There's a three-way tie in the AFC East, and take your pick: Miami, New England or the New York Jets. It's hard to believe it won't be the Patriots again, but, hey, the Cardinals won a division, and a rookie quarterback has Atlanta back on the map ... so anything is possible.
|Having Chad Pennington fall in their lap changed the Dolphins -- and the division. (Getty Images)|
If that doesn't happen, then it might come down to the season finale between Miami and the Jets -- two teams that opened the year opposing each other. Appropriate. Until then, the race remains hot, tight and too close to call. Here's what's ahead:
There is no way the Dolphins were expected to be in a conversation about a division title for another one, maybe two years. But they're here now, and that's a testament to a lot of things -- including the vision of Bill Parcells, a popular choice for Executive of the Year.
I don't care what you think of Parcells; you can't deny that something profound has happened to Miami, a doormat that was supposed to be a work in progress.
Acquiring Chad Pennington was shrewd. Until he arrived you were looking at a club with no bona fide quarterback. Now he's the league's fifth-leading passer, ahead of veterans like Eli and Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and, yes, Brett Favre.
Pennington steadied the Miami offense by giving it direction. He makes smart reads and accurate throws. He rarely screws up. And he wins.
One of the reasons Miami is in the mix now is because it doesn't make the mistakes it committed in bunches a year ago, and you can look it up: The Dolphins have a league-low 10 giveaways and are plus-12 in the takeaway/giveaway department -- tops in the NFL.
In 2007, they had 29 turnovers and were a minus-7.
The popular subplot, of course, is Miami's Wildcat offense -- a change of pace that is so effective it has been copied by others -- but there is nothing wild about Miami. It plays efficient, solid football, pushing away opponents as it moves up and down the field. Now all it has to do is move up and down its next two opponents to force a division showdown.
Why they can win it: The schedule. They have San Francisco and Kansas City the next two weeks, with the 49ers at home. Cross-country trips are tough on West Coast teams, though the 49ers broke through against Buffalo on Nov. 30. I just don't like their chances of making it two in a row, do you?
Why they can't win: They already lost to the Jets once, and that was at home. Now they have to go to a cold-weather locale for a late-December showdown. I'm sorry, I can't see them winning when there are snowmen in the parking lots.
Key game: Dec. 28 at the New York Jets. It's Pennington vs. Favre, Part II, only this time one goes home for the winter.
X-factor: Ted Ginn Jr. The Jets are vulnerable to the pass. In fact, they rank below everyone but Seattle. Ginn can fly, and you saw what he did to Buffalo earlier this season. He wasn't a factor the first time these two met, but he could be now. I'd tell him to go long and look for the ball.
Uh-oh, the Patriots are in the middle of a stretch run, and if there's one thing we know about Bill Belichick it's that he knows how to close a deal. He lost the league MVP, running backs, defensive backs, Adalius Thomas and now linebacker Tedy Bruschi, yet somehow he keeps the Patriots on track ... and is anyone surprised?
Of course, this time he's doing it with a quarterback who hadn't started a game since high school, and if you're going to measure yourself as a head coach, that's probably a good place to start. I don't know many guys who could've won in these circumstances, but I know one who is.
|How will Matt Cassel play down the stretch? (Getty Images)|
The big game is New England's Dec. 21 date with Arizona, the NFC West champion, but the Patriots catch a break there, too: The game is in New England. So what? So the Cards are 0-4 in the Eastern time zone.
The season finale in Buffalo could be intriguing, too, but it's a lot less intriguing now than it was four weeks ago when the Bills had a pulse. Nevertheless, they could play a role in sorting this mess out, especially if weather is a factor. The only problem is the Bills must do it against New England, and the Patriots have beaten them 10 in a row and 15 of the past 16.
Why they can win: Because they have Bill Belichick and a schedule that plays to their strengths.
Why they can't win: I don't know why, unless Arizona does what it hasn't up to this point -- namely, win a game in the East. At some point, the Cards must prove they can travel well, and this is as good a time as any.
Key game: Dec. 21 vs. Arizona at home.
X-factor: Matt Cassel. This is the first stretch drive for him, and so far, so good. He's holding up well and not committing the mistakes that could sabotage New England. So he wilted under the pass rush vs. Pittsburgh. Tell me who doesn't. None of the remaining opponents is known for pressuring the pocket, with Arizona, which averages two sacks a game, topping the board. The problem with Arizona is you don't want to get in a game of tennis with Kurt Warner. He can hold serve. I don't know that Cassel can.
Two weeks ago, they were headed for the Gotham Bowl, the Giants vs. the Jets in the all-New York Super Bowl. Now, critics can't get off the bandwagon fast enough, confident that the good ship Mangini has run aground.
Maybe. Maybe not. The Jets were supposed to man the bilge pumps after that disastrous road trip to Oakland, remember? Then they won five in a row. The problem here is the timing: The Jets picked a rotten time to blow an engine. They had the division all but wrapped up, and, frankly, screwed the pooch when their defense self-immolated.
They surrendered 484 yards to Denver and 375 to the 49ers. Jay Cutler I can see, but Shaun Hill? Never fear, the Bills are here, and though Buffalo typically plays these guys tough, they're reeling, losing seven of their past nine and producing two field goals in their past two games.
And that's why the Jets can hold on. They have Buffalo this weekend and Seattle next, and not only are the two a combined 8-18, but the Bills rank 23rd in total offense and the Seahawks are 29th. Only two problems there: 1) The 49ers are 22nd and they dominated these guys, and 2) the Seattle game is in Seattle and beware the Western flu. The Jets are 0-3 on the West Coast this year.
One other thing: The Jets rank 31st in pass defense, and that's a problem. I don't suspect it's going to improve anytime soon, but it could: Buffalo can't find the end zone without a field map, and the Seahawks rank 31st in passing.
Why they can win it: Because they have veteran leadership, because they should win their next two and because they finish the season against the Dolphins at home.
Why they can't win it: Because they're all mixed up now, both on offense and defense. Favre hasn't thrown a touchdown in two weeks, and Laveranues Coles has dropped off the map. Look it up. He has 7 yards in catches the past two games.
Key game: Dec. 28 vs. Miami at home. It could determine a division championship.
X-factor: Favre. So the Jets give up chunks of passing yards. It's time they start producing some themselves, and that means Favre might have to return to that high-risk game that had Mangini woodshed him last month. I'm sorry, but at some point your wide receivers must become weapons, and I think we're at that point. Favre's strength is that he can throw the ball downfield, remember? Plus, Seattle has the league's worst pass defense. So do something about it already.