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Playoff Prospects for Teams in the NFL

By Yong-yi Zhu

COLUMNIST

By week seven of the NFL, the postseason contenders have been sorted out from those oh-so-eager pretenders. For the next two weeks, I will delve into the two conferences and look at all the teams with a real shot at making the playoffs. This week, we begin with the AFC.

The AFC houses two of the major superpowers of football this year: the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. Despite the perception that the Patriots are a defensive team and the Colts are an offensive juggernaut, these two teams actually come by their wins quite similarly.

The ’04 to ’05 Patriots are very much like the Patriots of last year, except better. They only give up 16.6 points per game while scoring 27 points per game. Surprisingly, they have the fourth highest passing yards per game and are fifth in total yards per game. Supposedly, though, the Patriots have not yet played their best football. I look for this team to go 16-0.

The Colts, on the other hand, look like the Rams from several years ago. The Tony Dungy defensive philosophy is almost non-existent when it comes to the passing game; the Colts boast the worst passing defense in the AFC. But they do put up 31.8 points and move the ball 389.4 yards per game. Quarterback Peyton Manning has the highest rating in the AFC, while running back Edgerrin James and receiver Reggie Wayne are near the top in rushing and receiving yards.

These two teams will easily win their divisions and will play a rematch of the NFL opener in the AFC title game.

Making the B list of the AFC are the Jets, the Broncos and the Steelers. The Jets are perhaps the most overlooked 5-0 team. Nobody is giving them any credit and few have them winning the game this weekend against the Patriots.

True, they have not had really tough competition, but to win games you are supposed to win is easier said than done. QB Chad Pennington and RB Curtis Martin are both playing well, and that is the key for this team not only to get into the playoffs, but also to go deep in the playoffs. The Jets look like a 12-4 team.

The Broncos are continuing to use their formula of plugging no-name running backs into the offense to produce 1,000-yard rushers. RB Reuben Droughns, in the two games that he has really played, has rushed for 193 and 176 yards. (Imagine if he had started all of them, what kind of ridiculous pace he would be on.) Combine him with QB Jake Plummer and those wide receivers, and you have a pretty potent offense. They will win the West easily.

Then, there are the Steelers. They did not look good on paper, especially when Tommy Maddox was knocked out. But Ben Roethlisberger, at this point clearly the best of the three quarterbacks from this year’s draft, is showing the world all of his talents. A high quarterback rating, seven touchdowns and only four interceptions mean he will lead the Steelers to the division title. He does benefit greatly, though, from being in a weak division.

So it looks like the division winners are set along with one of the wild cards.

There are a few teams vying for that remaining playoff spot: the Jaguars, the Chargers and the Ravens. The Jaguars are the strangest of these three teams. The problem is, they seem to never want to win until the last seconds of the game. Byron Leftwich has really developed into the leader of the team and has grown to be a wonderful quarterback. These Cardiac Cats will see a complete turnaround of their season from a year ago, but the postseason will be tough to reach.

The Chargers are strong offensively. QB Drew Brees and RB LaDainian Tomlinson are playing well, putting up 26.7 points per game. All that, combined with their relatively easy schedule, means that the Chargers will make a hard playoff push.

It will be tough for the Ravens, who don’t have much of an offense to begin with, to survive the next two weeks without RB Jamal Lewis. They have the worst passing offense in the conference, and with Chester Taylor at the helm, they may not even win the game against Buffalo, much less Indianapolis, which could spell the end of their playoff hopes. (Don’t they wish they had T.O now.)

Finally, the two teams looking more like pretenders than contenders at this point are the Houston Texans and the Cleveland Browns. The main problem with these two inconsistent teams is that their schedules are very tough coming down the stretch.

But no matter how hard you stare at the statistics at the moment, there are still 11 weeks left to the season. Anything can happen.