Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Domino effect: How Brady's knee impacts AFC

Posted by's Tim Graham

Tom Brady's buckled left knee looks disastrous for one team. The other 31 aren't too broken up about it.

AP Photo/Winslow Townson
The AFC race looks a lot different without Tom Brady in the mix.

A select few are downright ecstatic because a season-ending injury would buoy their chances to win the AFC or make the playoffs if the New England Patriots were to collapse without their leader.

"That's terrible," New York Jets QB Brett Favre said of Brady's damaged knee. "They've always overcome injuries and things like that, but that's pretty difficult."

Let's stop for a moment and imagine the Patriots not qualifying for the playoffs behind backup Matt Cassel or Chris Simms or Joey Harrington or whomever else they might find. Here's what could happen to the AFC's power structure:

New favorites to win the AFC: San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers suffered a heart-breaking Week 1 home loss to the Carolina Panthers as time expired, but they didn't lose anybody for the season. They still have QB Philip Rivers and RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates and WR Chris Chambers. How long they have LB Shawne Merriman is another matter, but their defense should be fine even if he can't finish the season.

The Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars remain AFC contenders, and whichever club doesn't win the AFC South almost certainly will have a record good enough for one of the two wild-card berths.

New kings of the AFC East: Buffalo Bills.

The Jets are right there, too, but the Bills distinguished themselves with a complete 34-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The Bills also have Pro Bowl T Jason Peters returning to practice on Monday after a 43-day holdout.

New wild card hope: Pittsburgh Steelers or Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos.

The AFC North's second-place finisher seemed doomed to fall short of a wild-card possibility because of rugged scheduling, but removing the Patriots from the mix would bump everybody up a notch.

Because AFC East teams have much easier schedules, the team that finishes second is projected as a top wild-card candidate. That's where either the Jets or Bills come in.

The Titans made a statement with their 17-10 triumph over the Jaguars. Both wild-card entrants came out of the AFC South last year. It can happen again.

The Denver Broncos don't look like playoff material, but they should be the second-best team in the AFC West. The Broncos would be a long shot even if the Patriots went 1-15, but every little bit helps.

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