Each Monday, Pat Kirwan provides six observations from Sunday's action.
The AFC playoff picture
The AFC playoff picture is clearing up, with all four division leaders heading into the weekend winning again. Houston sits in the top spot but without QB Matt Schaub they are treading on thin ice trying to hold off No. 2 Baltimore and No. 3 New England, who are also at 10-3. Houston has a favorable remaining schedule with home games against Carolina and Tennessee and a road game in Indianapolis, but an earlier loss to the Ravens could come back to haunt them. The Ravens have a big road test next week against the Chargers but should do no worse than the second seed. The Patriots are in great shape to win their division but don't look like they will get any higher than the No. 3 seed. New England came into Week 14 with the worst defense in the NFL and did nothing to convince me they will improve heading down the stretch. If the Patriots "outscore" at least two of their remaining three opponents they'll get the No. 3 seed. The Broncos made a major stride this week to lock up the No. 4 seed with a win over the Bears. Denver hosts the Patriots next week but finishes with a game in Buffalo and a home game with KC. The Steelers sit in the No. 5 spot with a 10-3 record and are a lock to make the playoffs but will probably not catch the Ravens.
The most interesting race is for the No. 6 spot. The Jets hold the last playoff spot for the time being with a one-game lead over the three teams on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, they lost Jim Leonhard this week -- the safety who quarterbacks the secondary for Rex Ryan. New York's next three games are at Philadelphia, home against the Giants and a final game in Miami. Leonhard coordinates the pressure calls and handles the coverage adjustments, meaning the Jets will have to limit some of the things they do on defense. The Jets have the tiebreaker over the Chargers but not the Raiders. Finally, keep an eye on the Bengals, who have the same conference record as the Jets at 6-5. The Jets have gone to the conference championship game the last two years and that experience is money in the bank, which I think should carry New York to the last playoff spot.
16-0, and ...
After watching the Packers and Colts this weekend I'm convinced both are headed toward unblemished records. Green Bay isn't just a powerful offense that creates matchup problems for every opponent, they also have the best point differential in the NFL at an astonishing +188. This week the defense delivered once again, creating five turnovers that resulted in 21 points. Green Bay's defense has now gotten the ball back for the offense 32 times. To give Aaron Rodgers the ball back that many times makes it impossible to beat this team. With only one road game left, it looks like clear sailing for the Pack.
... 0-16 in the same season?
As for the Colts, they never stop competing, which makes it tough to watch them fall to 0-13 on the season. Their next two opponents are in playoff situations and it is quite possible the Colts will end 2011 without a win. I hope I'm wrong about this one.
The bull's-eye on quarterbacks is back
Week 14 looked more like opening week, when teams didn't look prepared to protect their quarterbacks. Thirty-nine quarterbacks played this weekend, which means nine teams went to their backups. There were 89 sacks in 15 games. What impressed me most were three quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger who were each sacked five times yet won their games: T.J. Yates (Houston), Tim Tebow (Denver) and Matthew Stafford (Detroit).
The Bear plan
I can't help but think the Chicago Bears are flirting with disaster and putting their playoff prospects at risk by playing Caleb Hanie at quarterback. In losing its last two games, Chicago has managed just 13 points, converted 2 of 26 third downs and given up 11 sacks. Green Bay is still on the Bears' schedule, too!
Not the same team on the road
The Saints are as dangerous at home as any team in the NFL, averaging 40 points a game while only surrendering seven sacks and three interceptions in six games. In the same number of games on the road, however, the Saints average 26 points and Drew Brees has been sacked 14 times and thrown eight interceptions. It was no surprise, then, that the Saints scored 22 in a close win at Tennessee. What will happen to the Saints when they have to leave home in the playoffs? Right now they are in the No. 3 spot since the 49ers have a better conference record. New Orleans only has one road game left in the regular season to address their issues, but it's against the Vikings and may not be a good indicator of what lies ahead.