The final week of the NFL regular season is upon us, and the playoff picture is anything but settled. The Texans are pegged into the No. 3 seed – and in the AFC, that’s the only peg lodged.
Three teams could end up No. 1 or No. 2 (Patriots, Steelers and Ravens), the No. 4 seed goes to the winner of the AFC West (Broncos or Raiders), the No. 5 to the AFC North’s runner-up (Steelers or Ravens) and the sixth and final spot waiting to be claimed by one of four teams (either the Bengals, Jets, Titans or Raiders).
In all, there are more than a hundred scenarios at play in the AFC, as opposed to just the Giants and Cowboys dueling for the East and the NFC’s No. 4 seed.
How will it all shake out? If you are a team on the fringe, it is because you are deficient in one area or another – and you better hope your opponent in Week 17 can’t exploit that.
Broncos O (No. 23 total, No. 31 pass, No. 1 run, No. 20 in 20-plus plays)
Chiefs D (No. 15 total, No. 9 pass, No. 23 run, No. 25 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Broncos D (No. 23 total, No. 23 pass, No. 25 run, No. 11 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Chiefs O (No. 25 total, No. 25 pass, No. 12 run, No. 26 in 20-plus plays)
The outcome in Denver will be an interesting one, because it’s a very run-heavy Broncos offense vs. a Chiefs defense that hasn’t proven stout against ground games. Then again, the Bills weren’t stellar in stopping the run before beating down the Broncos 40-14 last week.
The tipping point? It will come in the second quarter, because the Chiefs’ scoring differential equals -66 in the period (40 points scored to 106 allowed) and the Broncos are a whopping -121 in the second stanza.
Denver will bank on neutralizing Tamba Hali with the zone-read option and not allowing him to pin his ears back and pressure Tim Tebow into a mistake, in whatever limited pass attempts he is allowed.
Raiders O (No. 13 total, No. 13 pass, No. 6 run, No. 3 in 20-plus plays)
Chargers D (No. 11 total, No. 10 pass, No. 20 run, No. 20 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Raiders D (No. 29 total, No. 25 pass, No. 27 run, No. 31 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Chargers O (No. 6 total, No. 6 pass, No. 17 run, No. 5 in 20-plus plays)
Very much the opposite of the AFC West’s other make-or-break game, the winner between the Raiders and Chargers will be the defense that can limit big plays -or make one themselves.
And we have no doubt either of these offenses can get into the red zone, but it’s the Raiders who have proven to be far better at halting their opponent on the doorstep. The Raiders are 24th in touchdown percentage in the red zone, but 10th in overall red-zone defense; that stat reflects that Oakland either allows a touchdown, or forces a takeaway.
At the same time, the Chargers’ O is 15th in touchdown percentage but 22nd in overall red zone efficiency – which means they are prone to turnovers. Phillip Rivers has 19 interceptions this season, three in the red zone, and the Chargers can’t leave points on the field.
If the Raiders can bait Rivers into a mistake (14 of Rivers’ INTs have come in losses), the Raiders have a shot at getting a playoff spot.
Bengals O (No. 24 total, No. 20 pass, No. 18 run, No. 25 in 20-plus plays)
Ravens D (No. 3 total, No. 4 pass, No. 2 run D, No. 2 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Bengals D (No. 6 total, No. 12 pass, No. 5 run, No. 7 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Ravens O (No. 15 total, No. 18 pass, No. 14 run, No. 24 in 20-plus plays)
Baltimore has the clear advantage with its defense vs. Cincinnati’s offense. While the Bengals have made marked improvements on offense with rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, they are not explosive enough to exploit a Ravens team that does not give up big plays through the air.
The key for the Bengals: efficiency on first down. That will be tough to accomplish against the No. 2 run defense in the league. But third-and-manageable can be the difference between first down or punt against the Ravens’ No. 1 third-down defense, especially with the Bengals 20th-ranked third down offense.
The key for Cincinnati will be keeping the score close by limiting the Ravens’ one big-play threat, rookie Torrey Smith. Otherwise, they’ll face an impossible set of odds against another No. 1 unit for the Ravens — their No. 1 red-zone offense.
Cowboys O (No. 9 total, No. 8 pass, No. 15 run, No. 8 in 20-plus plays)
Giants D (No. 28 total, No. 27 pass, No. 22 run, No. 29 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Cowboys D (No. 14 total, No. 23 pass, No. 7 run, No. 14 in 20-plus plays allowed)
Giants O (No. 8 total, No. 4 pass, No. 32 run, No. 11 in 20-plus plays)
In their Week 14 matchup, the Giants had six plays of 20-plus versus a lax Cowboys secondary. At the same time, the Giants’ production was surprising because only two of those plays came on first down.
New York is the league’s most prolific quick strike offense in terms of first-down touchdowns, with 21 (the second-most being the Chargers with 17). To counter that, the Cowboys will have to be more disciplined with their coverage on the backend or pressure Eli Manning (Dallas is seventh in the league in sacks with 40).
There is no stat to figure how Tony Romo will deal with an injured hand and how he will react once he’s been hit (the Giants are fifth in the league with 42 sacks). What we do know: Dallas’ touchdown efficiency in the red zone is 49 percent, which ranks 22nd in the league. Not a reassuring number heading into this one-and-done matchup.
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