Analysis  

 

Jets, Chargers, Titans among AFC teams vying for wild-card spot

My head is pounding. It's throbbing, actually. Why, you ask? As we embark on the second half of the season, riddle me this: Who is going to grab the sixth playoff spot in the AFC?

At this point, we can practically hand the first five berths to the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals. But which of the flawed teams in the muddled remainder will join them?

The playoff picture
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Perhaps the worst thing you can write or say when making your living as I do -- the business of giving strong and educated opinions -- is this: I don't know.

Sure, I have a take. But really, I don't know. I don't know who to trust and who to believe in when it comes to the edges of this playoff picture.

Consider that if the season ended today, the New York Jets would be a playoff team -- just like we all predicted in the preseason.

Actually, if I had a preseason power ranking, I would've ranked the Jets 32nd out of the 32 teams in the NFL. But now there are reasons to believe in the Jets making the playoffs.

Did I just write that?

Truth be told, I'm incredibly impressed with the Jets' intensity and what they've achieved this season. Before the draft, I wrote a column championing eventual second-round pick Geno Smith as a franchise quarterback. Since then, he's been brilliant in Jets wins (in which he's thrown seven touchdown passes against just four picks) -- and horrific in Jets losses (one scoring pass and nine interceptions). In a related story, New York is 5-4, fresh off a stunning and spectacular 26-20 upset of the juggernaut New Orleans Saints.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New York Jets' 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints from Week 9 on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

Perhaps no team defines the unpredictable and volatile nature of the 2013 NFL season better than the Jets, who have alternated wins and losses for nine consecutive games to begin the year, tying an NFL record. In some games, New York seems to have a pop-gun offense and a talent deficiency; in others, Gang Green looks like a squad that can do damage in the postseason.

The Jets' most recent three-game stretch was supposed to doom both their season and coach Rex Ryan. Instead, New York beat the Saints and the New England Patriots. Why bother playing the "predict the schedule" game with this team? After a Week 10 bye, the Jets visit the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens. What will those games count as? Two wins? Two losses? After that comes two home games against the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. And finally, New York closes out the regular season against three opponents with solid defenses: the Carolina Panthers (on the road), Cleveland Browns (at home) and Dolphins (road) once more.

The Jets have a fantastic defensive line and they play with confidence, for which Ryan deserves credit. Led by Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Smith, this team has a chance -- especially if offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg continues to take the pressure off Smith by running the ball with Chris Ivory, who gained 139 yards and scored a touchdown on 18 carries against New Orleans on Sunday. That's as big a key as any, though evening out the home-away turnover gap -- the Jets have four picks and 21 sacks at home and just one pick and six sacks on the road -- also should be a priority. And as stout as that D-line is, the defensive backfield has been shaky. Did Sunday's performance -- in which the defense notched two interceptions in one game for the first time all year while holding Drew Brees to a passer rating of 64.4 in the fourth quarter -- mark a turning point?

I thought the San Diego Chargers, who sit a half-game behind New York in the race for the final wild-card spot, had a great chance to grab ahold of "The Chase for No. 6" -- until Sunday.

I was starting to believe in this team ... and then coach Mike McCoy went all Norv Turner on us after Danny Woodhead's touchdown was rightly overturned late in the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins, setting up a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. What ensued was totally illogical. No Ryan Mathews? No QB sneak? It was bizarre. It was bad. It was a wasted opportunity to notch a comeback win.

Instead, the Chargers settled for a game-tying field goal -- and went on to lose 30-24 in overtime, dropping to 4-4. It was a huge defeat, the third San Diego loss this season to be decided in the final 15 seconds. That's a startling and alarming stat.

The Chargers host the Broncos next week before facing the Dolphins and Chiefs on the road. The Bolts' December schedule includes four home games (against the Bengals, Giants, Raiders and Chiefs) sandwiched around a trip to Denver. I count four wins and four losses, if I dare to play this zany game.

Philip Rivers can beat anyone, having enjoyed a resurgence under McCoy. San Diego's defense is superbly coached by coordinator John Pagano, though injuries to Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram have sapped the unit of talent. The defense was brilliant in the Week 6 win over Indy, not so much against the Redskins.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Washington Redskins' 30-24 win over the San Diego Chargers from Week 9 on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

If the wheel stops spinning and the Chargers miss out, Sunday's defeat in Washington will not be forgotten. But from here on out, Rivers -- who has a great completion percentage (72.2), a budding rapport with rookie receiver Keenan Allen, and four 300-yard passing games under his belt this season -- gives them a chance.

OK, so the Jets and Chargers are flawed. How about the 4-4 Tennessee Titans?

Chris Johnson finally ran like an elite back (23 carries, 150 yards and his first two rushing touchdowns of the season) in Tennessee's gigantic 28-21 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. That's a major development for a Titans team that has been solid in 2013.

Coach Mike Munchak has done a great job. Quarterback Jake Locker, now healthy, has improved significantly from 2012. Looking ahead, the Titans have the luxury of facing the Jacksonville Jaguars twice in the second half -- that's two wins right there. On the flip side, of course, Tennessee has yet to face the Colts and still must travel to Denver. Games against Oakland, Arizona and Houston will be pendulum-swingers.

Ultimately, I think Tennessee will fall just short of nine wins. But the Titans' solid pass rush must be acknowledged, along with the fact that, if Johnson can keep running like this, they have a chance.

The 4-4 Dolphins are coming off a huge, 22-20 OT victory over the Bengals, but they also are dealing with a major distraction in the wake of Jonathan Martin's departure and Richie Incognito's suspension amid allegations that Martin was mistreated by teammates. Miami is fortunate to be facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week.

I'm a fan of Ryan Tannehill, but I don't think Miami is consistent enough offensively to be taken too seriously. Still, that defense can change a game.

You see why my head hurts?

What about the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who are 1½ games behind the Jets at 3-5? They have no identity. They are a subpar team falling below their previously unacceptable state of mediocrity. Behind a bad offensive line (the Ravens have allowed 25 sacks, tied for 11th-most in the NFL), Ray Rice (who has just 259 rushing yards this season) and Joe Flacco (who has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:9) have become true non-factors. The Ravens' defense doesn't change games. Baltimore has lost four of its past five games -- including Sunday's 24-18 defeat to the Cleveland Browns.

Oh, hey -- the Cleveland Browns!

Excuse me ... Oh, hey -- the 4-5 Cleveland Browns!

Yes, the Browns just beat the Ravens in Cleveland -- with Jason Campbell at the helm. I'm sans speech.


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Cleveland, which is one game behind New York, has a very strong defense and winnable matchups ahead, including one against the Jags and two with the Steelers (deal with it, Pittsburgh -- Cleveland is better). If Brian Hoyer was healthy, we could have had a conversation about Cleveland's playoff chances, but Campbell can't lead you to the promised land -- or can he?

Either way, make no mistake: Rob Chudzinski has energized the Browns, who have played really well since trading away Trent Richardson in September -- the point at which many observers (myself included) left them for dead.

And then there are the Buffalo Bills.

Really.

Buffalo is two games behind New York in the wild-card race at 3-6. On Sunday, the Bills were in prime position to hand the Chiefs their first loss of the season -- if only backup quarterback Jeff Tuel hadn't been under the impression that Kansas City cornerback Sean Smith played for the Bills. Fortunately, injured starter EJ Manuel was fully cleared to return Monday.

The Bills' schedule going forward is worth noting. They visit the reeling Steelers in Pittsburgh, then take on the Jets in Buffalo. After a Week 12 bye, Buffalo hosts the wingless Falcons before heading on a two-game road trip to play the dead-in-the-water Bucs and that collection of guys masquerading as an NFL team in Jacksonville. Buffalo finishes with a homer against Dolphins and a roadie versus the Pats. With a dominant defensive line, a healthy C.J. Spiller and three tissue-paper-soft games, could the Bills make things sticky? I think so.

As for the Raiders, who are still technically in the mix at 3-5 ... Well, they just allowed Nick Foles to throw seven touchdown passes. I love Terrelle Pryor, but you can't take Oakland seriously.

So, how do I see things shaking out? The Jets and Titans have exhibited resiliency and toughness. Remember, also, that Tennessee drubbed New York at the end of September -- and who knew that game would be mentioned in November in a discussion of potential tiebreakers? The Chargers, meanwhile, have the best quarterback in the group, while the Bills have the schedule advantage -- and are about to get back their promising rookie signal-caller.

All that said, we could be laughing in a few weeks that some of these teams were even included in this discussion. My gut feeling is that the Chargers will survive the insanity -- but after Sunday, my gut is in knots.

Again, ultimately, I don't know. Nobody does. That's what makes this amazing.

So buckle up. Grab the Advil. It's going to be an unpredictable ride.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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