By Norm Elrod
(CBS Miami) — The AFC East is experiencing what appears to be a changing of the guard. The Buffalo Bills lead the division at 8-3, followed closely by the upstart Miami Dolphins at 7-4. Both teams have legitimate playoff aspirations and are on a collision course for a Week 17 matchup that could determine the AFC East title. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots, division winners 11 years running, sit at 5-6. Were the season to end today, they would not make the playoffs. The same goes for the 0-11 New York Jets, obviously, though they likely passed that milestone weeks ago.
CBS Miami sports anchor Mike Cugno looks at matchups in the AFC East for Week 13.
All times listed are Eastern.
Las Vegas Raiders @ New York Jets, Sunday, December 6 @ 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
The Jets are still seeking that ever-elusive first win of the season. They’ve come close a few times, including two weeks ago against the Los Angeles Chargers. And every remaining game offers another opportunity. Will they get it this week against the Raiders?
“No, there’s no chance they do,” says Cugno. “Look, the Raiders [are] eight-point favorites coming into this game, even if Josh Jacobs is banged up with that injured ankle. I just don’t see the Jets being able to score enough points. And, you know, honestly, if they’re tanking for real or tanking inadvertently, they’re doing a good job of the tank. And I think that continues. I think they really want to get a guy like Trevor Lawrence next year.”
Sam Darnold and his backup and Joe Flacco have only passed for 200 yards in a game for times this season. Unfortunately, for the Jets, quarterback isn’t their only problem area. No running back has exceeded 100 rushing yards in a game so far. And the offensive line is a mess. It all adds up to a league-worst of 267.8 yards and 13.8 points per game.
The 6-5 Raiders won’t catch the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, but they could do some damage if they make it to the playoffs. Las Vegas is coming off an embarrassing 43-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but they almost beat the Chiefs the week prior. Inconsistency has been an issue for the Raiders, as a team, all season, but they tend to bounce back.
“Derek Carr had a bad game last week against Atlanta,” Cugno points out. “I don’t think we see two in a row. He’s been playing pretty consistent this year. And the Jets, at the end of the day, really can’t score on anybody, and that’s their biggest issue to be honest with you, I’m talking about tanking or not. Their offense is very inept. So I like the Las Vegas Raiders to win this.”
New England Patriots @ Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, December 6 @ 4:25 p.m. (CBS)
The Patriots technically remain alive in the playoff hunt. But any realistic shot at the postseason probably requires them to win out and get a little help. The Chargers, at 3-8, are basically done.
New England has struggled to get on track much of the season, particularly on offense. According to Cugno, “when I look at the Patriots team, again, similar to the Jets, where they don’t put up a whole lot of offense. They’ve got a lot of question marks in the receiving core, a lot of question marks in their running game as well. And then Cam Newton certainly not been MVP Cam Newton we’ve known.”
The defense saved them last week against the Arizona Cardinals, coming up with a late interception. Can they do it again against Justin Herbert, who is having a strong rookie season, already throwing for 3,015 yards and 23 touchdowns. As Cugno points out, “…the Chargers, they can put up points with the offense they have. They’ve got Justin Herbert, of course, Keenan Allen one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. But, for some reason, they’re just not putting it all together.”
Six of the Chargers’ losses have come by a touchdown or less. The same can be said for four of the Patriots’ losses. “Right now, this is a very close game,” says Cugno. “I’m tending to lean towards the Chargers. I think they finally break out of this weird funk, where they’re losing close games. And I think they win a close one against the Patriots.”
Buffalo Bills @ San Francisco 49ers, Monday, December 7 @ 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
The 5-6 49ers have had a rough season, filled with injuries and upheaval from the COVID pandemic. Most recently they’ve been forced to decamp to Arizona for the month of December due to local pandemic restrictions. The team will practice where the Arizona Cardinals held training camp and play games, including this week’s, at nearby State Farm Stadium.
As Cugno points out, “you look at what’s really been going on with the 49ers, not even just this last week, but dating all the way back to weeks one and two of the season, where they have just been crushed by injuries, week in and week out. Credit this team, though, for being competitive every week. They beat the Rams last week.”
The Bills have come out from the Patriots’ shadow this season. “The Bills have really been kind of the class, the most consistent team in the AFC East this year,” says Cugno. “The emergence of Josh Allen as a star in the NFL is very for real.”
Allen has become one of the league’s leading passers, with 3,028 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes to date. The addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs has certainly helped a passing game that averages 268.1 yards per game. They should have plenty of firepower to get past a distracted 49ers team.
As Cugno sees it, “I think the Bills are able to handle a team that’s depleted with injuries and, honestly, has a lot of distractions around because of those COVID restrictions on where they can and cannot play. So I think the Bills do win this. But I think it’s a competitive game, maybe more so than people think.”
Cincinnati Bengals @ Miami Dolphins, Sunday, December 6 @ 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
The Dolphins are very much in the playoff hunt, sitting just a game behind the Bills. And they find themselves facing a Bengals team, which isn’t nearly as dangerous as it was a couple of weeks ago. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in their loss to the Washington Football team and is done for the season. So the anticipated Tua-Burrow matchup will have to wait. It might’ve had to wait anyway, with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting for the Dolphins while Tua recovers from a thumb injury.
Either way, the Fins are rolling, having won six of their last seven games. And a lot of the credit should go to the defense and the way they’re playing. Brandon Allen, the Bengals backup QB, is in for a challenge. “I don’t envy the position he is in,” says Cugno. “He’s going up against one of the best defensive back groups in the entire NFL. You look at Byron Jones, Xavien Howard. Seems like Howard gets a pick every game. Right now, he’s up to seven on the season, he leads the NFL. To me, when those corners are shutting down opposing offenses, then you see those quarterbacks start to take hits. And you see the opposing run games become less effective, because that team becomes one-dimensional.”
The Dolphins are 11.5-point favorites. “For all the problems of Bengals have this year and with the injuries, especially at the quarterback position, I don’t see there’s an avenue for them to win this game,” says Cugno. “I think the Dolphins win this at home. They’re finally back at home. They’re going to win this by double-digits.”