Celtics

AFC Power Rankings (Part 2)

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AFC Power Rankings (Part 2)

In Part 1 of the AFC Power Rankings, I crowned the Broncos winners of the pathetic AFC West (Do you know that every team in that division has a negative point differential?) and sent the Colts, Browns, Jags, Bills, Dolphins, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders on their way to an early off-season.

Now, we get to the good stuff. (For a quick recap of how things shook out among the AFC's best teams on Sunday, click here.)

AFC Power Rankings, Part 2
The Sixth Seed: The first AFC Wild Card spot will go to the AFC North runner-up either the Steelers or Ravens. The second and final Wild Card spot (The No. 6 seed) will likely come down to a battle among three teams: Cincinnati, Tennessee and the J-E-T-S.

7. Cincinnati (7-5): The Bengals own the tiebreaker over Tennessee, thanks to head-to-head win in Week 9. Cincy also (as of now) owns the tiebreaker over the Jets, thanks to a one-game edge in inter-conference record. So all things being equal, I guess the Bengals have a leg up. However, all things are not equal.

Cincys still led by two rookies Andy Dalton and AJ Green whove yet to experience the true grit of an NFL December. They still have a coach who doesnt exactly exude confidence. They also have a great defense (including the league's sixth ranked run D), so I don't want to sell them too short. But more importantly, there's this:

The Bengals have played six games against teams that currently have a winning record: In those games, Cincinnati's 1-5.

Theyve played six games against teams currently living below .500: In those games, theyre 6-0. That's not the mark of a playoff team.

Cincinnati has remaining games against both the Texans and the Ravens (combined record: 18-6), and if they can win one, theyll be in line to become one of the more surprising playoff teams in recent memory. I dont see it though.

6. Tennessee (7-5): Chris Johnson ran for 366 yards and one touchdown in his first eight games this season. In his last four, the artist formerly known as CJ2K has run for 486 and three touchdowns (and that includes a season-low 13 yards in a Week 10 loss to Atlanta). As the weather turns colder (it will eventually, right?) and offenses rely heavier on the run, a revitalized Johnson could take Tennessee to another level. Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck remains stable-not-super as always in the pocket, and the Titans defense ranks seventh in the NFL, allowing only 19.7 points a game.

The big test for the Titans comes this Sunday, when they host the Saints. But if there was ever a time to catch New Orleans sleeping, it might be now. The Saints are on the heels of two straight highly-emotional, prime time wins, and suddenly have an unexpected two-game cushion over Atlanta in the NFC South. Maybe New Orleans sleep walks into a lazy Sunday afternoon start in Tennessee? Maybe. And if so, the Titans will be a great spot. After New Orleans, theyre in Indianapolis, then host the Jags, before finishing the season in Houston. (The Texans beat the Titans 41-7 earlier this season, but by Week 17, Houston might already be in playoff mode.)

As of now, the Titans have a 12 game lead over the Jets in the tie-breaker, but even if the teams finish with identical records in the conference, the Titans would likely get the call thanks to their record against similar opponents. (In that case, the Jets Week 11 loss to Denver would prove to be the killer.)

5. New York (7-5): The Jets don't have an easy schedule down the stretch. After hosting the Chiefs next week, they'll travel to Philly (which I still refuse to consider a cake walk, regardless of record and drama), then host the Giants for a half-home game and finish off the season in Miami, against a Dolphins team that would sell their souls to ruin the Jets season.

Still, haven't we been here before with the Jets? Aren't we ALWAYS here with the Jets?

Somehow, someway, I see them sneaking in. And at that point, there's no team I'd rather play less. Who knows, maybe I'm still bearing the scars of last season, but the last thing anyone in New England wants to do is count out the Jets.

The Survivors: I've got nothing but respect for these guys, but you don't win the AFC with TJ Yates at quarterback.

4. Houston (9-3): I feel bad counting out the Texans. After all, they should have been in trouble when they started the season without Arian Foster. If not then, then certainly when they lost Andre Johnson. If not then, then definitely when they lost Mario Williams for the entire season. If not then, then definitely when they lost Matt Schaub for the year. If not then, they definitely when they lost back up Matt Leinart for the season. If not then, then DEFINITELY now that Johnson's suffered another hamstring injury (although the severity is still undetermined).

But the Texans are like the killer in every horror movie ever made. They won't die.

At this point, with a somewhat favorable schedule down the stretch (at Cinci, Carolina, at Indy, Ten), they should hold on for their first AFC South crown in franchise history. But as far as the playoffs goes, I repeat: You don't win the AFC with TJ Yates at quarterback.

Granted, I'm sure a few people were saying that about Tom Brady this time 10 years ago.

The Final Three: Despite all the possibilities, the conference will still come down to these three:

3. New England Patriots (9-3):2. Baltimore Ravens (9-3):1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3):
For the last month, weve obsessed over how easy the Patriots have it down the stretch. On that note, I present this blind schedule comparison.

Team 1: At Washington, At Denver, Miami, Buffalo
Team 2: Indianapolis, at San Diego, Cleveland, at Cincinnati
Team 3: Cleveland, at San Francisco, St. Louis, at Cleveland

Pretend you're an NFL coach. Actually, better yet, pretend you're you. Rank these schedule in order of preference.

Mine goes a little something like this:

Team 3: Pittsburgh
Team 2: Baltimore
Team 1: New England

Crazy, right? What happened to the easiest schedule of all time?

Either way, the Patriots are ranked third here because we still don't know what to expect. Regardless of what Bill Belichick says, there's no way to gauge what this team is capable of while playing against the dregs of the NFL. Of course, given my previous point, if I say that about the Pats, I have to say the same about the Steelers and Ravens so I will. Short of Pittsburgh's Week 15 Monday Night showdown in San Francisco, we'll learn very little about the toast of the AFC over the final month of the season.

But right now, the Ravens and Steelers are in another class. I mean, it's cute and all the Patriots are getting creative with Matt Slater and Julian Edelman in the secondary; with no-name linebackers trying to cover the likes of Pierre Garcon. But that only takes you so far. As interesting and hilarious as it is to watch, it's only a distraction from the fact that the Patriots are in a place where they're forced to routinely used wide receivers on defense.

Meanwhile, the Ravens and Steelers defenses rank third and fourth, respectively, in points per game. They rank second and seventh, respectively, in rushing yards per game. Fifth and second, respectively, in passing yards per game.

In those three categories, the Pats rank 10th, 10th and 32nd. They're not in the same league.

So, I'm putting the Pats third.

As for the Steelers and Ravens: Well, considering the Ravens swept the season series, you'd think they deserve to be one here. And if you made the argument, I'd have to listen. But here's why the Steelers are my current favorites to emerge from the AFC.

Big Ben vs. Joe Flacco: It's that simple. Can you really count on Flacco to win three or four straight playoff games? His combustibility has led to awful losses in Jacksonville and Seattle, and when it comes down to it, you know he has at least one stinker left, and it will more than likely end up costing Baltimore it's season.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Hawks in Atlanta. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”