The best division to handicap is the AFC East. Why? Because 1) it has four good teams in it, 2) they're all contending, and 3) all four could wind up in the playoffs, or only one of them could. The traditionalists wring their hands and groan about parity, but isn't this what it's all about: hard-fought competition going down to the wire? Let's take a look at what lies ahead for this quartet.
Jets (8-4). They're tied with Miami for the division lead, but they hold a double hammer over the Dolphins: They've already beaten Miami, and they've got a big edge in two other tiebreakers, division and conference records. But the key is that, after taking on Seattle at home this weekend, New York ends its season with games against the three other division contenders (at Miami and Buffalo, then home for New England).
You could excuse the Jets for getting into a look-ahead mode as they prepare for the Seahawks. But here are a couple of pluses: The Jets were serious against the Panthers on Sunday, scoring on nine of their first 10 possessions, and they're as healthy as they've been all year. So we'll give the Jets a win against Seattle, which isn't a bold pick, and then we'll worry about the Miami game.
Dolphins (8-4). The schedule is wicked, starting with Oakland on the road. The Raiders are furious after their loss at home to the Redskins and have wildcard hopes of their own. Miami gets the Jets the following week, then the Broncos in a Monday-nighter, probably with all that hoopla about spoiling Denver's unbeaten season. Finally the Dolphins go to Atlanta, where the Falcons might be spurred on by the hope of getting home field advantage for the NFC playoffs. First things first. The concern is that Miami has a new left side of the offensive line and the Raiders' front four can really bring it, but the Dolphins will win in Oakland, just as they did last year.
Bills (7-5). They play at Cincinnati on Sunday, then have Oakland and the Jets in Buffalo—where that stiff December wind can turn a passing game upside down—before the finale in New Orleans. First the Bills have to get over that awful loss to New England, courtesy of Walt Coleman's officiating crew. What I didn't like about the Bills on Sunday was that they never rushed more than four people on any of the 10 plays during the Patriots' winning drive. Even before that, all they had to do to put the game away was throw one little hitch pass to get a first down, but they went conservative and gave New England the ball back with 1:52 to go. That's old-world thinking. O.K., the Bills will get healthy against the Bengals, but Buffalo's modus operandi in the crunch makes me nervous.
Patriots (7-5). They play at Pittsburgh, at St. Louis, San Francisco at home and then the Jets at the Meadowlands. Drew Bledsoe is gutting it out with a broken finger, but New England fans will get to watch him just one more time this year. I'm trying hard to find an upset here, but I can't. After their coin-flip fiasco on Thanksgiving, the Steelers had three extra days of rest, and they've won their last six over the Pats in Three Rivers. Pittsburgh's the pick.
Will we permit a 5-7 team that everyone else has written off to still entertain playoff hopes? Hey, we'll permit anything. The Bucs face two winning teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, both in Tampa, then go on the road to Washington and Cincy. If they run the table the Bucs could make it to the postseason, but first they've got to beat the Packers on Monday night, and without middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, I don't think it's going to happen. Green Bay is finally running the ball. Look for the Pack to beat the Bucs with superior firepower.
Jeez, you say, will this guy pick even one upset? I'm trying, but I just don't see any. San Diego at Washington? Nope. The Chargers dominated Denver for a while and forced four turnovers, and still lost big. The Redskins will keep it going. Giants over Arizona? Tempting, but Jake Plummer seems to be in full stride, while New York's offense is limping along. Cardinals in a close one. How about New Orleans over Dallas if Deion's still out? Sorry, that matters against teams like Minnesota, but not when you're facing an offense that's been outscored by its defense in two of the last three games. The Cowboys are the pick.
Wait, I've found an upset. Ravens over the Oilers in Tennessee. Baltimore's playing it loose, while the Oilers get tighter and tighter as their slim playoff hopes slip away.