AFC West race takes center stage in Week 17

Every week, Pat Kirwan provides six observations from the weekend's action.

Will it be the Broncos or Raiders?

The AFC West, like the NFC East, has some unfinished business heading into Week 17 with both division titles up for grabs.

The NFL made a brilliant move when it made Week 17 feature divisional games exclusively. As a result, next week the Denver Broncos host the Kansas City Chiefs while the Oakland Raiders host the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos and Raiders can advance to the postseason, but both teams certainly have their warts.

All Denver has to do is beat the Chiefs -- a team they beat 17-10 earlier in the year -- and they get the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and probably a home date against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. The Broncos are on a two-game losing streak, and it's beginning to appear like opposing defenses have a solid plan for stopping Tim Tebow.

In the past three weeks, Tebow has been sacked 12 times out of 105 drop-backs -- a ratio of more than one sack per nine pass attempts. He also has thrown five interceptions and just two touchdowns (though four of those picks came in Saturday's loss to the Bills) and the offense has lost four fumbles over that span. For an offense that averages 20 points a game to turn the ball over nine times in three games is a very serious problem, especially considering the decline of the Broncos defense. That unit is not playing as well as it did during the team's six-game winning streak; the Broncos have surrendered 81 points in the past two weeks.

And then there's the juicy storyline of Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton's return to Denver after being kicked to the curb to make room for Tebow. The Broncos will have their hands full next Sunday, but even if they lose, they still could win the division, as long as the Raiders also fall.

As for the Raiders, some might criticize the acquisition of Carson Palmer, but if he wasn't under center Oakland wouldn't be in the playoff hunt. For an example of Palmer's importance, look no further than the 53-yard completion to Darrius Heyward-Bey in overtime Saturday against the Chiefs that set up the game-winning field goal. The Raiders face a Chargers squad that they beat 24-17 earlier this year. San Diego has already been eliminated from the playoffs, but the Chargers might show some fight in an effort to save Norv Turner's job.

Oakland has two problems -- aside from needing a Broncos loss -- to deal with if it wants to win the division. One, the Raiders have been beating themselves with penalties -- the team is on pace to break the NFL record of 158 penalties in a season. They already have 155 penalties, 46 of which have come in the last four games. Two, they just can't run the ball like they used to earlier in the season, when running back Darren McFadden was available.

There still is a chance for both teams to make the playoffs if they both win and the Bengals lose to the Ravens. The Broncos would win the division and the Raiders would be the No. 6 seed.

The arrow is pointing up

Not every storyline is about the playoffs. One team that's out of the playoff hunt is serving notice that it will be heard from in 2012.

Week 16 set the tone for the bright future of the Carolina Panthers. Remember last year, when the Detroit Lions proclaimed that they would treat the last four weeks of the season like a practice playoff run, then proceeded to win all four games before making the playoffs this year? Well, the 48-16 beating the Panthers put on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a statement that they will be playoff contenders in 2012.

Cam Newton broke Peyton Manning's rookie passing record after breaking the single-season rushing touchdown record for a quarterback weeks ago, and his four-TD performance Saturday solidified his status as a star for years to come. The Panthers' defense needs work, but the unit has been improving in its weakest area -- against the run. I talk to coach Ron Rivera every week, and he has been growing more optimistic about his defense.

The team's top two linebackers and top three defensive tackles are on injured reserve, so it was hard to see what Rivera saw in his run defense until this week, when the Panthers held the Bucs to just 59 rushing yards. Over the past five weeks, the Panthers have held opposing rushers to 95.6 yards per game despite relying mainly on reserves. One more solid draft, a free-agent signing or two and the return of star linebacker Jon Beason, and Rivera will have a defense that can get his team to the playoffs.

The Lions are officially dangerous

Every year, as the playoffs approach, I try to identify a hot team that no one is looking at. Every season, it seems that a team will rise up from out of nowhere and do some real damage. Last year, the Green Bay Packers won the whole thing after barely making the postseason. Three of the last 10 Super Bowl winners have been wild-card teams. After watching the Detroit Lionssurgically disassemble the Chargers, they officially became my dark horse for this year's playoffs.

Matthew Stafford is good enough to win it all. His 373-yard, three-touchdown day against the Chargers was impressive, but if you look beyond that game, you can see that this has been coming. In his past eight games, Stafford has thrown for 2,596 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. I spoke with Stafford before the Chargers game, and he said the key to the passing attack is distribution. Everyone knows Lions wideout Calvin Johnson is virtually unstoppable, but Stafford has been spreading the ball around, targeting Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young a combined 32 times for 17 completions and two touchdowns in a 28-27 win over the Raiders in Week 15. Against the Chargers, he connected with those receivers 19 times and added another score.

The Detroit Lions are ready to do some damage.

Bush vs. Sproles

Darren Sproles is having a phenomenal year in New Orleans after replacing Reggie Bush, who decided not to take a pay cut and a role as a situational player with the Saints. Most observers see the acquisition of Sproles as one of the league's best offseason moves, and I agree. However, where most go wrong is in thinking of Sproles as a total upgrade over Bush, despite the fact that the two players have produced at comparable levels this year. In fact, Sproles is 227 total yards behind Bush heading into the Saints' Monday-night game against the Falcons.

Bush rushed for 113 yards against the Patriots on Saturday, giving him more than 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career. Thus far this season, he has 1,382 total yards with seven touchdowns. Sproles has 1,155 total yards and seven touchdowns with two games to go.

In the end, both the Saints and Dolphins benefited from their respective acquisitions, and the future looks bright for both guys in 2012.

A high school trainer!

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Giants' 29-14 win over the Jets on Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. ET.

I am all for doing whatever it takes to protect the players, and I realize that the issue of preventing concussions needs undivided attention from the NFL. My position has been and will remain that an independent neurosurgeon should be on the field, not in the booth. There is valuable information to be gathered on the field that can't be detected anywhere else.

The new policy to put an independent athletic trainer in the booth as an observer is a first step in the right direct, but the move does not go as far as I would have gone. When I heard the independent athletic trainer at the Bengals game was a high school trainer, however, I just shook my head. A trainer at that experience level should be nothing more than a spotter for a neurosurgeon on the field.

Tipping my hat to Steelers' Kugler

So far there have been 14 games played this weekend, and heading into Sunday night's Bears-Packers matchup, just one offensive line coach was able to pull off the O-line trifecta: rush for more than 100 yards, not give up a sack and win the game. Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Sean Kugler got the job done vs. the St. Louis Rams, and he did it with backup linemen all over the place. I was sitting with Bill Cowher when we watched third-string center Trai Essex replace Doug Legursky, who went down while subbing for Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers' performance made a strong statement about how much Kugler does to get everyone prepared to play.

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