By Danny Cox
As week 10 approaches, the playoff picture is starting to clear up a little bit, but there are still plenty of teams alive in both conferences and fighting for their postseason lives. In the AFC, there are two really big games with playoff implications that could knock two teams back a notch and push two others further away from the pack. With the season more than halfway over, every single game truly does count now and a loss could seriously hurt the playoff chances of anyone in the race.
Buffalo Bills’ legend and former special teams ace Steve Tasker of CBS Sports took some time to speak with me about two AFC contests that will have big implications on the playoff race. The first is the “Thursday Night Football” game between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals which could go a long way in the AFC North race. Next up is a Sunday match-up between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, both of who have good shots at making it into the postseason.
The AFC North has become one of the strongest divisions this season, Cincinnati is right on the outside of the playoffs looking in…do you think three teams from this division could really make it into the postseason?
Steve Tasker: “It’s possible, particularly the way San Diego has been playing lately. It looks like they could get squeezed out of a wildcard spot. Then you have Denver in there and New England in the AFC East. When you look at the AFC South, probably none of those teams are going to make it except for the Indianapolis Colts. It’s going to be possible when you take the four division leaders, including whichever teams is leading the North. If Cincinnati wins it, Baltimore and Pittsburgh could easily squeeze in and of course, Cleveland could as well.
With all the division games at the end of the season, that’s what is really going to tell the tale. A lot of these teams could sneak in as they hover around the backdoor. Buffalo is 5-3 and other teams are playing well. That last month of the season is going to tell a lot, but there is no question that three AFC North teams could get in.”
Cincinnati has had its ups-and-downs this year, what can they do to be more consistent?
ST: “Losing A.J. Green for three weeks obviously hurt and they lost all those games. That is something that is no coincidence. The guy can really play and I think now that he is back in the game, you can see the team got back on track as soon as A.J. got back on the field. If they stay healthy, they have a very deep roster. What I’m interested to see is that Cincinnati has to play better on the road. There is a chance they could get home-field advantage, but the teams ahead of them are going to make that hard.”
Do you believe that the Johnny Manziel experiment has been a failure or does he need a different place to play?
ST: “I don’t think they’ve given up on him because they haven’t seen him yet. There’s no reason for them to give up on him. It’s the perfect scenario for the Browns and their fans. The way the situation is though is that Brian Hoyer is in there and playing well enough to win games and so the Browns don’t have to go the Manziel route. It’s not a failure yet.
My thing is that it’s too bad they drafted him in the first round. If they had drafted another type of player in the first round, that guy could be helping them out now. Maybe a big tight end or an offensive lineman which could help with Alex Mack’s injury. They could get some mileage out of a different player right now as they don’t need a quarterback and therefore, Manziel isn’t needed just yet.”
Both the Bengals and Browns have good quarterbacks but also have bad rushing defenses. What offensive plan of attack do you feel will work best for each team?
ST: “For Cleveland, it’s going to be what they have done best all season. They run the ball really well with (Ben) Tate, (Terrance) West, and (Isaiah) Crowell who can really run. One thing that hurt the Browns was losing Alex Mack. They’ve had a hard time losing their center as it hurt them in the run game and pass protection. If they can fix that, things would be better. They are going to try and run it, establish things on the ground, and then let Brian Hoyer throw is up over the top.
For the Bengals, it hurt them when Giovani Bernard went down. More is now going to fall on Andy Dalton and he’s lucky that A.J. Green is back. This team is a handful and they are going to have some problems with the strength of the Browns’ defense with Joe Haden. Without Bernard, it’s going to be hard for the Bengals but Dalton is going to have to do more. It’s going to be interesting to see how their injured running game can compliment Dalton and the full return of Green.”
Has EJ Manuel’s time come to an end in Buffalo?
ST: “I don’t think so. I think they still have hope for him and still feel that he can develop into a good player. The Bills believe he is going to be better than what he has showed thus far. He’s learning now by watching Kyle Orton play. He was drafted for his big arm, his speed, his size, but his intangibles are another thing. He’s a hard worker and he’s committed to doing it right.
If there is one thing the Bills would like for him to clean up, it’s his accuracy. If Manuel can do that, they would be more than happy with how he is playing. Manuel just wasn’t accurate enough and missed some receivers and big plays, but if he can fix that…he could be back in.”
The Chiefs haven’t seemed to have the same fire this yer as they did in 2013, what do you think is missing?
ST: “Personally, I think it comes down to big plays. Their run game may be able to lead things, but they’re missing a big play ingredient. Their wide receiving corps is not as good as it needs to be. Dwayne Bowe is a big physical guy, but one-on-one coverage can beat him. When you’re number one guy is that guy, it puts your offense at a disadvantage. I don’t think Bowe brings enough attention from defenses that allows Alex Smith to look for targets that could be open.
Jamaal Charles draws more attention as well in the running game because the passing game of the Chiefs isn’t a real threat and it hurts their entire offense. The issues with their wide receivers translates into big plays…well, lack thereof.”
With injuries to Fred Jackson and AJ Spiller, the Bills are running by committee now. With the Chiefs having the best passing defense in the league, what kind of attack do you think Buffalo enters the game with?
ST: “They still have to run the football. For the Buffalo Bills, they just have to run the football. Their defense is good enough to keep things close. They’re not sitting there and going behind by large margins and having to turn completely to the pass. With Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown, they may not have the consistent big-play ability, but they can still use them. The play-action pass will be there to keep the offense wide open.
Now, there is no mistake that the miss Spiller and Jackson, but they have the players to make it work. One other problem is their offensive line has under-performed as well. All of the guys are big and athletic, but they haven’t been able to gel together and haven’t performed as well as they should be. The Bills have been fighting against themselves a bit and that needs to change so they can be more successful.”
Danny Cox knows a little something about the NFL, whether it means letting you know what penalty will come from the flag just thrown on the field or quickly spouting off who the Chicago Bears drafted in the first round of the 1987 draft (Jim Harbaugh). He plans on bringing you the best news, previews, recaps, and anything else that may come along with the exciting world of the National Football League. Danny is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.