AFC Playoff Picture

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

RAVENS STILL IN GOOD SHAPE
HEADING INTO MNF IN HOUSTON

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Yesterday we outlined the NFC Playoff picture for you, to help you get ready for a busy day of NFL handicapping. As promised, we're back today to discuss the AFC as you ponder tonight's Baltimore/Houston game on ESPN.

Baltimore of the AFC North is still in great shape to make the playoffs even though division-leading Pittsburgh won yesterday. Baltimore probably won't catch the Steelers from behind as you'll see in a bit when we run through the schedules. But, Baltimore is in the driver's seat in terms of a Wildcard spot. And, even if they LOSE tonight in Houston, they'll still actually be in very good shape because of the challenges facing other playoff contenders.

Houston is a longshot, as most of you already know. We'll include them in the discussion just so you can see what they'd have to pull off to reach the postseason. There is a chance. Houston sits 5-7 now, which gives them a shot to finish 9-7. Should the NY Jets lose out and finish 9-7 (fully possibly given their shaky play the past several weeks), Houston owns a heads up victory over the Jets that would give them the two-way tiebreaker. Baltimore could also finish 9-7. Obviously, Houston winning out means they beat Baltimore tonight...which would give them the tie-breaker nod with the Ravens.

If Houston loses tonight, they're done.

As we did yesterday, let's go division-by-division through the standings...then go further in depth with the remaining schedules for everyone.

AFC EAST
New England 11-2
NY Jets 9-4
Miami 7-6

New England's lead feels bigger than that because they're obviously playing the best football in the league right now (by a mile), while the Jets are a few plays away from being 6-7 and talking about firing their coach or benching their quarterback. There aren't two other Wildcard contenders who could get to 11 wins...so New England is safe even if Tom Brady gets lost on the way to the game the next three weeks. The Patriots are in the playoffs, and will very likely be the #1 seed in the AFC. Remember, they own a tie-breaker with the Steelers because of a heads-up victory.

Miami would have been eliminated this week if they had lost to the Jets while the Ravens beat Houston. Now, there's a shot for the Dolphins to sneak in given the schedules of other Wildcard contenders.

AFC NORTH
Pittsburgh 10-3
Baltimore 8-4 (pending tonight)

Two top teams who both have friendly schedules the rest of the way. More on that in a moment.

AFC SOUTH
Jacksonville 8-5
Indianapolis 7-6
Houston 5-7 (pending tonight)

Jacksonville's defense is far from playoff caliber. Indianapolis hasn't looked like a playoff team in about a month (everyone's beating Tennessee lately), but they're still in the mix. As promised, we'll include Houston since they're in the TV game tonight. If the Texans knew how to close with a lead, they'd be in first place in this surprisingly soft division right now.

AFC WEST
Kansas City 8-5
San Diego 7-6

The Chargers stayed alive with a win yesterday. Kansas City knew they had a game in hand, and realized that Brodie Croyle wasn't likely to outplay Philip Rivers on the road. The Chiefs control their destiny, and have a reasonable shot at 11 wins if Matt Cassel can come back and beat St. Louis next week.

Okay, those are the standings, let's run through the remaining schedules for everyone and mentally play out these last three weeks of the season.

AFC EAST
NEW ENGLAND: vs. Green Bay, at Buffalo, vs. Miami
NY JETS: at Pittsburgh, at Chicago, vs. Buffalo
MIAMI: vs. Buffalo, vs. Detroit, at New England

New England will be favored to win out and finish 14-2, even if Aaron Rodgers is able to come back from his concussion next week. The Patriots are, right now, playing just as well as their 2007 team did in terms of many key indicator stats (particularly when you adjust for game conditions). If you're in Vegas and can find the AFC at a cheap price to win the Super Bowl, you need to think about setting up a middle.

The Jets are playing badly, and are now staring at road losses in Pittsburgh and Chicago these next two weeks. That's how 9-4 turns into 9-6, and makes the season finale at Buffalo a game they'll have to sweat. They're obviously capable of winning one of the road games, and will be home favorites vs. the Bills. That makes them a favorite to reach January. That's a big drop from the 'almost certain lock' status they had entering the New England game.

You can see how big Miami's win yesterday over the Jets was. They now get to host Buffalo and Detroit, giving them a shot at 9-6 entering the last weekend. Sure, the finale is at New England. What if the Pats decide to rest their starters because they've already locked up the #1 seed? Remember that an injury to Tom Brady is what prevented them from winning the Super Bowl after the 2007 season. Miami's offense is so shaky that wins with Buffalo or Detroit are far from assured. We just wanted to let you know now that the team isn't as far off the radar as you might have been thinking.

AFC NORTH
PITTSBURGH: vs. NY Jets, vs. Carolina, at Cleveland
BALTIMORE: at Houston, vs. New Orleans, at Cleveland, vs. Cincinnati

That's a very friendly schedule for the Steelers. Carolina may be trying to lose to lock in the #1 spot in the NFL draft. The Jets offense is playing horribly vs. defenses who aren't as good as Pittsburgh. Cleveland probably won't lay down in a season finale. Pittsburgh's the superior team should that game end up meaning anything.

Baltimore closes with a friendly schedule the last two weeks in terms of quality of opponent. New Orleans won't be easy next week...but this isn't a vintage Saints squad, and Baltimore's a handful at home. Right now at least 10 wins seems very likely, with a chance to win out for 12-4.

The runner up in this division could easily be a road favorite over the AFC South or West champions in the first round of the playoffs.

AFC SOUTH
JACKSONVILLE: at Indianapolis, vs. Washington, at Houston
INDIANAPOLIS: vs. Jacksonville, at Oakland, vs. Tennessee
HOUSTON: vs. Baltimore, at Tennessee, at Denver, vs Jacksonville

That's a huge game next week with Jacksonville visiting Indianapolis The Jags will wrap up the division with a win because they'd have a two-game lead with two to play, and that victory would mean a sweep over the Colts. If Indianapolis wins, we're going to have quite a finish on our hands. Both teams have beatable but dangerous opponents in the penultimate week. Indy has the easier finale. Let's see if Jacksonville can rise to the occasion next week and take care of business.

In terms of the Wildcard, Indy can still get to 9-7 even if they lose to Jacksonville. And, the Jags could reach 10-6 even if they lose to the Colts. Miami's win over the Jets kept the hopes of several teams alive (and made today's playoff outline a lot more interesting!).

Houston's got a puncher's chance if they can upset Baltimore tonight needless to say. Tennessee and Denver are among the worst in the sport right now.

AFC WEST
KANSAS CITY: at St. Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. Oakland
SAN DIEGO: vs. San Francisco, at Cincinnati, at Denver

San Diego has the easier schedule in terms of won-lost records, but those last two games are on the road in cold weather conditions. Not ideal for a warm weather team whose running game comes and goes. They'll be favored to win out, but are far from a sure thing to do so. Kansas City has a one-game lead, and needs to keep it because San Diego would win the tie-breaker if both finish 10-6 thanks to a better record in the conference (heads up and in the division would be a tie or go to SD if KC loses to Oakland).

Right now, you have to give a slight edge to the Chiefs because of the extra home game and the one-game head start. It's not an edge anyone could consider safe!

So, that's where things stand heading into Baltimore/Houston tonight. Let's see what's on tap in the coming days in terms of the playoff races:

MONDAY
NY Giants at Minnesota (in the make-up game from Sunday)
Baltimore at Houston

THURSDAY
San Francisco at San Diego (Niners now within a game in the NFC West, both must win)

SUNDAY (in schedule order, only games important to BOTH teams)
Kansas City at St. Louis
Jacksonville at Indianapolis
Philadelphia at the NY Giants
New Orleans at Baltimore
NY Jets at Pittsburgh
Green Bay at New England

NEXT MONDAY
Chicago at Minnesota

Wow! And don't forget that the college football bowl slate gets started Saturday, right in the midst of all that excitement.

You can purchase game day football releases from JIM HURLEY here at the website a few hours before kickoff. Or, sign up for the rest of the season at a great rate. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to talk some basketball. Most of the rest of the week will be all about getting you ready for the huge weekend of football action ahead. ARE YOU READY TO MAKE SOME MONEY? LINK UP WITH JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK TODAY!!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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