AFC Power Rankings (Part 2)

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AFC Power Rankings (Part 2)

In Part 1 of the AFC Power Rankings, I crowned the Broncos winners of the pathetic AFC West (Do you know that every team in that division has a negative point differential?) and sent the Colts, Browns, Jags, Bills, Dolphins, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders on their way to an early off-season.

Now, we get to the good stuff. (For a quick recap of how things shook out among the AFC's best teams on Sunday, click here.)

AFC Power Rankings, Part 2
The Sixth Seed: The first AFC Wild Card spot will go to the AFC North runner-up either the Steelers or Ravens. The second and final Wild Card spot (The No. 6 seed) will likely come down to a battle among three teams: Cincinnati, Tennessee and the J-E-T-S.

7. Cincinnati (7-5): The Bengals own the tiebreaker over Tennessee, thanks to head-to-head win in Week 9. Cincy also (as of now) owns the tiebreaker over the Jets, thanks to a one-game edge in inter-conference record. So all things being equal, I guess the Bengals have a leg up. However, all things are not equal.

Cincys still led by two rookies Andy Dalton and AJ Green whove yet to experience the true grit of an NFL December. They still have a coach who doesnt exactly exude confidence. They also have a great defense (including the league's sixth ranked run D), so I don't want to sell them too short. But more importantly, there's this:

The Bengals have played six games against teams that currently have a winning record: In those games, Cincinnati's 1-5.

Theyve played six games against teams currently living below .500: In those games, theyre 6-0. That's not the mark of a playoff team.

Cincinnati has remaining games against both the Texans and the Ravens (combined record: 18-6), and if they can win one, theyll be in line to become one of the more surprising playoff teams in recent memory. I dont see it though.

6. Tennessee (7-5): Chris Johnson ran for 366 yards and one touchdown in his first eight games this season. In his last four, the artist formerly known as CJ2K has run for 486 and three touchdowns (and that includes a season-low 13 yards in a Week 10 loss to Atlanta). As the weather turns colder (it will eventually, right?) and offenses rely heavier on the run, a revitalized Johnson could take Tennessee to another level. Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck remains stable-not-super as always in the pocket, and the Titans defense ranks seventh in the NFL, allowing only 19.7 points a game.

The big test for the Titans comes this Sunday, when they host the Saints. But if there was ever a time to catch New Orleans sleeping, it might be now. The Saints are on the heels of two straight highly-emotional, prime time wins, and suddenly have an unexpected two-game cushion over Atlanta in the NFC South. Maybe New Orleans sleep walks into a lazy Sunday afternoon start in Tennessee? Maybe. And if so, the Titans will be a great spot. After New Orleans, theyre in Indianapolis, then host the Jags, before finishing the season in Houston. (The Texans beat the Titans 41-7 earlier this season, but by Week 17, Houston might already be in playoff mode.)

As of now, the Titans have a 12 game lead over the Jets in the tie-breaker, but even if the teams finish with identical records in the conference, the Titans would likely get the call thanks to their record against similar opponents. (In that case, the Jets Week 11 loss to Denver would prove to be the killer.)

5. New York (7-5): The Jets don't have an easy schedule down the stretch. After hosting the Chiefs next week, they'll travel to Philly (which I still refuse to consider a cake walk, regardless of record and drama), then host the Giants for a half-home game and finish off the season in Miami, against a Dolphins team that would sell their souls to ruin the Jets season.

Still, haven't we been here before with the Jets? Aren't we ALWAYS here with the Jets?

Somehow, someway, I see them sneaking in. And at that point, there's no team I'd rather play less. Who knows, maybe I'm still bearing the scars of last season, but the last thing anyone in New England wants to do is count out the Jets.

The Survivors: I've got nothing but respect for these guys, but you don't win the AFC with TJ Yates at quarterback.

4. Houston (9-3): I feel bad counting out the Texans. After all, they should have been in trouble when they started the season without Arian Foster. If not then, then certainly when they lost Andre Johnson. If not then, then definitely when they lost Mario Williams for the entire season. If not then, then definitely when they lost Matt Schaub for the year. If not then, they definitely when they lost back up Matt Leinart for the season. If not then, then DEFINITELY now that Johnson's suffered another hamstring injury (although the severity is still undetermined).

But the Texans are like the killer in every horror movie ever made. They won't die.

At this point, with a somewhat favorable schedule down the stretch (at Cinci, Carolina, at Indy, Ten), they should hold on for their first AFC South crown in franchise history. But as far as the playoffs goes, I repeat: You don't win the AFC with TJ Yates at quarterback.

Granted, I'm sure a few people were saying that about Tom Brady this time 10 years ago.

The Final Three: Despite all the possibilities, the conference will still come down to these three:

3. New England Patriots (9-3):2. Baltimore Ravens (9-3):1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3):
For the last month, weve obsessed over how easy the Patriots have it down the stretch. On that note, I present this blind schedule comparison.

Team 1: At Washington, At Denver, Miami, Buffalo
Team 2: Indianapolis, at San Diego, Cleveland, at Cincinnati
Team 3: Cleveland, at San Francisco, St. Louis, at Cleveland

Pretend you're an NFL coach. Actually, better yet, pretend you're you. Rank these schedule in order of preference.

Mine goes a little something like this:

Team 3: Pittsburgh
Team 2: Baltimore
Team 1: New England

Crazy, right? What happened to the easiest schedule of all time?

Either way, the Patriots are ranked third here because we still don't know what to expect. Regardless of what Bill Belichick says, there's no way to gauge what this team is capable of while playing against the dregs of the NFL. Of course, given my previous point, if I say that about the Pats, I have to say the same about the Steelers and Ravens so I will. Short of Pittsburgh's Week 15 Monday Night showdown in San Francisco, we'll learn very little about the toast of the AFC over the final month of the season.

But right now, the Ravens and Steelers are in another class. I mean, it's cute and all the Patriots are getting creative with Matt Slater and Julian Edelman in the secondary; with no-name linebackers trying to cover the likes of Pierre Garcon. But that only takes you so far. As interesting and hilarious as it is to watch, it's only a distraction from the fact that the Patriots are in a place where they're forced to routinely used wide receivers on defense.

Meanwhile, the Ravens and Steelers defenses rank third and fourth, respectively, in points per game. They rank second and seventh, respectively, in rushing yards per game. Fifth and second, respectively, in passing yards per game.

In those three categories, the Pats rank 10th, 10th and 32nd. They're not in the same league.

So, I'm putting the Pats third.

As for the Steelers and Ravens: Well, considering the Ravens swept the season series, you'd think they deserve to be one here. And if you made the argument, I'd have to listen. But here's why the Steelers are my current favorites to emerge from the AFC.

Big Ben vs. Joe Flacco: It's that simple. Can you really count on Flacco to win three or four straight playoff games? His combustibility has led to awful losses in Jacksonville and Seattle, and when it comes down to it, you know he has at least one stinker left, and it will more than likely end up costing Baltimore it's season.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Quotes, notes and stars: Wright "today was tough"

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Quotes, notes and stars: Wright "today was tough"

Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 10-3 loss to the Rangers:

 

QUOTES

* “On a night when he didn’t have the consistency to the knuckleball that we’ve seen from many of his starts, he went to his fastball a little bit more. [Against] a good fastball hitting team . . . He’s typically made good adjustments staying over the rubber to get his release point out front -- that wasn’t the case [tonight].” John Farrell said about Steven Wright struggling with his knuckleball in his 4.2 inning outing.

* “The ball was spinning a lot out of my hand. It was a little bit hard to grip the ball because the humidity. But it was the opposite -- it was real sticky. That’s the first time I’ve had that ever. But I still felt like I should have figured that out. It was one of those things where I think I started trying to hard . . . I was trying to the throw the kitchen sink at them but it wasn’t working.” Steven Wright said about struggling to find his knuckleball in the 10-3 loss.

* “It’s hard for me because you want to go out there and try and go as deep as you can to try to help the bullpen, but, you know, today was tough, a tough day for me.” Wright said on his disappointment with only going 4.2 innings.

 

 

NOTES

 

* Hanley Ramirez laced his fourth homerun in his last 11 games. In his nine career games at Texas, Ramirez has six homeruns.

* David Ortiz went hitless for the first time since June 12th. Boston’s designated hitter also hasn’t hit a home run since June 17th -- his third longest homerless spell of 2016.

* Xander Bogaerts scored his 57th run of the season, putting him one run behind Ian Kinsler -- the fourth highest total in the majors.

 

 

STARS

 

1) Adrian Beltre

The ex-Red Sox third baseman finished 2-for-4 with an RBI, a walk -- scoring the team high three runs.

 

2) Ian Desmond

Desmond laced his 13th homer of the season in his second at-bat of the game, sparking Texas’ offense with its first run of the game.

 

3) Elvis Andrus

Andrus ended Steven Wright’s day quickly with a three-run triple in the fifth inning, finishing 1-for-2 with two walks and a run.

First Impressions from Boston's 10-3 loss to Texas

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First Impressions from Boston's 10-3 loss to Texas

First impressions of the Red Sox 10-3 loss to Texas:

 

Steven Wright can’t be stellar every night.

Although it’s seemed like it lately, it’s just not possible -- especially with a knuckleball.

He wasn’t even that bad Saturday night. He just didn’t get any help from his defense in the fifth frame.

But there’s no denying he didn’t have his best stuff. But whatever the reason, he couldn’t find consistent command or movement from his knuckler and he gave up some hard hits as a result.

Did he receive a fate worse than he pitched? Yes. But what Boston saw from Wright in his Saturday start is there will be times his go-to pitch is off -- and there’s really no way to work around that.

 

Hanley Ramirez’s “timing issue” seems to be coming around.

Although he hasn’t necessarily caught fire, Ramirez hit another home run -- once again to right field.

He’s shown more patience at the plate, and not trying to pull every ball out of the yard.

Ramirez doesn’t have everything completely figured out, but his homeruns have been plenty valuable at this point.

 

Ian Desmond is no joke.

The newly converted centerfielder is 5-for-10 against Boston pitching this series with a run and two RBI.

The ex-Nationals shortstop has good pop and good speed still. He seems to be a lot more comfortable in his new home after hitting .233 for Washington last year with 19 homeruns -- hitting his 13th Saturday night.

 

For all the criticisms Boston’s bullpen has received, the Rangers’ is definitely worse.

Although there wasn’t the same miraculous comeback witnessed Friday night -- and Boston’s pen wasn’t particularly stellar in the loss -- the Ranger relievers did not look good in the second game of the series.

They put themselves into deep counts right away -- and was lucky Boston’s offense was off.

Boston’s bullpen has its faults -- no question -- but it’s not nearly as bad as the one in Texas.

 

The Red Sox unfortunately have to rely on Clay Buchholz Sunday.

The bullpen is beaten down once again. The righty is still fighting for his job, so this would be the best time for him to pitch competitively into the sixth inning -- and maybe even longer.

DC United tops Revolution 2-0

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DC United tops Revolution 2-0

WASHINGTON -- Lamar Neagle had a goal and an assist to give D.C. United an early lead that stood up in a 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday night.

D.C., after being shut out in its two previous games and four of six, opened the scoring in the 20th minute when Luciano Acosta chipped a perfect pass over the defense to the foot of Neagle, who volleyed it in from 10 yards out.

Sean Franklin scored the second goal, his first of the season, when he knocked in Neagle's cross. Albaro Saborio sent a long ball down the right sideline that Neagle ran down and crossed to Franklin for the easy counter.

D.C. (5-6-5) leapfrogged the Revolution (4-5-7) into fifth in the Eastern Conference with its fourth shutout in the last seven games and improved to 2-0-1 in the series this season.