A game of hide and seek
In AFC, the race is on to mask, reveal flaws
FOXBOROUGH -- The Jets are dead, the Bills are on life support, and the Dolphins are floundering. What's going on in the once competitive AFC East? That is a question yet to be fully answered, but this morning the Patriots have a two-game lead with six to play over Miami and would have to implode for anyone else in the division to pass them. If they simply take care of their business Dec. 7 when they host Miami in what's likely to be a fresh-frozen game, they should sink the Dolphins for good and have bigger fish to fry after that unless the wheels come completely off their playoff cart.
How likely is that to happen? Barring injury, not likely at all despite their flaws, because at this time of year the most important thing isn't who has the best team. The most important thing is who is playing best, and at the moment who but perhaps the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, or Philadelphia Eagles are playing better than New England?
The Titans, despite barely getting by Jacksonville Sunday, may be the most complete team in the AFC at the moment. Even though Kansas City (9-1) has the best record in the conference, it has shown enough defensive vulnerabilities to make it suspect on the afternoons it doesn't score its average 30.6 points per game. Sunday was an example as the Bengals, who are on the rise under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, hit the Chiefs for a 68-yard punt return for a score and a 77-yard touchdown catch for the winner in a 24-19 Kansas City loss. Chiefs quarterback Trent Green threw for 313 yards and it still wasn't enough.
Earlier in the year, the Chiefs were pretty thoroughly outplayed by the Broncos but managed to beat them at home, 24-23. They had to go into overtime to hold off the Packers. This does not mean they aren't the most dangerous team in the AFC. It just means they are more beatable than a 9-1 record might make you think.
As for the Titans and Colts, they are both 8-2 and will slug it out for the AFC South title the rest of the way with a very likely deciding confrontation also coming Dec. 7 in Nashville. Tennessee will face Atlanta and the Jets in the interim, and Indianapolis goes to Buffalo this weekend before hosting the Patriots. Where this leaves the Titans and Colts is very likely in the playoffs, because if one of the wild-card teams doesn't come out of their division, there should be a federal investigation.
Of the two, the Titans seem by far the more dangerous opponent even though New England managed to beat them at home earlier this season, 38-30. That's because coach Jeff Fisher has built a balanced team that is averaging 26.5 points per game and allowing only 17.7, a nearly 10-point margin of error in a league where too many teams have no margin for error.
Like the Patriots, Tennessee has gotten hot at the right time, wininng its last five in a row and seven of its last eight since losing to New England. Although its running game remains suspect, averaging 3 yards per carry, it has an underrated crew of receivers, arguably the best all-around quarterback in the league in Steve McNair, and a fast and aggressive defense that makes things happen. That may well make the Titans the most dangerous team in the conference.
Indianapolis, on the other hand, is more reliant on its offense than its defense once again, as coach Tony Dungy tries to rebuild that defense in the image of the one he created in Tampa while trying to stay as competitive as he can at the same time. What that has yielded is a defense giving up 20.2 points per game, which is a problem on the days his offense isn't hot.
For the Colts to reach the Super Bowl, they will have to continue scoring at a furious rate, judging by how things have gone of late, because their defense has given up 31 to the Jets, 28 to the Jaguars, and 21 to Houston in their last three outings (they also allowed Miami to score 17 at a time when the Dolphins are struggling to score at all). That means two of their last four opponents scored above their seasonal average, and Miami met its average of 17 at a time when in the next two games it failed to total 17 (7 vs. the Titans and 9 against the Ravens).
As for New England, the Patriots are playing the best football in their division by far. They are undefeated at home (5-0) and have the third-best conference record at 5-1 (trailing Kansas City's 8-1 and Indy's 6-1). Most importantly, they are getting healthy on defense at a time when a lot of teams are losing players.
Yet there remains a nagging feeling of foreboding because their margin for error seems so perilously thin. Sunday night was a good example. They shut out the Cowboys, 12-0, but they also were looking at a dangerous situation with just over two minutes to play in the third quarter after Dallas had driven to New England's 19-yard line.
After a night of having done little or nothing on offense, here were the Cowboys, 19 yards away from making it a 2-point game with a quarter to play. As things turned out, Ty Law made a marvelous interception of a pass thrown behind tight end Jason Witten. It was a play that had nothing to do with schemes or genius or any of the things so often cited for why the Patriots are 8-2. It was an individual player making an individual play to seal a victory. It was what winning players and winning teams do.
Yet one has to wonder about a team that so often puts itself in such positions, because if it does that too often, it is almost inevitable that the ball will bounce the wrong way or the defense won't be quite stout enough.
When your biggest offensive threats -- at the moment -- are Deion Branch and David Givens, you have cause to fret. Yet when you're allowing barely two touchdowns per game and limiting your mistakes, you are also in position to beat most of the teams you play.
At this juncture, what you need most is a team getting healthier, not sicker, and one that doesn't contribute to its own demise very often. Bill Belichick has such a team. How far he goes with it no one honestly can say, because while the Patriots are playing as well as anyone in the AFC, they are -- like their competitors in Kansas City, Indianapolis, Nashville, Denver, and Miami -- flawed.
Whose flaws are exposed most over the next nine weeks will decide who wins the AFC championship, because there is at least one thing that is sure about this season: There will be a Super Bowl played Feb. 1 in Houston, but there will be no super team in it.
There will be two survivors.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.