Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 9:03 AM
It's going to be a bit messy to explain all the possible playoff implications of Sunday Night's Baltimore-San Diego game on NBC. Baltimore is currently part of a four-way tie at 10-3 in the AFC...with two of that foursome destined ultimately to earn a top two seed and a bye week...with the other two destined to bring gaudy won-lost records into Week One games against possibly outmatched opponents.
Is San Diego still in the playoff picture? Believe it or not, they are! Two blowout wins have pushed them to 6-7 in a year where 9-7 might earn the final Wildcard. There's even a chance that 8-8 earns the final Wildcard because the Jets have a tough schedule and Cincinnati and Tennessee are far from sure things to keep winning.
Let's take the AFC playoff picture step by step...then we'll run some indicator stats for the big TV game at the end...
PLAYOFF LOCKS (all 10-3 entering the week)
Baltimore: AFC North or Wildcard
Pittsburgh: AFC North or Wildcard
New England: AFC East
Houston: AFC South
Baltimore owns the tie-breaker over Pittsburgh, which gives them a leg up in the AFC North for a probable bye week if they keep winning. Pittsburgh's starting quarterback is hobbled, making a run to the top even tougher. You wonder if the Steelers will hold Big Ben out of the San Francisco game if Baltimore wins the Sunday Night game in San Diego. Why risk a hobbled quarterback against a very physical defense?
Houston probably has the bleakest future in terms of winning out for 13-3 just because C.J. Yates can't be asked to pull games out of the fire every week. But, a schedule of Carolina, Indianapolis, and Tennessee is far from intimidating. We're going to let this week play out before digging very deeply into the dynamics of the "big four." It would make Week 17 very interesting indeed if all four of those teams were still trying to win and earn a bye.
Still at stake are the AFC West and the second Wildcard spot.
Denver: 8-5 (vs. New England, at Buffalo, vs. KC)
Oakland: 7-6 (vs. Detroit, at KC, vs. San Diego)
San Diego: 6-7 (vs. Baltimore, at Detroit, at Oakland)
As ridiculous as it would seem to see Tim Tebow playing in a playoff game with such poor passing form and an offense that struggles to reach 13 points in regulation most weeks...the Broncos are in surprisingly good shape even if they lose to the Patriots Sunday afternoon. They get to finish against a demoralized and disheartened Bills side, and then an even more demoralized and more disheartened Chiefs team that just fired their coach. A 10-6 final record for Denver is a real possibility.
Oakland has to win out to finish 10-6, and will have coin flip games this week with Detroit (a spread of +1 at press time) and vs. San Diego (if that game means anything to the Chargers, and maybe even if it doesn't).
San Diego can't get there from here if Denver makes it to 10-6...the best the Chargers can hope for is a 9-7 mark after seeing three coin-flip games go there way.
Heading into Sunday Night's game, the Chargers still believe they have a chance. Or, at least they're playing like they do! They're coming off blowout victories of Jacksonville and Buffalo, and do have a history of closing strong with this head coach and quarterback. By kickoff, they'll know if Denver has stunned New England, or been exposed as a pretender against playoff caliber opposition. And, they'll know what happened in Oakland with the Raiders too. San Diego's mood could easily be influenced by those late afternoon scores.
We promised to run through the full AFC playoff picture for you since we did that Thursday when talking about Atlanta. The race for the second Wildcard spot heading into Sunday action:
BATTLE FOR LAST WILDCARD SPOT
NY Jets: 8-5 (at Philadelphia, vs. NYG, at Miami)
Cincinnati: 7-6 (at St. Louis, vs. Arizona, vs. Baltimore)
Tennessee: 7-6 (at Indianapolis, vs. Jax, at Houston)
San Diego: 6-7
The Jets control their own destiny but have a tough schedule. They're 3-point underdogs Sunday in Philly, then they'll have a coin flip game vs. the Giants next week, and they may not get a laydown from emotional divisional rival Miami in the season finale.
Cincinnati has the easier path, particularly if Baltimore is in a lame duck situation in the season finale. Tennessee may have the easiest path of all if Houston is in a lame duck spot. But, their starting quarterback is hurt, which could throw a monkey wrench into festivities.
The two AFC West stragglers, Oakland and San Diego do have a chance to get in the mix if the Jets falter and they keep winning. We'll delve more into the en masse tiebreakers next week and beyond.
Amazingly, what looks like a pretty messy picture could actually get messier before Baltimore-San Diego kicks off! Let's crunch the numbers for that one.
Baltimore: 12.5 on offense, 7.6 on defense
San Diego: 15.7 on offense, 11.8 on defense
These are points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. San Diego typically grades out very well in this stat...but destroys themselves with poor special teams play and turnovers. Baltimore's fantastic defense has them at +4.9 in differential, while San Diego is +3.9. Baltimore is the better team in our favorite indicator stat, but not by much.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Baltimore: 42% on offense, 29% on defense
San Diego: 48% on offense, 46% on defense
Wow...look at that defensive number for Baltimore! Do you know how hard it is to pop something in the 20's this deep into the season? They have been helped by facing a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks through the season. But, this is a good stop unit. And, 42% is better than it looks in 2011 because third down conversions have gone down this year. That's well above average. San Diego is FANTASTIC on offense in this stat, but dismal on defense. It will be interesting to see who wins that challenge between Philip Rivers and the Ravens defense. The numbers suggest Joe Flacco should be able to control the flow of the game when the Ravens have the ball.
Baltimore: +3 (24 takeaways, 21 giveaways)
San Diego: -7 (18 takeaways, 25 giveaways)
Here we go...San Diego shoots themselves in the foot so much that you can't trust them to play to their stat expectations. When they do, it's a blowout win and everyone wonders why they can't keep it going. But, these past two seasons especially, the peak outings just aren't very common. We can't say we're very impressed with Baltimore here. Plus three in the final months of the season is about the same as a rounding error. We would have expected a higher number for a 10-3 team that hasn't been dealing with a quarterback injury.
On the whole, Baltimore is the better team, but far from a sure thing to take care of business here. Let's also point out that the Ravens have had some disappointing road results this year:
Baltimore (-6) lost at Tennessee 26-13
Baltimore (-10) lost at Jacksonville 12-7
Baltimore (+3) had to score very late to beat Pittsburgh 23-20
Baltimore (-7) lost at Seattle 22-17
All three losses have been on the road, and Pittsburgh was almost a fourth road loss. The Ravens team that showed up in Seattle and Jacksonville would be in big trouble against the version of San Diego that makes big plays and avoids turnovers. The version of San Diego that can't avoid turnovers would sure be in big trouble though!
JIM HURLEY has been working very closely with his on site sources to add depth and context to the numbers you just read. He'll have a play for you here if the information merits. Be sure you check the "buy picks" page here at the website on Sunday for a full description of what's available. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about basketball and our bowl bonanza when you call.
Back Monday to preview Pittsburgh-San Francisco, then we pick back up with bowl previews on Tuesday. FOOTBALL FEVER...CAN YOU FEEL THE HEAT?!