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AFC depth Jaguars' greatest obstacle


Ten of the AFC's 16 teams are over .500, and the conference's standings may never have been more balanced than they are currently.

This season, the AFC has distinct representatives in each of the three football classes: upper, lower and middle. Division leaders Tennessee, Oakland and Miami have elite records, and are being pursued by playoff contenders who each have the ability to become the league's elite team in the postseason. Then, there is the conference's lower class, led by San Diego at 0-9, and Cincinnati and Cleveland at 2-7 and 2-8 respectively.

It's a well-ordered group. There will be no dog playoff teams in the AFC this year. Last year, Miami and Seattle truly weren't worth of the postseason. This year, there may be as many as four playoff-worthy teams who won't qualify for the postseason.

So, where do the Jaguars fit in all of this? Well, currently, the Jaguars and Seattle are the AFC's disappointment teams. The Jaguars were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender but, at 3-6, just making the playoffs would require a miracle finish. Seattle was supposed to be a playoff contender but, at 3-7, the Seahawks are mired in a downward spiral that has them 4-13 (including their playoff loss to Miami) since starting 8-2 last season.

Finally, the Jaguars' schedule is favorable. Just ahead is a visit from the Seahawks, who'll have to travel across the country to play a team on a two-week rest.

The Jaguars' playoff hopes will probably be decided on either side of Thanksgiving. They'll play in Pittsburgh on Nov. 19, then at home against Tennessee on Nov. 26.

Any hope the Jaguars have of running the table in the final seven games would seem to hinge on those two games. They are clearly the most threatening games on the Jaguars' remaining schedule. Either of those two games can be the one that kills whatever playoff hope the Jaguars have, or combined they can be a springboard to a December that should produce a winning streak.

The Jaguars open December with games at Alltel Stadium against Cleveland and Arizona, then travel to Cincinnati. Those teams are a combined 7-21 currently, and teams in those types of free-fall seasons usually don't play harder as the season gets longer and the weather gets colder.

On the final weekend of the season, the Jaguars play at the New York Giants, and even though the Giants are 7-2 and obviously an even more formidable opponent in Giants Stadium, it's very possible the Giants will have already clinched their playoff position and will be looking to rest their starters.

It can happen. The Jaguars have a chance at running the table and making the playoffs, but the depth of the AFC playoff field is the Jaguars' greatest adversary. There are 10 teams ahead of the Jaguars in the AFC standings, and the Jaguars have already lost tie-breakers to two of them (Baltimore and Indianapolis).

Whatever chance the Jaguars have of making the playoffs would seem to rest with those games on either side of Thanksgiving, and with the right chain of results among the other AFC playoff contenders.

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