|Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Win By Less Than a FOOT||Panic Mode in Full Effect, Minutemen are Struggling||Patriots Survive Gritty Challenge From Jets||Smart Era Gets Off to a Good Start with Win over T’wolves|
Every game matters. That is what makes the NFL so great. This is why the Patriots are really going to have to work to overcome that pathetic home loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It was probably the worst home loss in the Tom Brady era. Thank Josh McDaniels and Bill Belchick for benching Wes Welker, and thank Stephen Gostowski for choking a “bunny” kick. The Cardinals did get to 4-0 but now are 4-4, and look like a team who will struggle to get to 8 wins. Kevin Kolb should never beat you at home!
The AFC is especially weak this season. There are eight teams right now that have no shot of making the playoffs. (Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Kansas City, San Diego and Oakland) You might be asking where the Jets are. Well, they are right on the bubble and I will explain why later.
So, here are the contenders in a very watered-down conference: Houston, Denver, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, Indianapolis and the Jets.
Looking at the remaining strength of schedule for the contenders, the Patriots probably have the second toughest behind Baltimore. They are going to have to repeat their second halves’ from the last two seasons if they want to secure a bye or home-field throughout the playoffs.
So, let’s look at the field.
Yes, I know, the Jets stink. Were you saying that after Devin McCourty fumbled the kickoff with two minutes to go on the clock? The offense and special teams stink, but they have one of the better defenses in the league. Their head coach, a former defensive coordinator, hasn’t caught the defensive amnesia that seems to be plaguing Bill Belichick. Therefore, the Jets should be in every game the rest of the way.
The next two weeks, the Jets travel to Seattle and St. Louis. They are two tough places to play and two games they will not be favored to win. However, if they manage a split, they will be 4-6 heading into Thanksgiving Night. At this point, it should be obvious that Rex Ryan gives Tom Brady fits. With the exception of that 45-3 drubbing in 2010, Brady has struggled in almost every game against Ryan’s defense going back to his days in Baltimore. The Jets win that game to go 5-6 and they have a shot. The Jets’ last five games are: home vs. Arizona, at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, home vs. San Diego, and at Buffalo. Do I expect the Jets to go 10-6? Not likely with Sanchez at the helm, but they have a shot. In 2009, the Jets were 4-6 and not only made the playoffs, they made it to the Conference Finals.
Prediction: 7-9 3rd place in AFC East
The Colts are becoming an interesting story across the league. Number one overall pick and quarterback Andrew Luck has already led the Colts to more wins than many preseason prognosticators thought they would achieve all season. Let’s also not forget that this is a team playing for a cause. The Colts are also motivated by their head coach’s life-and-death struggle with Leukemia, and they will play hard all season. Outside of the Packers’ win though, the Colts are just beating up on dead weight in a conference full of dead weight. They play only four teams with winning records the rest of the way (home vs. Miami, at New England and Houston home and away). They have struggled all season scoring points on the road. A win this week over Miami and you will hear Colts and playoffs in the same sentence. That won’t last; they are a least one year away.
Prediction: 8-8 2nd place in AFC South
The last time the AFC East played the NFC West it was four years ago. That season, the Miami Dolphins had one of the great turnarounds in NFL history. After a disastrous 1-15 season in 2007, the Dolphins, under new coach Tony Sparano, unveiled the “Wildcat” and followed the noodle arm of Chad Pennington to an 11-5 season and the AFC East crown (via tiebreaker vs. New England). The Dolphins won the division despite one regular season win against a team that qualified for the playoffs. Now they sit at 4-3 heading into Indianapolis. If they can pull out a victory they will be 5-3 at their halfway point. Their second half schedule has only three games against teams with winning records. (New England home and away and at San Francisco). This team, unlike the New York Jets, has balance. Ryan Tannenhill might already be a better quarterback than Mark Sanchez, and their defense is legit. In their last three games, all wins, they haven’t given up more than 14 points. If the Dolphins can beat the teams they should beat, and take one game from New England, then they might find themselves in an end of the season tie-breaker with the Patriots again. Tannenhill is the wild card. He’ll have to continue to improve as the season progresses.
Prediction: 9-7 2nd place in the AFC East, 6th overall seed (wildcard)
New England fans take heed, this Miami team is going to be in the divisional mix for the foreseeable future.
If balance is what you need to win a Super Bowl, then don’t sleep on this team. They may be old and beat up, but they still have the #1 ranked defense in the NFL through eight weeks and they have a franchise quarterback who has played in three Super Bowls. The Steelers have flown under the radar so far this season. I don’t expect that to happen anymore. With the injuries the Baltimore Ravens have suffered, the door is open for the Steelers to reclaim the AFC North. The Steelers play only three games the rest of way against teams with winning records. (at NY Giants, Baltimore home and away). If they can come out of the mix 2-1 and win a tough game in Dallas, they might be able to win the division. Good news for Patriots fans is that the Steelers and Ravens have to play each other. I think the AFC North winner is no more than a 10-win team. That is usually a #4 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Prediction 10-6 1st place in the AFC North, 4th overall seed.
Usually at 6-2 you are sitting pretty for a first round bye in the playoffs. The Ravens are going to have repeat that in the second half if they want a bye and I don’t see it. They by far have the toughest schedule among the contenders in the AFC. They play four games against teams with winning records (home vs. Denver, home vs NY Giants, Pittsburgh home and away. In addition, they play at San Diego, at Washington and at Cincinnati. Their motivational speaker on and off the field, Ray Lewis, is on IR. That leaves them with Mr. September, Joe Flacco. I see at least four losses including to Pittsburgh twice.
Prediction 10-6, 2nd place in AFC North, 5th overall seed (wildcard)
Seemed like everyone wanted to count Peyton Manning out this season. After consecutive losses to Atlanta and Houston “Twitter” was abuzz with Peyton eulogies. Then he destroyed the Raiders defense. People took notice. He played well against the Patriots in a loss but people still were not impressed. They are now. His second-half Monday night comeback at San Diego and his thrashing of the New Orleans Saints in prime time has quieted the doubters. He’s the #1 rated passer in the NFL and a legit MVP candidate. Also, John Fox’s defense is getting better, especially at home. The schedule the rest of the way is a joke for the Broncos. At Baltimore is their only game against a team with a winning record. This is an elite team only because of Peyton and the parity of the conference. They played four good teams and lost to three of them. No one would benefit more from home field than this team.
Prediction 12-4, 1st in AFC West, #2 overall seed.
It’s interesting that the Texans are playing the Bears in two weeks because they are mirror images of each other. They both have strong, tough, play-making defenses. They both have quarterbacks that have the talent to be great but have never shown it consistently. They both want to “ground and pound” and they both are not going to the Super Bowl. Now the Texans have a much better shot at going than the Bears do. They shouldn’t lose any more than two games the rest of the season. They have two “difficult” games the rest of the year and they are both very winnable. (at Chicago, at New England). In the end, I just think that Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub aren’t good enough to take them all the way. Now playing two home games in front of a raucous crowd will be a tall task for any team. Despite that, it still is a quarterback league and either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Big Ben goes into Houston and beats them. If you’re the Texans, you don’t want to match up with the Steelers in the first round. They are built to beat the Texans.
Prediction 13-3, 1st in AFC South #1 overall seed.
I love the weekly change in perception of the Patriots with both the fans and media. There are “Fanboys” who overreact to every win and the “Felgers” who are able to find the bad in almost anything. Like politics, most people are in the middle. I tend to be more “cautious” with my bandwagon jumping. I really thought in training camp this team was going to be unstoppable on offense and better on defense. So, a 5-3 record has been a disappointment for the high standards I usually expect. I don’t care if Cleveland fans would kill to be us. I don’t live there. When you have a Tom Brady, you expect to be in the Super Bowl every year, unfair or not.
The Patriots three losses have left little room for error if they want to secure home field. To get a #1 seed, they would have to run the table. Can they? Yes. Will they? No. I have no doubt that 12 wins would secure at worst a #2 seed as long as Baltimore doesn’t get to 12 wins as well. So, that would require a 7-1 record the rest of the way. On paper, they have five tough games. Four of those games come in a row beginning on Thanksgiving. They have two days after the Colts game and they have to travel to play the Jets on Thanksgiving night. The Patriots should have lost to the Jets at home. You have to think they will be a slight underdog going into that game and for the Jets it will probably be their Super Bowl.
After that game, the Patriots get ten days off and then head to Miami. That will be a dogfight. Then they get the Texans and 49’ers six days apart from each other. I think it’s asking a lot for the Patriots to come out of those four games any better than 2-2. If they do, you can feel confident of another Super Bowl appearance. It means they would have put it together on offense and defense. I am not sure though. Let’s face it; every game with this secondary is a toss-up. If Mark Sanchez can come into Foxboro and complete 70% of his passes, then so can Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andrew Luck or Ryan Tannenhill. HOWEVER, maybe the trade of Aqib Talib can make a difference.
The best case scenario is that the offense comes back from the bye week and continues right where they left off. Maybe Josh “I have been fired twice” McDaniels realizes how to work Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez into the same offense. Maybe he realizes that Julian Edelman is a backup player and a mediocre punt returner. If he does that, then I think Tom Brady can carry them through the rest of the season.
Prediction 11-5, 1st in AFC East, 3rd overall seed.