by Nate Winkler (@natewinkler)
Planet Pigskin's AFC West Apologist
The third quarter of the NFL's regular season will come to a close this week with all four of the teams in the AFC West getting some home cooking. The Denver Broncos are sitting at the top overall spot in our ground-breaking CHFF Quality Stats Power Rankings with their 8-3 record, while San Diego (22), Oakland (31) and Kansas City (32) have as many wins combined as the Broncos and are jockeying for draft position instead of playoff position.
Here is a look at all four AFC West match-ups this week:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5, 2-2 div.) @ Denver Broncos (8-3, 4-0 div.)
All-Time Series: Denver leads 5-2 (3-1 home)
Last Meeting: @Denver - 16, Tampa Bay - 13 (2008 Week 5)
Latest Line: Broncos -7 (50.5)
CHFF Power Rankings: Tampa Bay (12), Denver (1)
Why the Broncos will win:
Denver is the hottest team in the NFL right now, riding a six game winning streak into December. Peyton Manning has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 8.0 yards per attempt on his way to throwing for 3,260 yards along with 26 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions.
Manning is third in the NFL in both Passer Rating and Real Quarterback Rating and is on pace to have the greatest season in Broncos' franchise history at age 36.
Equally impressive to Manning's play has been the vast improvement in Denver's defense under Jack Del Rio. The Broncos' new Orange Crush has the best Defensive Hog unit in the NFL, giving up just 3.6 yards per rush and allowing conversions on third down just 33.54 percent of the time.
Denver leads the NFL in sacks with 37 and is allowing a Defensive Passer Rating of just 79.73, giving them the AFC's highest Passer Rating Differential (+24.79). By comparison, the Broncos allowed a DPR of 93.12 and had a differential of -19.67 last season, by far the worst of any playoff team.
Why the Buccaneers will win:
Run Dougie, run! Tampa Bay's Doug Martin is one of only four backs and the only rookie to have eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark already this season. Martin is averaging 4.8 RY/A and has nine rushes of 20+ yards.
Tampa Bay's Offensive Hogs (9th) will have to build on the success Kansas City had running the ball against Denver last week in order to keep the Broncos' pass rush at bay. The Bucs are tied with Denver for the third-fewest sacks allowed this season with 16 and have and are sixth in the NFL with a +11 turnover differential.
On the other side of the ball, Tampa Bay must find a way to create turnovers (paging Mr. Barber). There isn't a team in the NFL that has been better against the rush this season than the Bucs, who are allowing just 81.5 yards per game and 3.4 RY/A. Stopping the run has it's drawbacks however, as Tampa Bay has the fewest amount of sacks (18) of any team with a winning record and are allowing 8.38 PY/A (31st) and a 90.74 Defensive Passer Rating (21st).
The Buccaneers will also be without their top cornerback, Eric Wright, who this week became the latest to fall victim to the rampid Adderall epidemic that is sweeping defensive backfields across the NFL.
Cincinnati Bengals (6-5, 1-3 div.) @ San Diego Chargers (4-7, 3-2 div.)
All-Time Series: San Diego leads 19-12 (10-5 home)
Last Meeting: @Cincinnati - 34, San Diego - 20 (2010 Week 16)
Latest Line: Bengals -1.5 (46)
CHFF Power Rankings: Cincinnati (13), San Diego (22)
Why the Chargers will win:
There's not a lot of reason for hope and optimism these days in San Diego after last week's 4th & 29 debacle. The Chargers still have an outside chance at a wild-card berth but losing is no longer an option. Philip Rivers had just his third game of the season without a turnover last week so he'll be looking to build upon his 22nd ranked Real Quarterback Rating of 75.33.
Establishing the run against a Bengals team that allows 116.1 yards per game will be crucial in minimizing the opportunity for something to go wrong for the Chargers' passing game, which has a Negative Pass Play Percentage of 11.27 (28th).
Defensively the Chargers must win on third down. San Diego allows conversions 41.50 percent of the time (23rd) while the Bengals convert at just a 33.56 percent rate (26th). Keeping Cincinnati in obvious passing downs where they can dictate the matchups will be the the Chargers only shot at slowing down Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
Why the Bengals will win:
Marvin Lewis must really be able to sympathize with Norv Turner. Lewis knows a thing or two about his team rallying to save his job, but Turner's fate is likely sealed despite what his team does over the next five games. Lewis' Bengals are currently tied with Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot after winning three straight games, including the last two against Kansas City and Oakland by a combined score of 62-16.
Cincinnati will go deep early and often, with Dalton's 12 passes of 40+ yards tied for the most in the NFL with Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman. A.J. Green has caught most of those on his way to gaining 1,022 yards and an NFL-leading 10 touchdowns. The Bengals keep a balanced attack with 113.9 rushing yards per game (14th) on 4.18 RY/A.
Defensively, the mistake-prone Rivers plays right into the Bengals' hands as they are sixth in the NFL at forcing Negative Pass Plays, doing so on 10.27 percent of dropbacks. Cincinnati has just eight interceptions to their credit this season but are second to only Denver with 35 sacks. They'll keep the pressure on Norv & Rivers all afternoon with hopes of scoring their first defensive touchdown of the season.
Cleveland Browns (3-8, 2-3 div.) @ Oakland Raiders (3-8, 1-2 div.)
All-Time Series: Oakland leads 13-8 (8-6 home)
Last Meeting: @Oakland - 24, Cleveland - 17 (2011 Week 6)
Latest Line: Pick 'em (45)
CHFF Power Rankings: Cleveland (23), Oakland (31)
Why the Raiders will win:
Darren McFadden returned to practice this week and barring any setbacks to his ankle he'll be suited up Sunday. The Raiders have rushed for 291 yards (97.0/game) in the three games he and Mike Goodson have missed, far exceeding their average of 77.25 yards/game in the previous eight games.
Oakland has rushed for less than 70 yards in five of the eight games McFadden has played and "Run DMC" is averaging a career-low 3.3 RY/A this season. It might be time for McFadden and his fellow running backs to buy their 29th ranked Offensive Hogs some Isotoner gloves for Christmas in hopes of opening up a few more holes.
Meanwhile, Carson Palmer is coming off an embarrassing performance in which he threw for 146 yards on 4.29 PY/A and a 64.1 Passer Rating against his former team. He'll have a tough task against a Cleveland defense that is allowing just an 82.69 DPR and 35.29 percent on third down, but the Browns are 27th in the NFL in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt at 5.58.
Cleveland has lost their last two trips to Oakland and is also winless (0-5) on the road this season.
Why the Browns will win:
Despite the record, the Cleveland Browns have been competitive in nearly every contest this season. Their -39 point differential is better than the Indianapolis Colts (currently 5th Seed) and six other teams in the AFC. Five of the Browns' eight losses have come by seven points or less and their +8 turnover differential is tied for seventh best in the NFL.
Brandon Weeden has been cleared to play after suffering a concussion last week against Pittsburgh and he'll have a good shot at his second career 300 yard passing game against a Raiders' secondary that has the NFL's worst DPR at 101.92.
Trent Richardson should also be in store for a big game against an Oakland defense that is allowing 4.72 RY/A, a big reason why they are the lowest ranked Defensive Hogs in the NFL. Richardson is averaging just 3.6 RY/A in his rookie campaign but has managed to score six touchdowns on the ground.
The Browns will continue to lean heavily on their defense, which sport the eighth ranked Defensive Hogs. Cleveland has forced 25 turnovers on the season and has two defensive touchdowns.
Carolina Panthers (3-8, 1-3 div.) @ Kansas City Chiefs (1-10, 0-4 div.)
All-Time Series: Tied 2-2 (1-1 @ K.C.)
Last Meeting: @Carolina - 34, Kansas City - 0 (2008 Week 5)
Latest Line: Panthers -3 (41)
CHFF Power Rankings: Carolina (18), Kansas City (32)
Why the Chiefs will win:
The pendulum of the law of averages has to swing back in the Chiefs' direction eventually, right? Kansas City lost their eighth game in a row last week despite playing the Denver Broncos much tougher than many expected. Moral victories mean about as much as point spreads to NFL coaches, and Romeo Crennel knows his days are numbered.
Kansas City is scoring just 14.6 points per game, the second season in a row they are last in scoring offense. A change to Brady Quinn at quarterback has yet to show any returns but he needs to be allowed to make plays. Look for a steady dose of Jamaal Charles to keep Quinn in positive down and distances as the Chiefs lean on their running game that is seventh in the NFL with 4.58 RY/A.
The key to the Kansas City defense is winning on third down. They've allowed conversions just 36.36 percent of the time, good for 10th in the NFL behind their 16th ranked Offensive Hogs. The Chiefs have forced just 11 turnovers this season, better than only Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. An offense that is struggling as much as the Chiefs (32nd in Scoreability) must find a way to get an extra possession or two in this game.
Why the Panthers will win:
Cam Newton appeared to get his groove back last Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. He accounted for four touchdowns as the Panthers reached the 30 point mark for just the second time this season. Newton has also gone three of the last four games without throwing an interception, which is a great sign for a guy who has four multiple interception games to his credit this year.
The Panthers are sixth in the NFL with 7.08 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt and will tee off on a Chiefs team who allow 7.40 Defensive RPYA (30th). The Chiefs are also at the bottom of the pack in Bendability (31st), Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (31st), and the ever-telling Passer Rating Differential (32nd). In other words, if you have Cam Newton in any fantasy league, he's a must-start.
Carolina's defense will stack the box to stop the run despite allowing 4.54 RY/A (25th). If they can force the Chiefs into passing situations they'll take their chances against Brady Quinn, who has a 52.0 Passer Rating in five games (three starts) with the Chiefs.