The AFC Wild-Card Race

The AFC wild-card race is set up for a photo finish, with four contenders vying for one spot (it’s safe to assume the Pittsburgh/Baltimore runner-up in the AFC North has a lock on the other). Here’s the Notebook rundown of the contenders, their strengths and weaknesses, along with the remaining schedule…

NY Jets (8-5): Winners of three straight, the Jets have the inside track to the playoffs, but the remaining schedule ensures that track will be rocky. Rex Ryan’s team doesn’t have a true home game left—sandwiched between trips to Philadelphia and Miami is a game with the Giants in which the Jets are technically the home team in a neutral-site game. The Jets have gotten to this point by excelling in the red zone in offense—they rank 3rd in the AFC in scoring, despite below average passing and running games and that’s because they make the most of the chances they have. Conversely though, their defense is a mirror image. It’s easy to picture New York losing two of three and really opening the door to one of the teams chasing them.

Cincinnati (7-6): Losing at home to Houston when the Texans were playing with a third-string rookie quarterback looks like it might be enough to knock the Bengals out. They’ve gotten this far with defense, stopping the run and winning turnover battles and if they aren’t dispirited that’s enough to win the next two games against the Rams and the improving Cardinals, ensuring they’d have a shot in Week 17. But with the continued struggles against good teams, due to a bad offense, I no longer believe they’ll beat Baltimore at home in the finale, particularly presuming the Ravens have a lot to play for.

Tennessee (7-6): Tennessee’s gotten where they are by playing better pass defense than I thought possible at the start of the season and taking good care of the football. Had the running game and Chris Johnson not taken until November to get started, the Titans would be leading this race and still have a shot in the AFC South. With a road date in Indy, followed by a home game with Jacksonville, the Titans have a good shot to get to 9-6 and set up a final game in Houston. Then they have to do what the Bengals couldn’t and that’s beat a good team stuck playing with a third-stringer behind center.

Oakland (7-6): The other three contenders can breathe a sigh of relief on one count—if the Raiders get hot and win three in row there’s a good chance they would just catch Denver and win the AFC West rather than blow through the wild-card race. The Raiders are proof of how important it is to stop the run—in spite of having a pretty good pass defense, this is still a team that ranks near the bottom of the AFC in points allowed and turnover differential, because of they have the NFL’s worst run defense. How you can give up more yards per carry than any other defense with a front seven that includes Richard Seymour and Rolando McClain is beyond me, but it enables other teams to control tempo, execute in the red zone and minimize mistakes. The positive side is that they have become a complete team offensively and Darren McFadden should return for the stretch drive.

We’ll also give a perfunctory nod to San Diego, who still has a chance to play the Raiders and catch them for second in the AFC West. But at 6-7, and with games also against Baltimore and at Detroit, the odds of winning three in a row to finish the season (really five in a row since they’ve already won two straight) are pretty long. The Bolts don’t play good defense and they don’t win the turnover battle, so even if Philip Rivers’ resurgence this past couple weeks holds steady, going 3-0 against that remaining schedule is too much to ask.

It’s a close call, but with the schedule advantages and the way they take care of the ball I’m going to pick Tennessee to sneak over the finish line at 10-6, while a Week 17 loss in Miami for the Jets enables the Titans to come in through the backdoor.