The AFC East was 3-1 over the weekend.
Here are seven notes and observations from the AFC East:
Everyone knows about the New York Jets benching Mark Sanchez in favor of Greg McElroy in a win over the Arizona Cardinals. But something I noticed under the surface is how it is now clear Rex Ryan is coaching for his job. Ryan was undyingly loyal to Sanchez throughout his struggles, because Ryan's job was not in jeopardy. But the pressure is now on Ryan to win down the stretch and he finally jumped ship after three first-half Sanchez interceptions. I agreed with the decision, but I thought a quarterback change should’ve come sooner. Ryan only made the call when he was clearly desperate. He simply could not lose at home to a Cardinals team that's now lost eight straight.
Jets tight end Dustin Keller’s reported high-ankle sprain is bad on various fronts. For starters, Keller is New York’s most reliable pass-catcher and the Jets will miss that presence. Second, Keller is a pending free agent and had multiple leg injuries in a contract year. His value continues to decrease with each ailment. Keller has just 28 receptions for 317 yards in eight games this season. He won’t be able to cash in big with these numbers.
The race for the No. 2 seed in the AFC East is going to go down to the wire. The New England Patriots (9-3), Baltimore Ravens (9-3) and Denver Broncos (9-3) are in a three-way tie. But New England owns the tiebreaker with a better conference record. There are several big games between top AFC teams remaining. The Patriots will host the top-seeded Houston Texans (11-1) next Monday and the Ravens will host the Broncos in two weeks. All of these games will determine who will get a first-round bye.
The acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib is already impacting New England’s defensive play-calling. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, New England is blitzing about 14 percent more in the past three games than it did all season. The Patriots blitzed nine times against Miami on passing downs and rushed rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He was 2-for-9 for 24 yards against five or more pass-rushers, including two missed throws deep to Miami receiver Brian Hartline that could have been touchdowns.
Speaking of Hartline, I could tell in the locker room after the game that he gained some confidence with this matchup. Talib was on Hartline for a majority of the game, and Hartline pretty much had his way with him. Hartline led the Dolphins with five receptions for 84 yards. But Hartline also ran right by Talib twice for deep plays that Tannehill failed to make the throw. Miami has to play New England again on Dec. 30 and those two probably will be matched up again.
The Buffalo Bills ran for 232 yards in a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is the kind of one-two punch with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson Buffalo expected to have all season. But with Spiller and Jackson both injured at different points, the Bills were never able to find a rhythm with both in the lineup at the same time. That’s a reasonable goal Buffalo should work toward in the final month of the season.
We have a three-way tie for second place in the AFC East. However, the Bills (5-7), Jets (5-7) and Dolphins (5-7) can essentially kiss their playoff chances goodbye. The Indianapolis Colts (8-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) are all vying for the final two wild-card spots in the AFC. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are two games ahead of the AFC East teams with four remaining. The only chance an AFC East team has is to run the table and hope both AFC North teams have a complete collapse.