The New York Jets are rolling, the Indianapolis Colts are surging and the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting things done, especially on the road. Each appears headed for the playoffs but none is a certainty, like undefeated Tennessee, which happens to be on the schedule of all three -- the Jets are up first with a Titans clash on Sunday.
The Titans have few flaws, finding ways to win when they're off, and mauling foes when they're not. This time of year, though momentum means everything, and New York and Indianapolis have plenty of it. Their inertia might be forceful enough to get Tennessee in the regular season, but do they have enough to get by the Titans, who are built for postseason play, when it matters most?
A playoff primer with six weeks left in the regular season:
Tennessee (10-0, first AFC South): Tennessee has beaten all comers, but playing to the standard of elevated expectations can drain a team of the mental stamina it takes to win it all. Their 10-game run of success having devolved into maintenance.
Extending its winning streak and all but clinching its division are the least of the gains Tennessee would get from beating the Jets this weekend. The Titans likely would lock up homefield advantage and establish a mental edge over a team it very well could see in the playoffs. While a victory over a team doesn't always provide a boost in the next meeting, the Titans' physical running game and the overwhelming force of their defense and offensive line could plant a seed of doubt -- even fear.
In good standing
N.Y. Jets (7-3, first AFC East): Having won four in a row, and averaging 33.8 points in those games, the Jets are in good position to win the AFC East. Brett Favre seems very comfortable in the offense, even though he's sharpened his craft against some questionable foes lately. While the Jets' running game, behind reliable tailback Thomas Jones, seems the type needed for a late-season playoff push, they may have to rely on Favre and their passing game to experience postseason play.
Four of New York's final six games are against opponents with rush defenses in the top half of the league rankings. Only Buffalo and Tennessee have pass defenses ranking in the top half. Should the Jets make it to the playoffs, Jones is the type of back they can lean on. He improved his yards per carry from a year ago by more than 1½ yards and in three playoff games when he helped Chicago to the Super Bowl in 2006 he rushed for 301 yards.
Pittsburgh (7-3, first AFC North): Pittsburgh has the top defense in the NFL and two legitimate defensive players of the year (James Harrison, Troy Polomalu). They are about to hit a make-or-break stretch that could elevate them to a Super Bowl contender or keep them out of the playoffs altogether.
Following Sunday's game at offensively challenged Cincinnati, the Steelers play New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee -- with only the Cowboys at home. If they come through that run with at least two victories -- and healthy -- Pittsburgh has enough offense and the type of defense to throttle any team in the AFC. Their Dec. 21 game at Tennessee could be colossal.
Indianapolis (6-4, second AFC South): By virtue of their remaining schedule, the Colts should get to 10 victories. A healthy Joseph Addai is huge because there will be times, especially in the postseason, where they will have to run the ball. They aren't going to catch Tennessee in the division unless the Titans totally collapse, but the Colts are in good shape for a wild-card berth because of potentially tie-breaking, head-to-head victories over Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Denver (6-4, first AFC West): The Broncos have shown some serious grit in back-to-back wins over Cleveland and Atlanta and appear to have more weapons and consistency than any other team in the dreadful West. With quarterback Jay Cutler, the playoffs are very much in reach, but holes in so many other areas don't guarantee a berth or a long shelf life should they advance. Their season-finale showdown against the Chargers could be huge.
On a fine line
Miami (6-4, tied for second AFC East): The Wildcats are looking like a wild card. Miami has just two remaining home games, none being more crucial than Sunday's matchup against New England. A Dolphins victory and season sweep, would actually give them a two-game edge over the Patriots (6-4) because of the tie-breaker. Efficient quarterback Chad Pennington, the two-headed tailback tandem of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown and a defense that hasn't allowed more than 19 points in any of its past four games signals Miami could be built for more than just getting into postseason play. From one win in 2007 to possibly at least one win in the playoffs. It could happen.
New England (6-4, tied for second AFC East): Quarterback Matt Cassel is doing more than managing games but the Patriots need to do something they haven't done much this season: Beat playoff caliber teams, starting with the Dolphins. New England doesn't have the most formidable schedule but the failure to beat Miami and Pittsburgh the following week could be too much to overcome.
Baltimore (6-4, second AFC North): If the Ravens get to the playoffs, they will have earned it. No team has a more formidable back stretch. Three upcoming opponents are among the top five in sacks: Philadelphia (1), Pittsburgh (2) and Dallas (5). Rookie Joe Flacco is going to have to be even more special and Baltimore is going to have to find some way to run the ball and manufacture points.
San Diego (4-6, second AFC West): With four of the final six games against Indianapolis, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Denver, there is little reason to believe inconsistent San Diego will get back to the playoffs. Its best shot could come with three straight home games, which could lead it to a do-or-die game against the Broncos.
Buffalo (5-5, fourth AFC East): Quarterback Trent Edwards appears lost, as does Buffalo's once-promising season. Upcoming games against Kansas City and San Francisco seemed like automatic wins a few weeks ago but both of those teams have played with some passion the past few weeks. Losses to all AFC East foes the first go-round make them must-wins in December. That's probably asking too much.