Colts, Patriots, Broncos exposed as AFC race takes revealing turn

ON THE NFL

Monday Morning Qb

December 11, 2006|By KEN MURRAY

The Indianapolis Colts didn't just get beat yesterday, they were shredded in Jacksonville.

Tom Brady didn't just lose in Miami in Week 14, the New England Patriots quarterback was shut out.

The San Diego Chargers didn't just clinch the AFC West, they made a statement that is certain to reverberate into the playoffs.

In the AFC, the door is open for the Chargers, for the Ravens, maybe even for the Cincinnati Bengals, to make a date with destiny. What we learned in Week 14 is that the road to Miami for this season's Super Bowl doesn't necessarily run through Indianapolis -- or New England -- any longer.

The Chargers seized the top seed in the AFC with a 48-20 rout of the Denver Broncos and a record-setting, three-touchdown effort by the incomparable LaDainian Tomlinson.

The Ravens made their pitch, too, with another withering defensive show, taming hostile Arrowhead Stadium and the Kansas City Chiefs, 20-10.

And the Bengals' fourth straight win -- a 27-10 decision over the Oakland Raiders -- strengthened their late-season push for a wild-card berth. They are building momentum.

But it was the teams that lost yesterday that revealed the most about this season's stretch run.

The Colts are in trouble because they can't stop anyone, the Patriots can't find any kind of offensive rhythm, and the Broncos have pinned their postseason hopes on a rookie, Jay Cutler, who may not be ready to carry that load.

Here's a quick look at those three beleaguered teams.

The Colts gave up a franchise-record 375 rushing yards in a shocking 44-17 loss to the Jaguars. The worst part was that they knew the Jaguars weren't going to pass and still couldn't stop rookie Maurice Jones-Drew (166 rushing yards) or veteran Fred Taylor (131).

When the Jaguars rolled up a 24-10 halftime lead, they had 251 yards rushing and 42 passing. It could have been worse, but quarterback David Garrard threw an interception in the end zone.

The Colts have to play with a lead to protect their woeful defense. That puts all the pressure on Peyton Manning, and even he can't overcome ineptitude like the defense showed this time.

The Patriots hold a two-game lead in the AFC East because the New York Jets lost yesterday, but New England's 21-0 loss to the Dolphins pretty much assured it won't get a first-round bye.

A week after they struggled to beat the Detroit Lions, the Patriots were beaten easily by Miami. Brady had a 18-3 record in career December starts coming in, but got little protection against a blitzing Dolphins defense led by Jason Taylor, who should win this year's defensive Player of the Year award.

If coach Mike Shanahan believed Cutler was good enough to lead the Broncos through the stretch run, he should have had him in long before this. He knew what Jake Plummer is capable of; that part was no surprise.

That the Broncos couldn't handle the Chargers' offense speaks to how dangerous San Diego may be in the postseason, especially if it claims home-field advantage as the No. 1 seed.

Transformed Titans

Nine weeks ago, after a near-miss, 14-13 loss to the Colts, the Tennessee Titans were 0-5 and, figuratively speaking, dead in the water.

Now they are 6-7 and scaring everybody they play. How did it happen? Vince Young shortened his learning curve.

Young apparently doesn't have to adjust to the NFL as much as it has to adjust to him. Young has won his past four starts and six of his past eight. Yesterday, he pulled out his third straight come-from-behind victory, a 26-20 verdict over his hometown Houston Texans.

This week's heroics included a 39-yard scramble down the middle of the field on a third-and-14 play to win the game in overtime. Yes, he is a good runner (86 yards against Houston). But he's a pretty good passer, too. He threw for 218 yards to make the Texans second-guess their decision to draft Mario Williams.

Young's play has been infectious, and he's the best thing that's happened to Nashville since the Titans went to the Super Bowl in the 1999 season.

Thursday edge

The NFL may need to rethink its Thursday night televised games on NFL Network. Nothing wrong with the broadcast; it's just that the game is proving to be a huge advantage for the home team.

In the three games played on Thursday so far - with three days' rest - the home teams won each time. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Broncos in Week 12, the Bengals beat the Ravens in Week 13 and the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns last week. Only the Steelers were prohibitive favorites.

It's a trend that should continue this week when the Seattle Seahawks host the San Francisco 49ers. In the last Thursday night game of the season, the Minnesota Vikings will visit the Green Bay Packers. It could be five straight for the home team.

Although the league lined up division rivalries for the short-week series, it's still not a good situation. And this, remember, is a league that prides itself on creating a level playing field.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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