titles are decided but seven teams remain in the hunt for the final two play-off spots, which means the regular season's final day should be a wacky and angst-filled one. The defending Super Bowl champions the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) no longer control their future and must beat the Miami Dolphins (7-8) to have any hope. A five-game losing run at mid-season all but killed the Steelers but they have won two consecutive games to get back into the hunt.
To clinch a wild-cards spot they must win but also need others to lose. Bad as that is, the Dolphins are in worse shape, needing a win and four other teams to lose to reach the play-offs. While Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley tried to say opponents are afraid of the Steelers and might lie down to prevent them reaching the post-season, his teammate Ryan Clark said: "If it were last year, yeah, they probably wouldn't want to play us but this year's team I don't think strikes fear in anyone."
Pittsburgh's defence has collapsed since the loss of Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, allowing 23.8 points and 242.3 passing yards a game since his injury. He is not expected to play against Miami quarterback Chad Henne, who is averaging 306.5 passing yards a game the past four weeks. If Miami win it would be the third time the Steelers failed to make the play-offs a year after winning the Super Bowl (1980, 2006).
The Baltimore Ravens (8-7) have a much easier road: beat the Oakland Raiders (5-10) and they are in the play-offs. They could still make it with a loss but it would take so many permutations not even they know how it would work. One thing they do know is they cannot repeat the 11 penalties that cost them 113 yards, two touchdowns and a chance to clinch that spot a week ago in a 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh.
The collapsing Denver Broncos (8-7) started off 6-0 and then fell apart. Even a win over the Kansas City Chiefs (3-12) is not enough to get them into the play-offs, because if the New York Jets (8-7) defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) and the Ravens win then they are out. Denver once held a three-and-a-half-game division lead but blew it by losing seven of their last nine, including the last three in a row.
That left them with 10 different ways to make the play-offs but none as simple as just beating the Chiefs. Denver have been unable to run the ball effectively during their slide, putting too much pressure on quarterback Kyle Orton and a defence that could not hold up under the strain. The Chiefs have lost five in a row and would seem to be no problem. The problems come from needing help from others to get in.
The Houston Texans (8-7) could aid the Broncos if they upset the New England Patriots (10-5). Denver then would need only one of three teams to lose in addition to a victory, but that may not be as easy as it sounds because the AFC East champions are 1-5 on the road and want to prove they can still win away from home. Doing it against an explosive pass offence like Houston's would go a long way towards giving confidence back to a Patriots' pass defence that was shelled by Indianapolis, New Orleans and Miami before several personnel changes were made.
The Texans are the first real test of those changes so if they stop league-leading wide receiver Andre Johnson and league-leading passer Matt Schaub, then the Patriots would have set the right tone entering the play-offs next weekend. Houston need help to reach the play-offs for the first time, but even if it does not get there, a win would give it the first winning season in the franchise's eight-year history and something to build on for 2010. They will be playing all out. Whether the Patriots do is another matter that matters to a lot of other teams. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org