(CBS Miami) – As the playoff race heats up, the AFC East is starting to look a lot like it was before last season. The New England Patriots lead the division with five straight wins. The Buffalo Bills, thanks to mid-season struggles, find themselves staring at their division rivals. The Miami Dolphins are not living up to expectations, but also appear to have passed a near term. And the New York Jets remain one of the worst teams in the NFL.
It remains to be seen whether the division returns to form. It could all be the product of another bizarre football season. Week 12 could bring some more clarity. The Bills will try to figure things out against the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins welcome the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots face the Tennessee Titans in one of the most intriguing clashes this week. And the Jets face the Houston Texans for a position in next season’s draft.
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SportsLine’s Larry Hartstein breaks down the AFC East clashes in Week 12.
All times shown are Eastern.
Buffalo Bills @ New Orleans Saints, Thursday, November 23, 8:20 p.m.
After last season’s trip to the AFC championship, the Bills looked set to come to the AFC East table this season. Josh Allen was becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league with a variety of weapons at his disposal. Meanwhile, the Jets and Patriots had rookies at the helm, and the Dolphins a sophomore QB with plenty of injuries and a minimal success story.
The Bills’ path to the playoffs, if they lead, has not been easy so far. They have lost twice in the past three weeks, first 9-6 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and most recently 41-15 to the Indianapolis Colts. Josh Allen went 21-35 for 20 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bills returned the ball four times in the afternoon, leading to three of the Colts’ touchdowns. Their generally strong defense – Buffalo allowing 283.7 yards per game, the lowest in the league – allowed running back Jonathan Taylor to score five times. The loss brings them back to second in the division, one game behind the Patriots.
They will have a chance to redeem themselves in New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day. The Saints endure their own struggles, losing three straight and losing two games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their most recent 40-29 loss came at the hands of the revitalized Philadelphia Eagles. The New Orleans edge defense couldn’t stop Jalen Hurts from rushing for three touchdowns and the Eagles from rushing for 242 yards.
With quarterback Jameis Winston finished for the season, the Saints’ offense continued to stutter. Trevor Siemian threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, but it took 40 attempts to make 20 passes. And 22 of their 29 points came in the fourth quarter, when the game was essentially over. Alvin Kamara’s return could help the Saints’ offense in Week 11. But would that be enough?
“I love the Bills in this rebound spot,” Hartstein said. “The Saints offense is completely shattered without Winston. And whether Kamara is back or not, he won’t be 100%. Even if he plays, the offensive line is injured. And almost all of their production came at the end of that game against the Eagles. They were blowing themselves up, when the Bills should be in a nice bounce area. They had four turnovers. They were stunned by Indianapolis. But it’s a Saints defense that’s great against the run. But you can hit them with explosive games. And with Stephon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Josh Allen running and throwing, I like the Bills to bounce and cover.
Carolina Panthers @ Miami Dolphins, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m.
After beating the Patriots to open the season, the Dolphins have lost seven straight games. But they are undefeated in November. Their recent three-game winning streak includes wins over the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. The defense allowed just 12 points per game during that streak. And Toua
Tagovailoa went 27-33 for 273 yards and two touchdowns as a full-time quarterback in their last win.
While a win is a standings win, the Texans and Jets are some of the worst teams in the NFL. The Ravens, however, have legitimate hopes of making the playoffs. Former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson has the indoor track to win the award again. But the Dolphins limited him to 39 yards on nine carries and one of the NFL’s best rushing offensives within 100 yards for the game.
“It’s a great three-game winning streak,” said Hartstein. “They changed things. Tua looks good. But let’s remember, they played the Jets and Texans in that streak. They had an incredible performance against the Ravens. But I just think they’re going to hit a real stumbling block, and that’s the Carolina pass defense, which is the elite. And that’s going to make things difficult for Tua. So I’m going to take a look at the Panthers and say the Dolphins’ winning streak ends at three.
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The Panthers have struggled this season as well. Running back Christian McCaffrey was punched all year and quarterback Sam Darnold floundered before being sidelined with a shoulder injury. The team is now back in the hands of Cam Newton after a year of absence in New England. Newton, who started for the Patriots last season, led the Panthers to their second appearance at the 2015 Super Bowl. He failed against the Washington football team in his first start of the season. Newton went 21-27 for 189 yards and two touchdowns while leading an offense he hadn’t yet fully mastered.
They let an inferior Washington attack separate them on the other side of the ball. League-leading Carolina pass defense should contain the Dolphins’ passing offense, however.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m. on CBS
Past mid-season, Titans-Patriots seems like a reasonable prediction for the AFC championship. It’s as much about what the other teams haven’t done as it is about what these teams have done. The Bills, Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs have all failed to show real consistency from week to week. The Titans 8-3 sort of continued to win after running back Derrick Henry was defeated, at least until the implosion of Week 11. The Patriots, behind rookie QB Mac Jones, knock out teams from the field. .
“I think it’s three consecutive wins, five consecutive wins in total to reach the top of the AFC,” Hartstein said. “This team is rolling. They just crushed the Falcons 25-0, they probably could have beaten them a lot more. And Tennessee suffered an embarrassing loss to the Texans. It was a real flattery after six consecutive victories. So this line started at New England -2.5 on the anticipation line. And then we had those two disparate results, with New England winning big and the Titans losing to Houston. And now the line we see 6, even 6.5 in some places. And Mike Vrabel, back in New England, is 2-0 against Bill Belichick. And Mike Vrabel thrives in the role of an outsider. So while the Patriots look amazing, if you get me to go for this one, I’m taking the points.
The Titans have just suffered a terrible loss that could indicate things to come. Ryan Tannehill completed 35-52 for 323 yards and a touchdown. He also threw four interceptions. Leading receiver Julio Jones is now in the injured reserve before the Patriots game. Marcus Johnson has finished for the season. And AJ Brown has hamstring issues. The back-by-committee approach is nowhere near as productive as the injured Henry.
The Patriots, on the other hand, appear to be a booming team. Mac Jones is emerging as an effective passer, throwing just four failures in each of his last two games. One of them was a blow from the Cleveland Browns, the other a teardown from the Atlanta Falcons. But their defense has also become increasingly dominant. Their last three opponents scored a total of 13 points. Outside linebacker Matt Judon had 10.5 sacks.
New York Jets @ Houston Texans, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m. on CBS
The Jets continue to limp through another losing season with few bright spots. One was a 34-31 win in the Week 12 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Another was the sometimes encouraging play of rookie quarterback Zack Wilson, at least until he was sidelined with a knee injury. Wilson looks set to come back this week against the Texans. He’ll be looking to bolster one of the NFL’s weaker offenses, though that might not matter against a Houston team that scores even less.
The Texans are coming off a surprising win over the Titans, ending their own eight-game losing streak and the Houston’s six-game winning streak. Despite the victory, the game didn’t give them much to celebrate. The Titans have accumulated 420 yards of attack compared to the Texans’ 190 yards. They forced five turnovers for the second straight week, however. That alone exceeds last season’s total of nine. And the Texans have not allowed a sack for the first time this season. But in terms of yardage, both units remain among the worst in the league.
But sometimes bad teams make for an exciting clash. Both teams are 2-8 and have reason to be optimistic, even fleeting.
“Sometimes you have to look at the worst teams in the league for value, and that’s what I think we’re seeing here,” Hartstein admits. “Houston’s victory over Tennessee was deceptive. I believe there were more than five in turnover. They won less than 200 meters. But yet, because they had this big win, they are now favored by three points. They shouldn’t be favored three points over anyone including the New York Jets, I think in that case you just have to take the points. They are two terrible teams. I think if you score a full field goal, you take the points and digest it.
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