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Week 15 Judgements: Broncos, not Texans, clearly team to beat in AFC

by | Senior NFL Columnist

1. The Houston Texans aren't the best team in the AFC. Denver is. The Broncos are on a nine-game roll, have an underrated defense, a Super Bowl quarterback and a schedule that should make them 13-3 by season's end. Nevertheless, it's Houston that probably gains home-field advantage -- not only because it has a better record but because it holds the tiebreaker with Denver. But don't be fooled. The Texans may get the No. 1 seed, but they're no favorite to win the AFC.

2. The Texans aren't even the second-best team in the AFC; New England is, and there's a 42-14 rout of the Texans to prove it. But Denver and New England probably lock down the second and third seeds, and that's good for Houston ... because it means it only has to face one of them. The good news for Denver is that if all stays the same the next two weeks, it gains the second first-round bye and, if it plays New England, would draw the Patriots at home.

3. San Francisco can exhale. Had the 49ers lost they would've had to go to Seattle to lock down the NFC West, and, no, I don't like anyone's chances there -- especially the way Seattle is playing now. The Seahawks outscored their last two opponents, 108-17, the first time since the 1950 New York Giants anyone scored 50 or more in successive weeks.

4. Consider that a big break Seattle just gained from the league's schedule maker. The Seahawks are notoriously poor on the road when that road takes them anywhere but Soldier Field, and it took them to Buffalo Sunday. Only it didn't. The game was played in Toronto, and it was played indoors ... with predictable results.

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5. In case you're wondering, yes, Russell Wilson definitely is a player in the league's Rookie of the Year race. He has as many victories as Andrew Luck and more touchdown passes (21) than either Luck or Robert Griffin III. Plus, he has the Seahawks this close to a division title. "You can see it now," said coach Pete Carroll, "we're really playing offense with Russell."

6. Carroll must be warming up for Jim Harbaugh. That's the only explanation I have for a fourth-quarter fake punt with a 30-point lead.

7. I'll tell you what that Washington victory tells me: That Cleveland chose the wrong quarterback, that's what. The Browns should've taken Kirk Cousins, not Brandon Weeden.

8. OK, so the New York Giants can beat anyone when they dial up their "A game." Only one problem: They've been on call waiting far too often this season.

9. For the record, that's the Cowboys' fourth consecutive victory by five or fewer points, and, yes, I'd say that makes them a tough out for Washington on Dec. 30.

10. Say goodnight to Green Bay's Mason Crosby. The Packers have lost faith in the guy, and it's easy to see why: He's missed field goals in eight straight games, including two Sunday, and coach Mike McCarthy seems finished with him. The proof? Instead of trying a 44-yard field goal with fourth-and-6 at the Chicago 26, he went for it ... and made it. That tells you something, and what it tells you is that McCarthy no longer trusts his kicker.

11. The more Minnesota wins, the more Adrian Peterson becomes a legitimate factor in the MVP race. That happens when you have two 200-yard games and approach Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. Peterson, 293 yards shy of the mark, finishes vs. Houston and Green Bay, and, entering Sunday, they ranked 30th and 18th vs. the run.

12. It's not just Buffalo's eighth straight losing season that's so troubling; it's how the Bills got there -- without defense. That wasn't supposed to happen after the Bills invested heavily on that side of the ball, but the numbers don't lie ... and what they tell us is that four times this season the Bills surrendered 45 or more points.

13. The 49ers' Jim Harbaugh should feel a lot better about his quarterback after Sunday night. Colin Kaepernick not only ended New England's 13-game winning streak in December; he beat the game's best quarterback where Tom Brady seldom loses and held together after New England tied the game midway through the fourth quarter. That was impressive. I never liked the move when Harbaugh sat down Alex Smith, but he looks a lot better now than he did after losing to St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, I still say he must get to the conference championship game to prove he was right.

14. People tell me the Atlanta Falcons made a statement by hammering the defending Super Bowl champions, and that's great. Good for them. But the only statement anyone cares about must come in January, not December. It doesn't matter what they do now or how they do it; I care what happens in the playoffs where Matt Ryan hasn't won.

15. Shame on the Detroit Lions. A 28-point loss to Arizona? You must be kidding. Since starting 5-0 last season, the Lions are 9-17, including the playoffs. Steve Young and Jerry Rice may have taught quarterback Matthew Stafford "how to dress in style," as that Van Heusen commercial says, but they should teach him how to win, too.

16. The 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. got lucky when he barely missed that bouncing punt at the end of the first half against the Patriots. It was two muffed punt returns by Kyle Williams that kept San Francisco out of Super Bowl XLVI, and you'd think these guys would learn to get out of the way of a bouncing ball.

17. I'm with NBC's Tony Dungy. If I were Washington's Mike Shanahan I'd play Cousins another week. The reason: 1) They play Philadelphia, which lost nine of its last 10; 2) they give RG3 another week to get healthy and 3) they can win with him.

18. Just a hunch, but somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.

19. When you wonder what went wrong with the Philadelphia Eagles consider this: In their last 30 games they committed 72 turnovers.

20. Yep, the Pittsburgh Steelers see the season slipping away, but take heart, Pittsburgh fans. It's not over. The Steelers must make up a game with Cincinnati, and they can do just that next week when they play the Bengals at home. Cincinnati hasn't beaten Pittsburgh in its last five games, including once this year.

You make the call

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week reiterated the league's intention to look into expanding the playoffs by two or four teams. The league believes it's what the public wants, but I'm not so sure. So I asked my Twitter followers what they think, and the response was unanimous ... as in LEAVE IT ALONE, ROGER!!! Here are some of your responses:

1. Julianne Ture@churchyfur: "Keep the playoffs the way they are. Just because the NHL is dead is no reason to adopt their playoff format."

2. Jake Stevens@ThereItIsJake. "Leave it. Split into eight divisions already allows bad teams to qualify. Of course more teams=more money for owners so will expand.

3. Brian Hendrich@Brian Hendrich. "Terrible idea. Making the playoffs should be hard. Expanding the playoffs just rewards mediocrity."

4. Matt@moosamatt: "Leave it. Bad enough 8-8 teams can make it."

5. Tim Valenzuela@TimValenzuela: "Leave it. Keep it at 12. Fewer teams the better."

6. Mike Spahos@tomike: "Keep it just the way it is. Rewards top seeds, and it is a privilege to make the playoffs. Don't like seeing 8-8 teams in."

7. Jim Benham@ruffbizness: "Horrible idea. Keep it at 12. Don't need #TNF-quality playoff games and a cheapened regular season.

8. Red Gold Bleeder@Red Gold Bleeder: "LEAVE IT. What is the point of a playoff system that allows half the league to compete in January? Playoff headcount fine as it is."

9. Nicholas Brown@Nick the Titan: "If it ain't broke ... don't fix it!"

10. David Gillette@ Dave Gillette: "Diminishes regular season and is pure money grab that insults fans. This isn't 4-year-old tball. Must have winners and losers."

Five things I like

1. The NFL having a moment of silence for the victims of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. There is nothing more to say about an unthinkable crime, so the NFL said nothing ... and it was the right touch.

2. The Giants' Victor Cruz playing for Jack Pinto, one of the 20 children killed in Newtown, Conn. I don't care that the Giants didn't win or didn't score. I care that Cruz did the right thing by dedicating Sunday's game to the 6-year-old by wearing Pinto's name on his gloves and his cleats. Classy. The Giants wore helmet decals to honor the dead, and the Jets will do it Monday, too. Nice.

3. Washington's playoff chances. All the Redskins must do is beat Philadelphia in Philadelphia and Dallas at home, and they're in. They win with RG3. They win with Cousins. And they're the team you want to be. Some teams can't find one good quarterback. The Redskins have two. And they're both rookies.

4. Peyton Manning vs. Baltimore. He's 9-2 vs. the Ravens, winning his last nine. The last time he lost? Try 2001. "All of them were really team wins," said Manning.

5. Everything about Tom Brady. So he lost. He was nothing short of sensational in the second half, throwing for over 300 yards as New England pulled the improbable, rallying from a 31-3 hole vs. the league's best defense. There are more complete teams than New England; there is no more complete quarterback anywhere. If I had my way, Brady would be the league MVP every season.

Five things I don't

1. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh not going for the two-point conversion. It's the same question asked of Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin a week ago: Why, when the Ravens scored on a 61-yard TD to narrow the gap to 34-17, didn't he go for a two-point conversion? If you make it, it's a two-score game. Granted, the chances are slim, but at least it keeps you on life support. But by kicking the extra point, he made it a three-score game, and I don't understand.

2. Kansas City's offense. The Chiefs didn't get a first down until the third quarter -- against the Raiders, no less -- and then on fourth-and-goal at the 4 they take a delay-of-game penalty. You gotta be kidding me. Nope, and why aren't we surprised. This whole season has been a delay-of-game for these guys.

3. Colin Kaepernick on snaps under center. I never thought of this as all that difficult ... until I watched Kaepernick struggle with it again and again Sunday, botching a fourth-and-inches sneak when he fumbled the snap. I always said the danger with making the switch from Alex Smith to Kaepernick in midseason is that you risk more mistakes ... and Kaepernick just proved it. Of course, he also proved he could beat Tom Brady in New England. You take the good with the bad, and the 49ers just got a lot of good.

4. Pittsburgh's pass protection. Talk about horrendous. That last series of the fourth quarter was awful, with the offensive line failing to protect Ben Roethlisberger when Pittsburgh had a chance to close out the Cowboys. Right guard David DeCastro, who was making his first start, was in the middle of both of them, and his timing couldn't have been worse.

5. David Akers' future. The 49ers' kicker has too many missed field goals lately, and he missed another Sunday night -- this time a 39-yarder that could've pushed the 49ers to a 10-0 cushion. Akers has 10 misses this season; he had eight in 52 tries last season. That's an issue that better be fixed by the playoffs.

Five guys who have some 'splaining to do

1. Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown. He fumbles a punt return. He runs out of bounds when he shouldn't. He stands so far back for a punt return he lets it roll for a 59-yard kick without a return. Horrible. Pittsburgh had no business blowing this game, and Brown was a big reason it did.

2. Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. I know Baltimore's offensive coordinator hasn't called plays since he was at Wake Forest in 1999, but that's no excuse for that dreadful decision at the end of the first half that resulted in a 98-yard interception return. The Ravens had three timeouts. So why were they rushing to throw at the Denver 4? They could've run once, twice, it didn't matter. Asked to assess the call, intended receiver Anquan Boldin hesitated before saying, "It ain't really about the play-calling. It's about the players on the field." Not there it wasn't. It was all about the play-calling, and that one stunk.

3. Tampa Bay linebacker Adam Hayward. So you're upset. You should be. Your team stunk. But don't try pushing around assistant coaches ... and especially don't try pushing around Bryan Cox. You won't win that one, Adam.

4. Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel. He had one of his players standing under the goal post in case Sebastian Janikowski's 57-yard field goal fell short. Naturally, of course, it didn't. Nobody in the league has a stronger leg than Janikowski. So how come Crennel didn't get the memo?

5. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. He has an 11-point lead with eight minutes to play. If he makes no mistakes, he's home free. Only he does make one ... by trying a Music City Miracle reprise on a punt return. Huh? The ball is fumbled, Chicago recovers and, lucky for McCarthy, the Packers hold the Bears to a field goal. It was a risk not worth taking. So why take it? Someone? Anyone?

Just asking but ...

 Who wins the NFC East?

 Who's worse, Jacksonville or Kansas City?

 What's happened to Chicago?

 Do the Giants make the playoffs?

 San Francisco or Seattle?

Numbers to remember

0 -- Kansas City first-half first downs
5 -- Career Asante Samuel interceptions of Eli Manning
6 -- Straight weeks with a Dez Bryant TD
7 -- Washington touchdown passes of 50 or more yards this season
7 -- Straight 100-yard games for Calvin Johnson
12 -- Mason Crosby missed field goals
20 -- First-half first downs by Carolina
42 -- Straight games with Jacksonville allowing a sack

My top five

1. Denver
2. Atlanta
3. San Francisco
4. New England
5. Green Bay

My bottom five

32. Kansas City
31. Jacksonville
30. Oakland
29. Philadelphia
28. Detroit

Next weekend's three best games

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh ... AFC's sixth seed at stake.

N.Y. Giants at Baltimore ... Now, more than ever, Giants must win.

San Francisco at Seattle ... 49ers try to become first team to win in Seattle.


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