I sometimes play a card game called Blackout. Every turn, you declare how many tricks you’re hoping to win that round; each round, the number of cards in your hand increases by one. The point of the game is to evaluate your hand, estimate which cards you expect to win with, and which you expect to throw away. You gain points for guessing correctly.
Every team, midseason, has been dealt a hand. Our job: to figure out how where they stand, especially from Indy’s point of view. Hence …
… The AFC Midseason Blackout Shindig.
The Bad (with teams current record, and the best/worst case end scenario)
Jacksonville 0-8 3-13 1-15
Houston 2-5 5-11 3-13
Pittsburgh 2-5 6-10 4-12
Cleveland 3-5 7-9 5-11
Buffalo 3-5 8-8 5-11
I don’t see Jacksonville losing the rest of their games.
They play Houston and Tennessee twice; they could go 2-2 in those games, and with Cleveland and Buffalo … Jacksonville can pull those games off. See ‘best case’ scenario? Again, with such an easy schedule, the Jags do not lose the rest of their games – but I can see 1-15. Pittsburgh’s schedule down the stretch is easier than Houston’s – the latter plays Indy twice, Denver, and New England, and travel to Arizona and Tennessee. Just a bad,bad draw for Houston.
Buffalo is harder to gauge. They play Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Miami late season, and could go 2-1 in those games … or 0-3. Six of their eight games have come down to a single score.
Oakland 3-4 8-8 6-10
Miami 3-4 7-9 6-10
New York 4-4 9-7 6-10
Tennessee 3-4 9-7 5-11
San Diego 4-3 8-8 7-9
Baltimore 3-4 9-7 7-9
Of these teams, statistically, one will make the playoffs … and at this point, my bet is on Baltimore. San Diego and New York have more wins, technically, but remember – Baltimore plays two reeling teams over the next three weeks (Chicago and Cleveland), and hosts Pittsburgh and Minnesota later this year. That should be good for four wins.
Of course, they do play the Jets in week 12 …
… but despite New York’s record, their four wins have come at a margin of 13 total points. I don’t think the Jets are good. I think the Patriots had an off day, the Falcons are really bad, and Tampa should have won. At this point, New York could easily be 2-6.
The only other real contender in San Diego. The Chargers, unfortunately (for them), have to play Denver twice and KC twice; they play Cincy at home, and travel to Washington next week. San Diego can win their way into the playoffs at this point, but especially with those tough division games looming … I can’t really see it.
Tennessee has a very easy schedule ahead, but unless they can rebound from their last few games, I don’t see them staying alive past week 14. At that point, if everything pans out as it should – beat the bad teams, lose to the rest – the Titans would be 6-7, needing to win their last three games to have a shot. Of course, they do hold tiebreakers over the Jets and Chargers …
5. New England
3. Kansas City
New England (6-2) Best: 12-4 Worst: 10-6
The Hand: PIT, @CAR, DEN, @HOU, CLE, @MIA, @BAL, BUF
The New England Patriots are one score away from being 0-2 against the Jets this year. Tom Brady is in the worst season of his career (last week, his first pass was picked off). Their receiving core is non-existent, even with Rob Gronkowski’s return. And yet … by virtue of their schedule, the New England Patriots will win the AFC East this year.
Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo at home: New England should have three wins there. Best case, they do; worst case, they only grab two. Foxborough is one of the toughest places to travel to, and these three teams have no business winning there.
At Houston, Miami, Baltimore, and Carolina: New England beats Houston, or at least, will win two of these games for sure. I can’t see all four breaking New England’s way – the last three will all be tough, and New England’s been fighting in close games – but I see them going three wins at best, two at worst.
Against Denver: New England, in week 12, will have one shot against a top-tier team besides the Bengals. They lost to Cincinnati. Against Denver, New England has very little hope – especially after floundering against the Dolphins and Jets over the last two weeks. Best case, grouping this game with the last four, New England goes for three wins against the easy teams and three against the others. It could happen. Worst, they go two wins against the easy teams and two wins otherwise. Not a big swing, because we all know … New England will still look bad and win games.
Cincinnati (6-2) Best: 13-3 Worst: 10-6
The Hand: @MIA, @BAL, CLE, @SD, IND, @PIT, MIN, BAL
When they’re good, the Bengals are scary. No one saw them beating the Jets by 40 points, the Lions on the road, the Packers (period) … and while Indy gets respect for taking down good teams, the Bengals have gone 3-0 against the Packers, Lions, and Patriots. In fact, when compared to Indy … both teams are in divisions with two hopeless cases, and one mediocre could-be-good team. Both have two losses against strong starters (Chicago and Miami), and were surprised on the road by underwhelming opponents (Cleveland and San Diego). Both are sitting at 2 losses, top of their division, and looking to stay that way.
Against Baltimore: Cincinnati will win one of these games. Baltimore has a good defense (ranked 9th against the pass and rush), but Cincinnati’s pass offense – ranked 4th – should be enough. At best, two wins; at worst, one.
At Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh: the Bengals, 2-2 on the road this year, need to finish strong if they want a bye. They can go 3-0 in these games, but with their current record on the road … I’d peg them at two wins at best, one otherwise. Realistically.
Against Cleveland, Minnesota, and Indy: Cincy will beat the Browns and Vikings unless something goes terribly wrong, especially with a top-10 rush defense; they’ll play Indy hard, but that will be their only real challenge over the rest of the schedule. Outside of Baltimore, I could see Cincy going 5-1; I could also see them going 3-3. They are that inconsistent.
Remember: that being said, and considering a ceiling for Baltimore at 9-7 … I think Cincy already has this division won. And – more importantly – they have a higher ceiling than New England, by virtue of an easier schedule.
Kansas City (8-0) Best: 14-2 Worst: 12-4
The Hand: @BUF, @DEN, SD, DEN, @WAS, @OAK, IND, @SD
Those divisional battles will be fun.
I don’t think Kansas City is a great team. The only half-decent team they’ve played against is Dallas; they struggled against the Titans and Texans. Their defense is good, but against Denver, I can’t see two wins.
At best, one. Perhaps.
Of the top five teams, Kansas City has the roughest time. San Diego can fight, and their offense will give the Chiefs trouble; Denver will definitely give the Chiefs a fight, and Indy has demonstrated a knack for knocking down big teams. So, broken down, the Chiefs have five tough games down the stretch, after barely any during the first half of the season.
In Buffalo, Washington, and Oakland: Kansas City and Denver need to win exactly every single one of the games they should win this year – one reason I think Kansas City is ‘doomed’ to the fifth seed. If they can only beat Houston by one point, these games could be up in the air … but I still see three wins. Period.
With Denver and San Diego? 3-1 is the best Kansas City can plan for, but I could easily see this causing problems for the Chief’s defense. No one will be surprised if Kansas City goes 2-2 between those teams. Two losses would be the worst case scenario for KC.
And then, there’s Indy.
India Denver (7-1) Best: 14-2 Worst: 11-5
The Hand: @SD, KC, @NE, @KC, TEN, SD, @HOU, @OAK
I’ll do Indy last. Fans are, after all, suckers for delayed article hooks.
Do I see Denver losing four more games? With that schedule, it’s very possible. Washington got close (for three quarters). They lost to Indy. Still, every loss Denver gets this season will be due to a defensive deficiency, and as long as their DBs are creating turnovers, there isn’t really anyone who can beat the Broncos.
Speaking of, my favorite stat last week? 139 yards, all purpose, by RGIII. I’d have little against the guy if he didn’t constantly get praise for being better than Luck last season (cough), but watching Denver play him perfectly was sweet. Also, it proves that Denver, unlike KC, can and will exploit the weaknesses of bad teams.
Hence, the breakdown:
At New England, Houston, and Oakland: Yes, these are three easy games for the Broncos. Forget New England’s 6-2 start, forget the Manning/Brady rivalry; Denver should walk into New England, on the road, as ten point favorites. Should. Given the rest of their schedule, these three are games Denver must win. Best? 3-0. At worst, 2-1.
Against Tennessee. Poor Tennessee.
Against their division … see, this is where the Broncos might have problems (like KC). I give the Broncos a slightly lower ‘worst-case’ record, because Manning has slowed down a bit since week one – but again, until he does, the Broncos are the best team in the AFC. Even if Indy did beat them. Thing is, San Diego has an offense explosive enough to get the jump on Denver; I could see them pulling away a win. I could see KC pulling away a win.
More importantly, if KC clinches the division in week 15, is Manning really going to be playing the full game in Houston and Oakland? Meaningless games at the season’s end could drop the Broncos to four second-half losses.
Against, worst-case. And they’d still clinch the wildcard by two games.
Indianapolis (5-2) Best: 13-3 Worst: 10-6
The Hand: @HOU, STL, @TEN, @ARI, TEN, @CIN, HOU, @KC, JAX
Well now. Tough road games. Should-be-easy divisional games. With wins against Seattle, Denver, and San Fran, Indy can beat anyone. With losses to San Diego and Miami, they can lose to anyone. With that in mind … a few things to think about.
1. Andrew Luck is on pace for 3,597 yards this season. That’s almost 800 yards less than last season … and with Wayne out, that first number might drop. Still, the improved record indicates a more balanced offense, even with Trent Richardson struggling. Teams can’t prepare for a one dimensional offense, giving Indy a slight edge.
2. Griff Whalen may make or break this offense. I say that because, when scribbling my notes during every Colts game, I almost always remark that T.Y. Hilton and Andrew Luck look out of sync; D.H.B is inconsistent, with only two good performances this year; and Stanley Havili is Luck’s fifth leading receiver on the Colts roster, going into Sunday. At best, Whalen is Austin Collie 2.0; he’s sure-handed, gets important touchdowns, and plays the slot efficiently. With Wayne and Allen out, Luck needs a reliable option. Whalen can be that guy.
3. Indy’s defense can win them games. It’s strange, especially after whateverthehell happened in San Diego, but Indy’s defense has 13 turnovers this season, after only 15 all of last season. With Mathis, a surprisingly good line, and an improving D.B. core, Indy’s offense can sputter occasionally – and we don’t need to worry. With that in mind.
Jacksonville: Jacksonville. Week 17. I actually want to see a 13-2 Indy play for nothing in week 17, and still hammer the Jags, just so we can all forget about week 16 against the Jets.
For the record, I was at that game. I live in Canada; it was a pretty rare occurrence. My point is, any respect I currently had for Mr. Neverblink vanished with the arrival of Curtis Painter; and during Indy’s 2-14 debacle, I clung to the image of Mr. Neverblink hypothetically – and then, actually – being fired after the season. For that reason, I thought Indy’s 2011 season was a roaring success. Andrew Luck is pretty cool, too.
The must-wins (conference-wise): Houston twice, St. Louis, and Arizona. These are fringe games for Indy; none of these teams are good, all have glaring weaknesses … but, with the Colts looking to win their division, these are games that will certainly influence their seeding. Last year, Indy went 3-1 against the NFC. They beat San Francisco and Seattle. They can win these games. Worst case scenario? 3-1.
The must wins (division-wise): Tennessee twice. There is one way for Tennessee to win this division, and that’s with two wins against Indy; the way I see it, Indy needs one win of two to clinch the division. The way the Titans are playing right now, I can’t Indianapolis losing both. Best case would be two wins, but they’ll still win one.
The problems: At Cincinnati and Kansas City. It’s more the ‘at’ that bothers me. In San Francisco, Luck went to Wayne six times (most on the team). In Jacksonville, a team high 11 times. In San Diego, a team-tying eight times. My point is, Luck relies heavily on Wayne when the Colts hit the road, and while they’ll have time to get comfortable outside of Indy … Luck just won’t play as well against those teams, because Wayne is out.
That, actually, is the only reason I’m seriously concerned for the team following Wayne’s injury. I hope Reggie’s okay, but he’ll be back.
Cincinnati is up and down, but plays well against good teams (see above). Kansas City’s offense should be overwhelmed by Indy’s defense, but I can’t guarantee that Indy’s offense will thrive in Missouri. I don’t know. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I’m expecting them to go 1-1 in these games; 2-0 at best, 0-2 at worst.
Actually, no. They’ll win one. But I don’t see Indy winning out.
What it means, in brief: Indy wants home field. I know it sounds obvious, but for the reasons mentioned above, I feel like they won’t be the same caliber team on the road. If they finish 13-3 with wins over KC and Cincy, they will have tiebreakers over three of the other four teams in the AFC. In other words, Indy might have the worst record of the top 5 AFC teams … but they have one of the best chances for a #1 seed.
1. Denver: 13-3
2. Indy: 12-4
3. Cincinnati: 11-5
4. New England: 11-5
(WC) Kansas City: 12-4
(WC) Baltimore: 9-7