STORY OF THE WEEK
There’s not a great team in the bunch, but the AFC East had the best week of any division. All four teams won, leaving the New England Patriots, heavily favored in the preseason to win their seventh division title in nine years, a game ahead of the surging New York Jets and Miami Dolphins with three games to play.
The Patriots (8-5) got by mediocre Carolina 20-10 on Sunday, but it wasn’t pretty. Receiver Randy Moss was held to one catch for 16 yards. In truth, Moss and his teammates have been out of sorts since thrashing the Jets on Nov. 22, getting crushed at New Orleans and blowing a big lead at Miami.
New England’s struggles have given the defending division champion Dolphins, who held off Jacksonville 14-10, and the Jets, who whipped lowly Tampa Bay 26-3, opportunities to get back in the hunt. Miami has won four of five behind mercurial running back Ricky Williams and rising young quarterback Chad Henne. The Jets have won three in a row as first-year coach Rex Ryan’s defense has allowed just 22 points.
Buffalo (5-8) won’t make the playoffs, but the Bills have beaten the Jets and Dolphins and host the Patriots on Sunday. New England has the slightly easier schedule of the three contenders.
The only trouble with the AFC East race is that New England, Miami and the Jets are done playing each other. That warrants a thumbs down to the schedule-makers.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
GREEN BAY PACKERS
They’re not going to win the NFC North because the Minnesota Vikings are 11-2, but the Packers continued their renaissance Sunday by winning 21-14 at Chicago for their first sweep of the NFL’s oldest rivalry in six years. Green Bay (9-4) can clinch a playoff spot this week if it wins at plunging Pittsburgh and the Giants (7-6) lose to the Redskins. While quarterback Aaron Rodgers receives most of the attention, the hero in Green Bay is new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose 3-4 scheme has transformed that side of the ball. The Packers are ranked second on defense a year after finishing 20th. They won’t be an easy first-round foe.
FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 14
UP: Peyton Manning threw three interceptions against the Broncos. Brandon Marshall set an NFL record by catching 21 passes for 200 yards against an injury-riddled secondary. And yet the Colts still steamrollered to a 28-16 victory, improving to 13-0 and clinching home-field advantage in the AFC with a record-setting 22nd straight triumph.
DOWN: They’re still in the playoff race at 7-6, but 2009 has been a season to forget for the New York Giants, who fell behind archrival Philadelphia 14-0 at home and stormed back to lead 31-30 only to fall 45-38 for their sixth loss in eight games. New York has surrendered an average of 32.4 points during that stretch.
UP: While the Giants are sinking, the Eagles (9-4) are soaring, winning four in a row to take sole possession of the NFC East. Philadelphia has averaged 32.5 points during its run as DeSean Jackson continues to be the NFL’s top big-play weapon. The second-year playmaker had touchdowns of 72 and 60 yards Sunday.
DOWN: Barring a complete collapse, Cincinnati (9-5) is going to win the AFC North, but the Bengals’ 30-10 loss at Minnesota was disheartening. Cincinnati was terrific against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh but failed its first serious test otherwise since Week 2 heading into a big game at San Diego.
UP: The Chargers (10-3) won their eighth straight by surviving 20-17 at Dallas. Philip Rivers is overshadowed by Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but he’s perhaps the game’s best young quarterback. San Diego, which upset Indianapolis in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, should have a first-round bye if it beats Cincinnati.