So close, yet so far. Division third-place teams are within a game or two of the top. With 12 games to go, there is time for the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys to lap the leaders. For the Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears, two games back may be a game too far. Where do third-place teams on the prowl go from here to make the NFL Playoffs?
NEW YORK JETS (2-2), AFC EAST
The issue: Jets coach Rex Ryan has such an outsized personality that opposing teams see the Jets as a marquee game even though they have not won a Super Bowl in four decades. They circle the date and play their best because the world is watching Rex. The Oakland Raiders hit them where it hurt, the run defense (Darren McFadden, 171 Yards, 2 TDs). The Baltimore Ravens hurt them with three defensive touchdowns. The Ravens D just wanted to do their old coach proud, I guess.
Next four games: @New England, Miami, San Diego, @Bills, 9-7 combined record.
The fix: Beating the Patriots will cure many ills and there is no better time to do it than now. New England has the NFL’s last place defense. Resist the urge to out-pass Tom Brady. Run on the Pats, for they will surely run on the Jets. Miami is a team with problems that may have lost Chad Henne. Then comes the showdown with…the Bills. Win three games and the J-E-T-S are back in the hunt.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (2-2), AFC NORTH
The Issue: The Browns remain a work in progress as Mike Holmgren puts more pieces in place. He could get better receivers for Colt McCoy to work with. Until then, RB Peyton Hillis is the offense workhorse. He might do better if the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers were not in his division. They own the league’s top three defenses.
Next four games: @Oakland, Seattle, @San Francisco, @Houston, 9-7 combined record.
The fix: I know football has become a passing game, but asking your quarterback to attempt 61 passes against the Titans? Really? Even if they fall behind, the Browns cannot run away from their running game. More run defense wouldn’t hurt either. Darren McFadden, Frank Gore and the Arian Foster/Ben Tate combo are on the schedule and all are away games. Coach Pat Shurmur must take max advantage of the Bye to prepare for them and to show that Hillis belongs in their number.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (1-3), AFC SOUTH
The issue: Coach Jack Del Rio has the look of a desperate man. He has marching orders to make the playoffs, or else. The Jaguars released starting quarterback David Garrard the week before the opening loss against the surprising Titans. By week two, the Jags tapped rookie first-round NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert to start. This just in, Gabbert is no Cam Newton.
Next four games: Cincinnati, @Pittsburgh, Baltimore, @Houston, 10-6 combined record
The fix: This could get ugly. Even if Del Rio wants to protect his quarterback, the league’s best defenses will sell out to stop RB Maurice Jones-Drew and defy Gabbert to beat them. The rookie will grow up fast leading the league’s last place passing offense. If he survives, Gabbert will be great development material for the Jaguars’ next coach.
DENVER BRONCOS (1-3), AFC WEST
The issue: The Broncos are a balanced team. They balance the 24th-ranked offense against the 23rd-ranked defense. They underwhelm at everything. Departed coach Josh McDaniels at least provided offensive fireworks to go with a four-win season. Brandon Lloyd was the league-leading receiver in 2010, but is ranked 28th in 2011. That’s surprising since OC Mike McCoy is a carryover from the McDaniels days. The new John Elway-John Fox regime is off to a shaky start due to one man, Tim Tebow.
Next four games: San Diego, @Miami, Detroit, @Oakland, 9-7 combined record
The fix: Like it or not, Tim Tebow is a distraction and the Broncos must either use him or move him. This season. Now. The trade deadline is October 18. The day should not end with both Tebow and Kyle Orton on the roster. If Miami is the trade partner, Denver could face a motivated player when the teams meet October 23. That’s life. For 2011, beating out the Chargers or Raiders for the division looks like a forlorn hope.
DALLAS COWBOYS (2-2), NFC EAST
The issue: We hold quarterbacks in such esteem that we forget they are flawed individuals trying to win a game. That sums up Tony Romo, the NFL’s sixth-ranked quarterback who was hailed as a hero against the 49ers and Redskins and flayed as a goat against the Jets and Lions. He is the best quarterback on the Cowboys roster. Fewer words were said about the league’s fourth-best defense collapsing in the second half of the Lions game.
Next four games: @New England, St. Louis, @Philadelphia, Seattle, 5-11 combined record
The fix: WR Miles Austin will return at some point to help the ‘Boys against a cupcake schedule. They should finish no worse than 2-2, and 3-1 in the next four games would be easy. If one of those wins is against the Eagles, all will be forgiven.
CHICAGO BEARS (2-2), NFC NORTH
The issue: What do you mean “under-using Matt Forte?” Forte is the Bears’ leading rusher and the leading receiver. Therein lies the problem on offense. Forte is over-performing while others are under-performing (Looking at you, Roy Williams). Carolina is not on the schedule again. No other team will allow Forte and Devin Hester to run hog wild as they did against the Panthers. Trailing Green Bay and (gasp) Detroit by two games is two games too many.
Next four games: @Detroit, Minnesota, @Tampa Bay, @Philadelphia, 8-8 combined record
The fix: The schedulers had Chicago in mind when they set the Bears for two Monday night games in four weeks. Now the drama is with the other teams. Light a fire under Roy Williams so he becomes the No. 1 receiver the Bears’ offense needs to avoid a one-dimensional offense. The Lions will try to make them that Monday night. Hope the Eagles defense does not jell before the Bears play them on Monday Night, November 7. That way, the Bears have a chance to keep up in a scoring duel. Three of the next four games are away. That may be a blessing in disguise given the growing restlessness of Bears fans.
ATLANTA FALCONS (2-2), NFC SOUTH
The issue: The Falcons got a new toy for Draft Day Christmas. His name is Julio Jones and they just cannot stop playing with him. Receptions by the receiving duo of Jones and Roddy White are impressive, a combined 50 passes for 642. That’s trending to 200 receptions for 2,568 yards — and four touchdowns — for the year. White scored 10 touchdowns last season by himself when pass attempts were 53 percent of Atlanta’s offense. Michael Turner rushed for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns. The new age Falcons offense passes 64 percent of the time. Yet, Turner the Burner is still trending over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. Atlanta went all out to land Jones looking for scoring punch. So far, the Falcons have scored 37 fewer points than the Saints have. How does the Falcons defense allow Tavaris Jackson to throw for 319 yards and two scores? How do they allow the Seahawks to gain 234 yards in a half? Tsk. Tsk.
Next four games: Green Bay, Carolina, @Detroit, @Indianapolis, 9-7 combined record
The fix: The Falcons are going to battle against Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford with that defense? Lets help the D by dialing down passes to Jones and White to 55 percent of the offense and controlling the ball with Turner. With two games left against the Saints and another versus the Buccaneers, Atlanta still has a shot to defend its division title. A wild card would be a consolation, but only if they take out Green Bay or Detroit.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (1-3), NFC WEST
The issue: The Cardinals can’t seem to play 60 minutes of football. They held the lead in all of their games at the six-minute mark, only to lose it in their last three contests. These guys need a defense that can protect a lead. Coach Jim Whisenhunt tapped his Steelers roots to bring in Ray Horton to implement a Pittsburgh-like defense. Cardinal players are adapting to the new system on the fly, thanks to the lockout. Beanie Wells is the power rusher the Cards hoped for. Kevin Kolb is nicely settled at quarterback.
Next four games: @Minnesota, Pittsburgh, @Baltimore, St. Louis, 5-11 combined record.
The fix: The loss to the Giants in the Sunday double-header game was a blow if we go by local press clippings. Get over it. The gods of scheduling gifted Arizona with two winless teams in their next four games. A split will keep them within striking distance of the 49ers. With two games against San Francisco still on the schedule, the Cardinals control their own destiny. Adjusting to a new defense on the fly may unhinge them. That shiny new quarterback is what they got in exchange for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Kolb had better more score points than the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie will cost.