(CBS Miami) -- As the playoff race heats up, the AFC East is starting to look a lot like it has before last season. The New England Patriots lead the division, on the strength of five straight wins. The Buffalo Bills, thanks to some mid-season struggles find themselves looking up at their division rivals. The Miami Dolphins are falling short of expectations, but seem to have also turned a corner in the short-term. And the New York Jets remain one of the NFL's worst teams.
Whether the division is reverting to form remains to be seen. It could all be a product of another strange season of football. Week 12 could provide a little more clarity. The Bills will attempt to figure things out against the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins host the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots battle the Tennessee Titans in one of this week's more intriguing matchups. And the Jets battle the Houston Texans for position in next season's draft.
All times listed are Eastern.
Buffalo Bills @ New Orleans Saints, Thursday, November 23, 8:20 p.m
After last season's trip to the AFC Championship, the Bills looked poised to run the table on the AFC East this season. Josh Allen was becoming one of the league's top quarterbacks with a variety of weapons at his disposal. Meanwhile, the Jets and Patriots had rookies at the helm, and the Dolphins a second-year QB with lots of injuries and a minimal history of success.
The Bills' path back to the playoffs, should it lead there, hasn't been smooth so far. They've lost twice in the last three weeks, first 9-6 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and most recently 41-15 to the Indianapolis Colts. Josh Allen went 21-35 for 20 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bills turned the ball over four times on the afternoon, leading to three of the Colts' TDs. Their usually stout defense -- Buffalo allows a league-low 283.7 yards per game -- let running back Jonathan Taylor score five times. The loss drops them to second in the division, one game behind the Patriots.
They'll have a chance to redeem themselves in New Orleans on Thanksgiving day. The Saints are enduring their own struggles, losing three straight and falling two games behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their most recent 40-29 setback came at the hands of the revitalized Philadelphia Eagles. New Orleans's top-flight run defense couldn't stop Jalen Hurts from rushing for three touchdowns and the Eagles from rushing for 242 yards.
With quarterback Jameis Winston done for the season, the Saints' offense continued to sputter. Trevor Siemian threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, but he needed 40 attempts to complete 20 passes. And 22 of the of their 29 points came in the fourth quarter, when the game was essentially over. Alvin Kamara's return could help the Saints' offense in Week 11. But would it be enough?
"I do like the Bills in this bounceback spot," said Hartstein. "The Saints' offense is just completely broken without Winston. And whether or not Kamara will be back, he won't be 100 percent. Even if he plays, the offensive line is injured. And almost all of their production came at the end of that game against the Eagles. They were getting blown out, whereas the Bills should be in a nice bounceback spot. They had four turnovers. They got stunned by Indianapolis. But this is a Saints defense that is great against the run. But you can hit them with explosive plays. And with Stephon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Josh Allen running and throwing, I love the Bills to bounce back and cover."
Carolina Panthers @ Miami Dolphins, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m.
After beating the Patriots to open the season, the Dolphins lost seven straight. But they are undefeated in November. Their recent three-game winning streak includes victories over the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. The defense has allowed just 12 points per game during that stretch. And Tua
Tagovailoa went 27-33 for 273 yards and two TDs as the fulltime quarterback in their most recent win.
While a win is a win in the standings, the Texans and Jets are among the NFL's worst teams. The Ravens, however, have legitimate hopes of making a playoff run. Former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson has the inside track on taking home the award again. But the Dolphins limited him to 39 yards on nine carries and one of the NFL's top rushing offenses to under 100 yards for the game.
"It's a great three-game winning streak," said Hartstein. "They have turned things around. Tua is looking good. But let's remember, they played the Jets and the Texans in that streak. They did have an amazing performance against the Ravens. But I just think they're going to hit a real stumbling block, and that is the Carolina pass defense, which is elite. And that is going to make things are tough for Tua. So I'm going to lean to the Panthers and say the Dolphins' win streak ends at three."
The Panthers have also had their struggles on the season. Running back Christian McCaffrey has been banged up all year, and quarterback Sam Darnold floundered before being sidelined with a shoulder injury. The team is now back in the hands of Cam Newton after a year away in New England. Newton, who started for the Patriots last season, led the Panthers to their second Super Bowl appearance 2015. He came up short against the Washington Football Team in his first start of the season. Newton went 21-27 for 189 yards and two TDs while leading an offense he had yet to fully master.
They let a subpar Washington offense pick them apart on the other side of the ball. The league-leading Carolina pass defense should contain the Dolphins' passing attack, however.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m. on CBS
Past the season's halfway point, Titans-Patriots seems like a reasonable prediction for the AFC Championship. That is as much because of what other teams haven't done as what these teams have done. The Bills, Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs have all failed to show any really consistency from week to week. The 8-3 Titans have somehow continued to win after the loss of running back Derrick Henry, at least until Week 11's implosion. The Patriots, behind rookie quarterback Mac Jones, are blowing teams off the field.
"I think it's three straight blowout wins, five straight wins overall to get atop the AFC," said Hartstein. "This team is rolling. They just crushed the Falcons 25-0, probably could have beaten them by a lot more. And Tennessee coming off an embarrassing loss to the Texans. It was a real flat spot after six straight wins. So this line started at New England -2.5 on the lookahead line. And then we had those two disparate results, with New England winning big and the Titans losing to Houston. And now the line we're seeing 6, even 6.5 in some spots. And Mike Vrabel, coming home to New England, he's 2-0 against Bill Belichick. And Mike Vrabel thrives in the underdog role. So even though the Patriots look amazing, if you forced me to pick this one, I'm taking the points."
The Titans are coming off an awful loss that might point to things to come. Ryan Tannehill completed 35-52 for 323 yards and a touchdown. He also threw threw four interceptions. Going into the Patriots game, top receiver Julio Jones is now on injured reserve. Marcus Johnson is done for the season. And A.J. Brown is having hamstring issues. The running back-by-committee approach isn't anywhere near as productive as the injured Henry.
The Patriots, on the other hand, seem to be a team on the rise. Mac Jones is growing into an efficient passer, throwing only four incompletions in each of his last two games. One of those was a blow out of the Cleveland Browns, the other a dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons. But their defense has grown increasingly dominant as well. Their last three opponents have scored a grand total of 13 points. Outside linebacker Matt Judon has tallied 10.5 sacks.
New York Jets @ Houston Texans, Sunday, November 28, 1:00 p.m. on CBS
The Jets continue to limp through another losing season with few bright spots. One was a 34-31 win in Week 12 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Another was the sometimes encouraging play of rookie quarterback Zack Wilson, at least until he was sidelined with a knee injury. Wilson looks set to return this week against the Texans. He'll look to boost one of the NFL's lowest-scoring offenses, though it may not matter against a Houston team that scores even less.
The Texans is coming off a surprising win over the Titans, ending their own eight-game losing streak and the Houston's six-game winning streak in the process. Despite the win, the game didn't give them a lot to celebrate. The Titans put up 420 yards of offense compared to the Texans' 190 yards. They did however force five turnovers for the second week in a row. That alone tops last season's total of nine. And the Texans did not allow a sack for the first time this season. But in terms of yardage, both units remain among the league's worst.
But sometimes bad teams make for an exciting matchup. Both teams are 2-8, and have some reason for optimism, however fleeting.
"Sometimes you have to look at the worst teams in the league for value, and that's what I think we're seeing here," Hartstein acknowledges. "Houston's win over Tennessee was misleading. I believe they were plus-five in turnovers. They gained less than 200 yards. But yet, because they had that big win, now they're favored by three points. They shouldn't be favored by three points over anybody, including the New York Jets, I think in this case, you just have to take the points. These are two terrible teams. I think if you're getting a full field goal, you take the points and you just stomach it."
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