Down to the Wire
The outcome of the AFC East may hinge on who stays the healthiest
Just another manic Sunday. That's what we witnessed last weekend in the AFC East. The Colts lost a nail-biter to an underdog led by an unheralded running back. The Bills won in Kansas City, thanks in part to a replay reversal. The Jets, who were on a three-game skid, defeated Miami, which had won three straight, in such a snooze-fest that the most dramatic moment of the day came 30 minutes after the game. That's when a media throng crowded around a locker to hear every syllable from the injured Dolphin whose availability may determine the winner of the league's most competitive division.
So it has come to this. The outcome of the AFC East may be riding on the health of quarterback Jay Fiedler, a former Ivy League player who three years ago was offering to pay his own way to get an NFL tryout. Fiedler went out on Miami's first snap with a pinched nerve in his neck after being sacked by linebacker Mo Lewis. Muscle spasms prevented him from returning. Then the Dolphins' running game crashed when Lamar Smith went down with a strained hamstring in the second quarter. It was only a matter of time before the Jets ran to a 20-3 rout.
When the day was done, the Dolphins (8-3) were a game up on the Bills, Colts and Jets. "This won't be decided until Santa comes down the chimney," said Jets coach Al Groh. Let's handicap the four-team horse race.
Dolphins (remaining games: at Indianapolis, at Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, at New England). They have a tough schedule and no margin for error. When the efficient Fiedler (no turnovers in his last three starts) and Smith got injured, Miami was in serious trouble because it has virtually no depth at either position. Both players are expected back on Sunday. "This isn't a season-ending thing," Fiedler said of his pinched nerve. "I'll be back." He'd better be. After begging for a job since graduating from Dartmouth in 1994, Fiedler is in his first year as a starter, and his tools—a surprisingly good arm, excellent smarts, nice touch, good mobility, poise in the pocket—have won over a skeptical team and its fans. "He has earned my confidence to throw any ball throughout the game," says Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.
Colts ( Miami, at Jets, Buffalo, at Miami, Minnesota). Losses at frigid Chicago and Green Bay in the last three weeks suggest that Indianapolis needs to avoid a playoff trip to, say, Buffalo or Denver. But getting a home playoff game will be difficult because Indy's defense is the weakest in the division. On Sunday the Packers' Ahman Green steam-rolled the Colts for 153 yards on the ground. Quarterback Peyton Manning can't win 38-35 shoot-outs every week.
Bills (at Tampa Bay, Miami, at Indianapolis, New England, at Seattle). Buffalo is a gutsy team with a stout defense that is playing well enough to overcome erratic quarterbacking and a running game that has been nonexistent. However, the Bills are only 2-3 in the division, a tiebreaking negative. The biggest positive for them is that they close with New England and Seattle.
Jets ( Chicago, Indianapolis, at Oakland, Detroit, at Baltimore). Quarterback Vinny Testaverde is struggling without big target Keyshawn Johnson. Testaverde has thrown 11 interceptions in the last five games, and the pass rush is lacking. While that doesn't sound good, remember that the Jets are the best streetfighters of the four teams.
The call here: The Dolphins win their last three to take the division. The Colts lose three of their last five to drop out at 9-7, while the Ravens land one of the wild cards. The Bills and the Jets, along with the Broncos, finish 10-6, but New York loses out on the conference tiebreaker.
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