Share this article

print logo

Battle for wild-card berths more tame in the AFC

Cynicism among Bills fans has run high for years, and with good reason. Twelve straight non-playoff seasons will do that. On a Buffalo News BillBoard chat two weeks ago, I had the audacity to say the Bills are not that far from a wild-card playoff spot in the AFC, and I practically got laughed off the Internet.

One chatter replied: "My lazy, crack-head brother is starting a computer company. Could he overtake Apple next year? Sure, it's possible. He's not far off. He loves computers."

That was the response of the year on my chats. Funny. I wish I thought of it.

Nevertheless, I'm here to stick to my position. No question, the Bills need to make a lot of good moves this offseason to move up.

However, the Bills are fortunate they're in the AFC and not the NFC. The power in the NFL has shifted to the NFC. It's the superior conference right now.

The Green Bay Packers (12-3) and the New Orleans Saints (12-3) are the two best teams in the NFL, thanks to elite quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. The Pack's 42-34 win over the Saints in the season-opener arguably was the best game of the regular season. Their impending meeting in the NFC championship game shapes up as the "real" Super Bowl this year. Whoever wins that is going to be the hands-down favorite over whoever wins the AFC.

The NFC has more elite QBs than the AFC. The NFC South has Brees, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Carolina's Cam Newton, who should make the Panthers a power for a decade. The NFC North has Rodgers and Detroit's Matt Stafford. The East has Eli Manning, with Dallas' Tony Romo and Philadelphia's Michael Vick behind him.

In terms of getting a wild-card berth, the Bills are in better shape in the AFC East than they would be in the East, North or South in the NFC. Granted, New England's Tom Brady is going strong at age 34, and Bill Belichick's ability to stockpile draft picks (even if he doesn't hit a ton of 'em) keeps the Patriots in a position of dominance. But the Jets' Mark Sanchez and Miami's Matt Moore (or whoever the Dolphins get next year) are eminently beatable.

Baltimore is a great franchise. But Joe Flacco has fallen short of Ryan Fitzpatrick this season by every measure, even though he has a far superior cast around him. Pittsburgh is a great franchise. But Ben Roethlisberger has taken a lot of hits over the years. He has been sacked 120 times more than Eli Manning in his career (they both entered the league in 2004). Big Ben has been sacked 168 more times than Brady since 2004. This isn't a prediction of doom for the Steelers, whose organization has proven to be light-years superior to Buffalo's. It's just that Roethlisberger is more likely than Eli Manning to have an injury-marred season. San Diego has a great quarterback in Philip Rivers, but the Chargers are in a state of flux. Houston has a very good quarterback in Matt Schaub. The future of Colts great Peyton Manning is uncertain.

Before the deluge of sarcastic emails begins, let's stress: All of this isn't to say the Bills are in any way sitting pretty. But it doesn't take greatness to get a wild-card berth in the AFC. If Buffalo was in the NFC, the outlook would be much darker.

***

Onus on Evans

The Ravens are looking for Lee Evans to produce in today's crucial game at Cincinnati. Baltimore needs to win to clinch the AFC North and get a first-round playoff bye. That's critical because top Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin had surgery Dec. 21 to repair slightly torn cartilage in his knee. Boldin did a little in practice Friday for the first time and is out today. He needs the extra week off to have a chance to be effective in the playoffs.

Evans has just four catches for 74 yards this season for Baltimore. He missed seven straight games earlier in the season so an ankle injury could heal. He's healthy now, but he did not manage a catch in a 20-14 Ravens win over the Browns last week. It was Evans' first start since the season opener. Developing chemistry with Flacco has been a challenge.

"I've got to do a good job of putting him in positions based on coverages, matchups, those kinds of things," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said this week. "You just keep working at it. They were out there working on it today. There were no issues in practice. Actually, they had a great week together last week in practice. What we've got to do, and you've heard us say this before, sometimes when things aren't working as well as we want them to work on game day we just have to stay patient and we'd like to think that this game, you'll see a difference."

The Bills got an extra fourth-round pick in 2012 for Evans.

***

Epic in Jacksonville

Rarely has a season-ending meeting between 4-11 and 2-13 teams held so much meaning. The 2-13 Colts can foul up their No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft with a victory, presuming St. Louis (2-13) loses as expected to San Francisco. If the Colts lose, they're guaranteed the No. 1 pick -- and the chance to draft quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford.

Until this year, Jacksonville had finished behind Indianapolis every season since the AFC South was created in 2002. The Jaguars are 5-14 against Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

At the risk of overstatement (even a prospect as great as Luck is not a lock to be a great pro), this is a game that could alter the course of both franchises for the next decade. Do the Jaguars really want to be under the thumb of a Luck-led Colts team for the next 10 years? That's what could happen if the Jags beat the Colts today. Indianapolis has won two straight. Jacksonville is all banged up and leads the league in players on injured reserve.

There was a lot of talk among the Jacksonville players this week about winning for owner Wayne Weaver, since this will be his last game with the franchise. His sale of the team takes effect this week. Of course, the players on the field for both teams are going to play hard. A lot of their jobs are on the line heading into next year. But it will be interesting to see if any key players get pulled from the game. Jags back Maurice Jones-Drew has been battling a sore ankle. Jags left tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable. Colts tight end Dallas Clark is questionable.

***

Draft's wife dies

Condolences to retired linebacker Chris Draft, who played 11 games for the Bills in 2009. Draft lost his wife of one month to lung cancer this week. Lakeasha Rutledge Draft died at age 38 after a long battle with the terminal disease. She was a non-smoker. Draft met her while he was playing for Carolina in 2005 and 2006. She was a cheerleader for the Charlotte Hornets at the time. She worked with Draft's charitable foundations until her illness. Draft, who played 12 years in the NFL, is a remarkable leader who has dedicated himself to helping others. He was a two-time finalist for the NFL Players' Association Whizzer White Award, which goes to a player for charity work. It was obvious to anybody who met Draft in his brief time in Buffalo that he is an inspiration.

***

Onside kicks

*The NFC had a 33-31 record against the AFC. It's the first time since 1995 the NFC won the series. The interconference schedule ended in ties in 2000, 2001 and 2007.

*The Jets' Aaron Maybin has nine tackles on the season -- six of them sacks. He has played about 20 plays a game for New York.

*Washington's London Fletcher leads the NFL in tackles with 162.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com