When Peyton Manning and the Broncos stormed back with 35 unanswered points in the second half of their 35-24 Monday night win against the Chargers this week, they accomplished a few things:
1. They tied an NFL record for the largest comeback win by a road team in NFL history.
2. They evened their record at 3-3 and, via the head-to-head tiebreaker, took over first place in the AFC West.
3. They hatched ready-made sports talk radio topics in Houston this week by a) ensuring the Texans and the Ravens would be the only AFC teams over .500 going into their gargantuan matchup this Sunday, and b) ensuring that about half the AFC would be sitting at 3-3 or 2-3.
Make no mistake, selfishly, I am happiest about the third bullet point above. On the radio, content is king.
Speaking to both of the threads in that third bullet point, I'll have a Texans-Ravens preview later this week (likely wrapped in a new BINGO card for Battle-Drink, the Texans-themed drinking game sweeping sports bars all across the 713, 281, 832, and parts of the 409 area codes), but the part I wanted to hit this morning is that 3-3 (and 2-3) battle royale into which the AFC has morphed.
I mean, talk about parity. Look at the AFC! Hell, look at the whole NFL. Somewhere the ghost of Pete Rozelle (the late NFL commissioner and the patron saint of "parity") is grabbing those NFL standings and taking them into the bathroom to spend some "quality time" with them. Consider the following:
1. Sixteen teams -- HALF of the entire league! -- are either 3-3 or 2-3, including the entire AFC East.
2. Six weeks in, we only have one undefeated team left (Atlanta) and they've needed a miracle comeback to beat the 1-4 Carolina Panthers and a pick-six late in the game to knock off the 1-4 Raiders. I don't want to say the Falcons are a shaky undefeated, but Mercury Morris is frantically scrawling rap lyrics about the Falcons losing to the Eagles in two weeks.
3. Every team in the league has at least one win, which means we don't get to relive the Detroit Lions 0-16 death march from a few years ago, or even flirt with it. Very unsatisfying, to be honest.
So the hot topic of the week on our show (and probably every other show in AFC cities in the free world) has been "Who will the playoff teams be in the AFC?" So if college football pundits can give us recurring bowl projections each week for 35 games (only one of which really, truly matters), then I can certainly give you a semi-recurring look at the playoff picture in the NFL, at the very least in the AFC (you know, with us being an AFC city and what not).
So six weeks in, as we head toward Week 7 of the 2012 season, here is where I see this thing ending up (Now is when I self-deprecatingly tell you to bookmark this page so you can laugh at me come December 30.):
FIRST ROUND BYES 1. Houston Texans (AFC South Champions) 12-4 My preseason prediction for the Texans was 11-5, and if I were to get a chance to readjust it, I'd probably move it to 12-4 at this point. There's at least one loss, likely two, in the three nationally televised road games (at Chicago, at Detroit, at New England), and they've never made it unscathed through the division. Clearly, the most pivotal games are this weekend against the Ravens and December 10 against the Patriots. Win those and you've got head-to-head advantages over all the AFC teams in the mix for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
2. Denver Broncos (AFC West Champions) 11-5 On the surface, this appears to be a bit of a bold call. I mean, the Broncos are two games behind the Ravens and Texans and were 30 minutes away from a 2-4 start Monday night.
But look at their schedule the rest of the way. The Broncos have seven of their remaining ten games against teams in the bottom ten of the AP Pro 32 poll. ("The what?" you might be saying. The AP Pro 32 is a compilation of the power rankings of twelve purported experts. It's not the gospel, clearly, but not a bad tool to use to apply some educated opinions as a basis for this exercise. It will get referred to a few more times here, so get used to it.)
The Broncos have the Panthers, Raiders, Browns, Bucs, and TWO with the Chiefs on the schedule! The only thing missing is an FCS school looking for a payday. The "circle the date" game is Week 15's trip to Baltimore, which could be for a first round bye. OTHER DIVISION WINNERS
3. New England Patriots (AFC East Champions) 10-6 Other than a three-game spell in December with home games against the Texans and 49ers, and a pre-Christmas roadie to Jacksonville, the Patriots' entire remaining schedule is against other teams in the 3-3/2-3 mosh pit. The Patriots are more talented than every single one of those three-loss teams, but their lack of attention to defense will bite them in the ass a couple times (I'll go with at St. Louis and at Miami, for shits and giggles), and I'll guess they split the two games with the Texans and Niners.
4. Baltimore Ravens (AFC North Champions) 10-6 I realize they're 5-1 right now, but I'm a hell of a lot closer to putting the Ravens in as a wild card than I am giving them a first round bye, for a handful of reasons:
1. This is a mediocre to average road team overall, and nobody is more emblematic of the Ravens home/away schizophrenia than Joe Flacco, whose quarterback rating is 44 points higher in Baltimore than it is away from Baltimore this season. Oh, the Ravens play six of their final ten on the road.
2. Their four remaining home games are against the Raiders (win), Steelers (biggest rival), Broncos (cruising and confident, at that point, Week 15), and the Giants (defending Super Bowl champions).
3. Ray Lewis. Out. Lardarius Webb. Out. Bad. Very, very bad.
4. Yeah, the Ravens are 5-1, but who have they beaten? They were impressive in Week 1 against the Bengals (44-13), but other than that? They escaped with one-score wins against Cleveland and Kansas City (two of the worst three teams in football), had a replacement ref-tainted win over the Patriots at home, and needed a missed field goal and a Dez Bryant drop at the end of the game to beat the Cowboys at home. In short, if this were Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the Ravens would have used up all their lifelines already, and we're not even to the sixth question yet.
So if we assume 3-3 for the six road games, and that is being very generous, they would have to go 3-1 at home against both Mannings, against their biggest rival, and against the Raiders to go 10-6. Now you see why I'm struggling with this? The good news for the Ravens is that the Steelers appear to be in Year 1 of the "fat contracts for old players catches up to them" era, and the Bengals have almost as hard a schedule as the Ravens.
WILD CARDS 5. San Diego Chargers 10-6 As catastrophic as Monday night appeared to be for Norv and the Norvettes, if you truly believe the Broncos are the better team, then all that game did was hammer home what the Chargers generally do (albeit in a sea of soul-crushing, belly laughing absurdity) -- they beat who they should beat, and they lose to good teams. So far this season? Businesslike wins over the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs, and losses to the undefeated Falcons, the desperate Saints in primetime, and the aforementioned Broncos. We sit here and act exasperated over the Chargers when, in fact, if you're into prognosticating, they're a wet dream because they're somewhat predictable! The last ten games for San Diego include five with bottom-ten AP Pro 32 teams (Chiefs, Panthers, and Raiders at home; Browns and Bucs on the road). 4-1 should be a lock against that group. So to get to 10-6, they need to go 3-2 against this slate: at Denver (REMATCH!), the Ravens at home, Cincy at home, at Pittsburgh, and at the Jets. Tough? Yes. Doable? Absolutely.
6. Indianapolis Colts 9-7 Yeah, you heard me! Every year there's an "out of nowhere" team. None of the previous five teams qualify for that status. The four division winners all made the playoffs last season, and the Chargers were 7-9 and underachieved. Among the 3-loss teams, the Colts, the Bills, and the Dolphins are the only potential qualifiers for "Holy shit! Didn't see that coming!" status. Let's take them each one at a time:
Bills: Sorry, I can't get with a 3-3 team that fattened up on the Browns, Chiefs, and an overtime win that involved both John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. Not when they've given up an average of 48 points in their three losses.
Dolphins: The Dolphins are tempting. The next month will be telling, as their next four games are all against lower AP Pro 32 ranked opponents, but three are on the road. With five games against bottom-ten AP Pro 32 teams the rest of the way, this is a very manageable schedule.
Colts: For me, picking the Colts for the last playoff spot boiled down to these things:
1. Their home schedule is very friendly, not just from an opponent quality standpoint, but a chronological standpoint. They'll be favored against the Browns, Dolphins, Bills, and Titans, but the hidden gem for the Colts is they catch the Texans in Week 17, which means there is a better than decent chance that the only thing standing between them and a win is T.J. Yates, who they beat at home last season when they went 2-14.
2. Their six games on the road include three of the five or six worst teams in football and a trip to disappointing Detroit. 3-3 in these six games keeps the playoffs in sharp focus on the scope.
3. Eight of the eleven games will be played against defenses in the bottom half of the league, and one of the three against a top defense is the aforementioned Week 17 game versus the possibly-not-really-trying Texans.
4. Of the 3-loss teams in my wild card argument (Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, Steelers, Colts, Chargers), the Colts are the only one with one win over an AP Pro 32 top eleven team, let alone two (which they have -- Vikings and Packers). Point being, the Colts have shown a higher ceiling, in most cases significantly so, than any of the other teams being discussed. I like that.
5. If it comes down to Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck, I'll take Andrew Luck. Every time.
6. Chuck Pagano's bout with treatable leukemia is the exact type of "playing with a special purpose" angle that brings teams together and makes the ball bounce funny ways. You think I'm taking a healthy Joe Philbin or Chan Gailey over a cancer-stricken Chuck Pagano? HELL NO! ARE YOU CRAZY?!?
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So there you have it! I'm on the Colts bandwagon. Do I feel dirty? A little. But I also feel correct. And my ego will whore itself out every day and twice on Sundays, even if it means taking a Texans division rival, just to say "I told you so!"
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.