CBSSports.com pro football writers Pete Prisco and Clark Judge face off weekly throughout the season.
Is Monday's loss an aberration or a sign of trouble for the Jets?
PRISCO: I think it's a sign of trouble. Not the kind of trouble that will prevent them from making the playoffs, but the kind of trouble that will keep them from getting to a Super Bowl. It's all about two things in this NFL: Throwing the football and knocking down the other guy's quarterback. The Jets didn't do either well against the Patriots. Mark Sanchez had major issues, throwing three picks, and looking out of sorts the entire night. He just doesn't have the ability yet to take over a game when his team needs him to do so. That will show up down the road. Where was the vaunted pass rush? This is the heaviest blitzing team in the NFL, and Tom Brady did what he wanted to in the pocket. His ability to move helped, but it just didn't seem like the Jets had enough bodies around him to make him a bit uncomfortable. He was sacked three times, but most of the time he had way too much time. That's why he had a big night throwing it with four touchdown passes. The Jets are indeed a run-first team on offense and they are good against the run on defense. But to win a Super Bowl, they will need more from their passing game and their pass defense. That's what it's all about now in the NFL come postseason time. Sanchez has to get it going and the pressure has to come.
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JUDGE: It's both. It's an aberration in that nobody will score 45 on these guys again, but it's also a sign the Jets' Super Bowl aspirations are in deep, deep kimchi. Look, the Jets probably don't win the AFC East; the Patriots do. That makes the Jets a road team for the playoffs, and that's OK because until Monday they won their last eight games away from home. But it's not OK when you consider that if and when they play the Patriots again it's where they just got obliterated. Also consider that when Tom Brady is healthy, the Pats don't lose at home. Yeah, I know, Baltimore blasted them in the playoffs there last season, but Brady had broken ribs. He doesn't now, and that's unfortunate for Generation Rex. The Jets can talk all they want. It's the Patriots who have the answers, and, in all likelihood, the all-important home-field advantage.
The second-best team in the AFC after New England?
PRISCO: I think that's easy. It's the Steelers. They showed real toughness winning at Baltimore on Sunday night. The Ravens would be the pick had Cam Cameron not made the bonehead decision to throw it on second and 5 leading to the lost fumble that set up the winning score for the Steelers. The Steelers still have issues, but I think after watching games this past weekend, it's obvious they have fewer issues than the Jets or the Ravens. I'll take Ben Roethlisberger over Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez. That's why I'd take the Steelers as the second-best AFC team. But we have four weeks left. That can change.
JUDGE: Pittsburgh, and I'll tell you why: The Steelers have the quarterback and defensive coordinator I trust most down the stretch. Ben Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls, and Dick LeBeau is the most imaginative and most difficult defensive coordinator to combat. I know, they had a close call with Buffalo and got torched by the Patriots ... in Pittsburgh, no less. It happens. They're still 9-3, and they just beat a good Baltimore team in Baltimore without their starting tight end, their starting right tackle, their punter and their star defensive end. The Steelers know how to win big games, and that's why I'll take them in a photo finish with the Jets and Baltimore. So they don't run as well as the Jets. So their secondary is suspect. So they have a raft of injuries. They have a quarterback who makes big plays and a defense that forces mistakes and intimidates opponents. That moves them to the head of my Avis division.
Who's the second best to Atlanta in the NFC?
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JUDGE: New Orleans. The Saints are on a five-game roll and getting healthy while they're winning games. They're peaking at just the right time, with Drew Brees starting to play his best football of the season and running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas starting to heal after extended furloughs. So the Saints snuck by Cincinnati. Big deal. They won. Good teams do that. They're beginning to look like the club that won last season's Super Bowl, and that's a warning for Atlanta. The Falcons beat them in overtime earlier this season, but that Saints' team wasn't as good as this one. The two meet again on Dec. 27 in a game that, in all likelihood, decides the division, and lucky for Atlanta it's at the Georgia Dome. Matt Ryan is 19-1 there, and the Falcons will need every advantage they can call on to hold these guys off.
Bigger shock: Jaguars in first place or the Colts not being there?
PRISCO: For me, it's the Jaguars in first place. When the season started, I thought they would be a .500 team at best. Then they had some real rough moments when they were blown out by Kansas City and Tennessee and it looked to be unraveling. But they pulled it back together. They've given the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew and he's put this team on his back. If you look at the numbers, it's hard to believe they're a first-place team. They have a point differential of minus-43, which is by far the worst of any division leader. There are four last-place teams with better point differential. They are ranked 17th in total offense and 25th in total defense. They are 29th in passing and 27th against the pass. How are they winning? For one, they've simplified the offense. They've also improved the run defense. And they've given it to Jones-Drew. That combination has helped turn the thing around. You have to give coach Jack Del Rio credit for doing that. There was talk his job was on the line after the Monday night loss to the Titans. Now he might win the division. He's earned the praise.
JUDGE: It has to be the Jags. The Colts didn't win the division two years ago, so this isn't as uncommon as, say, spotting Super Bowl rings in Detroit. Plus, I'm not convinced Indy doesn't win the AFC South anyway. But the Jaguars ... now that's a club most people pegged for dead last in this division. Their coach was on the hot seat. Their quarterback was a dud. And their fans were anywhere but the stadium on Sundays. When talk got around to franchises that couldn't draw, Jacksonville was at the top of the list. Now, all of that has changed. Jack Del Rio looks safe. David Garrard looks good. And there are no more blackouts. Jacksonville is a tough out again, and maybe the Jags make it, maybe they don't. All I know is that of the four teams in the division Jacksonville is the one I was certain wouldn't make it to the top.