First things first: What happened in the AFC West? The San Diego (not so Super) Chargers finished the 2010 season with a 9-7 record. The Chargers led the entire NFL in offense and defense, but missed the playoffs. San Diego finished 2nd in the division to the Kansas City Chiefs. If that wasn’t strange enough, the Oakland Raiders beat every team in the AFC West twice this season, but finished in third place with an 8-8 record. Today, they wrapped up Week 17 with a resounding road win at the new Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Raiders won 31-10 and completed their sweep of the playoff bound Chiefs.
The Raiders were the ONLY team in the NFL to sweep all division games this season. Oakland became the first team since the merger to sweep a division and miss the post-season. The Chargers could not have been better statistically on either side of the ball. Oakland and San Diego will have a lot to think about in the off-season. The Raiders’ focus, according to reports, is replacing Coach Tom Cable and establishing consistency at the quarterback position:
Perhaps part of the problem has been Cable’s wavering on the Raiders’ starting quarterback. After starting the season with Jason Campbell at the helm, Cable switched to Bruce Gradkowski when Campbell struggled. After Gradkowski separated his shoulder, Cable turned back to Campbell but insisted Gradkowski was still the starter. While Campbell was under center during the Raiders’ three-game midseason win streak, Cable fluctuated between both quarterbacks throughout the second half of the year until Gradkowski reinjured his shoulder and was placed on injured reserve.
Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is rumored to be taking the same job down in Gainesville at the University of Florida. What does this for next week’s contest vs. the Baltimore Ravens? I doubt that this loss will mean much at all. This game could be a classic showcase of old school AFC football. While the Chiefs did struggle with the Raiders, they do bring two experienced coordinators to next week’s showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have had success against the Ravens in the regular season and post-season. As head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Crennel was 3-5 vs. Baltimore, including a season sweep in 2007.
If I were a gambling man, I’d say that the Chiefs coordinators are more inclined to roll the dice than the Ravens. Cam Cameron is notoriously conservative under critical conditions. Weis is notoriously unpredictable. I like the Ravens experience, but I like the Chiefs youth and hunger. I like the combination of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles. Kansas City also has some experienced players with a history of winning big games: Mike Vrabel (Patriots) and Ryan Lilja (Colts). I’ve already raised the question of whether or not Joe Flacco is the worst post-season QB in the history of the NFL. This game will go a long way to building my case. I think the Chiefs get some breathing room at the end. My early pick: Kansas City Chiefs 31, Baltimore Ravens 20.
In the other AFC playoff game, the New York Jets will travel to Indianapolis. In 2009, the Jets season ended in The House that Peyton Built when they blinked while holding a 17-6 lead midway through the second quarter. Nerves and excitement caused the Jets to falter as Austin Collie sliced and diced their defense for a game-changing touchdown before the half. I don’t believe the Colts are as good as they were last year, except in one area: run defense. Of course, the problem with this theory is that it’s only 3 weeks old. The Colts held three of the most powerful rushing attacks to under 100 yards in the last three weeks. The relentless Jacksonville Jaguars managed 67 yards (46 for Maurice Jones-Drew). The powerful Oakland Raiders rushed for only 80 yards (45 for Darren McFadden). Today, the dynamic Tennessee Titans ground game squeezed through for 51 yards (39 for Chris Johnson).
If “one is an accident and two is a trend,” it must be said that “three is evidence.” The Colts defensive line is healthy, deep, and winning battles in the trenches. I like the Colts to surprise the Jets. I like Adam Vinatieri over Nick Folk. I like Peyton Manning at home, with three healthy running backs, and a stout run defense against anyone. Indianapolis 26, New York Jets 17.
I like the Saints to show their muscle against the Seattle Seahawks. Sean Payton’s history suggests two things: the Saints will be looking for an early knockout; and New Orleans wants to run with convincing power to ice the game. The last thing that any dome-stadium team with an 11-5 record and thoughts of defending a title wants is to fly cross country to play a Saturday evening game against a bunch of mediocre under-achievers with absolutely nothing to lose. This is the ultimate trap game. If the Saints don’t get out early, I think they believe the game will become increasingly difficult to win — and if it rains (as it often does in Seattle), expect the Saints to struggle mightily. With that said, New Orleans has been too good to muck this up. Saints 38, Seahawks 10.
In the game that everyone wants to see, the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers take their aerial show to Philadelphia against Michael Vick and the Eagles. This game could be every bit as electrifying as last year’s Duel in the Desert between the Packers and Cardinals (See the clip below). This game is too close to call. Last year, I rolled the dice with a fundamentally flawed Eagles team (no power running game) and I lost when they were undressed by the Dallas Cowboys. This year’s team, to many observers, appears to be much stronger. I don’t see it. The running game is still predicated on finesse and deception. The passing game is similar to last year, but those receivers still have yet to prove their mettle at hammer time. Perhaps the clincher is the absence of a running game by the Green Bay Packers. I’m going to keep it simple — Michael Vick is the most explosive player in the NFL right now, but the Packers defense is healthier than the Eagles…and they look ready to make that move. Green Bay 38, Philadelphia 34.
Congrats to the four teams that earned bye weeks for the playoffs: New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears.
END NOTE: If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the playoffs, there are a few teams who would be praying for other matchups. The Falcons, Saints, and Packers would not want to see Josh Freeman and company coming through that door. Tampa is too young and too hungry to be attractive to anyone hosting a Wild Card game. Kudos to Freeman, head coach Raheem Morris, LeGarrett Blount, Mike Williams and the rest of that team.
Before giving too much love to the 10-6 Bucs, it’s worth giving a shout out to the 6-10 Lions. The Lions were heading into the final month of the season with a mere 2 wins — the same as last season. Detroit closed with wins over three teams that were competing for playoff spots: Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Miami; and the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions may also be responsible for the NFL’s Competition Committee revisiting rules on pass completions. Detroit was one of many NFC teams to finish at 6-10. The others were San Francisco, Dallas, Minnesota, and Washington. Pre-season bets on the Lions to win as many games as the 49ers, Cowboys, Vikings, and Redskins would have paid off handsomely.