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NFL Week 10: The Wild(card) Ones

By Brian Chase

COLUMNIST

Week 10 was desperation week for many NFL teams: the week where you had to win or risk not making the playoffs. It’s probably no coincidence that it is also the week when the biggest upsets this year have been pulled off. Last weekend, a 1-7 team (Jacksonville Jaguars) beat a 7-1 team (Indianapolis Colts). And that was only one of three big upsets. This weekend also served either to muddy up or to make crystal clear the playoff picture, depending on which conference you were in. I will talk about the muddled NFC next week. This week, I’ll deal with the AFC stratification.

The AFC has four teams with a 7-2 record or better (Indianapolis, Tennessee, Kansas City, and New England) that are all by this point guaranteed a spot in the playoffs unless they do disastrously bad in their last six weeks. The slots they fill are the AFC East, South, and West divisions, and one of the two AFC wild cards. This leaves the AFC North division winner and one more wild card. Since all the teams going for the AFC North title are bad, the second wild card will likely come from either the Miami Dolphins or the Denver Broncos. Both teams have their major flaws and their strengths, which are worth looking at.

Miami Dolphins (5-4)

Miami’s system revolves around a supposedly strong running game backed up with a strong defense. In the beginning of the season, this was working for Miami. Now though, neither the defense nor the running game is up to par. The defense suffered horribly when middle linebacker Zach Thomas, one of the best in the league, went down with injury. Miami’s normal defensive strategy revolves around him, and without him, Miami is very susceptible to losing, as witnessed by Tennessee’s 31-7 shellacking of Miami last week.

Also demonstrated by that game is how bad Miami’s offense has gotten. Jay Fiedler was never a very good quarterback for Miami, but when he was replaced by Brian Greise because of injury, things just went from bad to worse. Greise is not a passing threat, so opposing defenses can step closer to Miami’s offense in order to stop the running of Ricky Williams, Miami’s star running back. But Williams is having a tough time anyway, only rushing for 36 and 37 yards the last two games. If Miami can’t fix their problems, they have no shot of beating Denver for the wild card.

Denver Broncos (5-4)

Like Miami, Denver had a quarterback injury early on. Jake Plummer, who was heading up a fearsome offense, was injured, and the backup Steve Buerelain was, too. This really put a hamper on Denver’s offense, since third-string QB Danny Kanell didn’t play well enough consistently. This also hurt Denver’s running game in a similar way to Miami in that running back Clinton Portis was much less effective while Plummer was out.

On the defensive side, the Broncos also have had their middle linebacker, Ian Gold, go out for the rest of the season with injury. While this has hurt them, they’ve been able to recover from it much better than the Dolphins. The most important difference between the Broncos and Dolphins is that even while Denver was injured, they were still a good football team, taking top-notch New England down to the wire in a Monday night game. And Jake Plummer comes back this week to lead Denver at QB. With this in mind, I think it most likely that Denver will take the second AFC wild card.

Games of the Week

Dallas Cowboys (7-2) at New England Patriots (7-2).

This game is the Battle of the Bills, coach Bill Parcells of the Cowboys versus Bill Belichick of the Patriots, who used to be Parcells’ defensive coordinator. The Patriots have succeeded through injury and tough games, whereas the Cowboys have not beaten anyone as good as the Patriots, and their offense is pretty shaky. Both defenses are among the best in the country, though, so look for the Patriots to win a very low-scoring game. Patriots win, 10-6.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (4-5).

Many, many sports analysts are predicting this is the weekend when undefeated KC gets upset. Why? Because Cincinnati has a solid defense that has given up just four passing touchdowns, a solid quarterback/running back duo of Jon Kitna and Rudi Johnson, and the game is in Cincy. Cincinnati feels so confident that receiver Chad Johnson (no relation) guaranteed a victory over the Chiefs. That was a mistake. The Chiefs are arguably the most dominant team in football with the most complete offense, and Coach Dick Vermeil is an excellent motivator. The Chiefs are not going into this week’s game unmotivated and will prove Johnson wrong. The Chiefs will probably lose a game, but I don’t think it will be this one. Chiefs win, 28-17.