Our insiders around the AFC have been hearing the following whispers:
• Raiders SS Tyvon Branch has been a breakout player in 2011. The fourth-year player has put up big numbers before but never had made as big of an impact as he has this season. With a team-high 55 tackles, he's making an impact in both the run and the pass games, and his lone interception this season — in Week Four vs. the Jets — prevented a touchdown. Oakland's secondary needed a playmaker, and Branch is proving to be that guy.
• It was no coincidence that the Broncos allowed the most sacks of the season (six) in the first game that Tim Tebow started. The second-year quarterback holds on to the ball longer than Kyle Orton did and looks to take off and run fairly quickly in plays, resulting in more tackles for loss. A team insider said that Tebow's running ability is both "a blessing and a curse," because it creates as many negative plays as big ones.
• Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson admits he's playing well this season, but he also believes he could be doing even better. Johnson told PFW, "I'm always hard on myself, and the coaches are, too." Against the Raiders in Week Seven, he registered 13 tackles but felt he left a few plays on the field. "I could have had 15 or 16 because I missed a couple in the backfield. So I'm always trying to get better at something, because I know at the end of the year or when it's all said and done after the season's over with, I'll have no regrets."
• With LB Larry English going on injured reserve with a broken foot, the Chargers are going to need backups Antwan Barnes and Darryl Gamble to improve as run defenders. Both have skills as pass rushers, but with more playing time available on first and second downs now, Barnes and Gamble will have to do more than just look for sacks.
• Terrence McGee looked very good in his first start since getting hurt in Week One, recording 11 tackles and two passes defensed vs. the Giants in Week Six. One daily team observer pointed out that McGee had looked as though he was on the decline in his career. The 31-year old hasn't played a full season since 2004, but he started over Leodis McKelvin and provided some big plays at corner.
• Patriots second-year ILB Brandon Spikes has stepped up his game after a slow start to the season because of injuries. He made some big plays against the Cowboys with Jerod Mayo out, and we hear the most impressive aspect of Spikes' play has been that he is on the field on third down. Spikes is mainly a run stopper, but the Pats are using him as a pass rusher. Spikes is very instinctive, and he made the decision easier for New England to move Mayo to the "Will" LB position.
• Early in training camp, Dolphins seventh-round DB Jimmy Wilson had locked up a spot on the 53-man roster. The physical corner has gotten extra playing time, with injuries ravaging the Dolphins' secondary. He has three passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble this season. "He's improved quite a bit," said head coach Tony Sparano, who added that Wilson played in 28 defensive plays against the Broncos. "He's a smart player who plays with good techniques and good leverages."
• The sense in Baltimore is Bernard Pollard will continue to play regularly even when SS Tom Zbikowski returns to the lineup. Zbikowski has missed two games with a concussion, and the physical Pollard has played well in his absence. Two seasons ago, Pollard was one of the catalysts of a defensive turnaround in Houston, but the Texans' defense was a major disappointment a season ago, and Pollard didn't play as well as he had in the previous campaign.
• Opportunities have been scarce for Steelers WR Jerricho Cotchery in the first half of the season. He missed the first three games with a hamstring injury, and he's been targeted just three times (no catches) in four games. Cotchery is behind Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in the pecking order at wideout, and TE Heath Miller is also a key target for QB Ben Roethlisberger, leaving Cotchery as an infrequent contributor in the passing game for now.
• Should Bengals WLB Keith Rivers return this season, it will be interesting to see what sort of role he has. Rivers, who has been out the entire campaign after undergoing offseason wrist surgery, made 33 starts in his first three seasons in Cincinnati, but he did not make many big plays. In his absence, Thomas Howard, the 2011 starter on the weak side, has played very well.
• The Jaguars' Week Seven upset victory over the Ravens likely saved head coach Jack Del Rio's job for the rest of the season, the way we hear it. In ending the team's five-game skid against a tough opponent, Del Rio has his guys in position to get back in the thick of the AFC South race with another victory at Houston. Of course, saying and doing are two different things. Del Rio needs to find a way to avoid a letdown coming off a big win, which has been a problem during his tenure.
• The biggest difference between Titans MLB Barrett Ruud and former Titan Stephen Tulloch is that Ruud sits back and lets guys come to him, whereas Tulloch bombs into gaps and plays with more physicality. The result is that Ruud is not making the impact plays that Tulloch did during his time in Nashville.
• Texans head coach Gary Kubiak's teams always play well in December, and the reason could be the way he handles his players during the season. For instance, if Kubiak thinks his guys are practicing hard and doing things the right way, he is more inclined to end practice 15 minutes early to reward them. He is great at finding ways to preserve his players for late in the season. Another example is his preferred ratio of giving starters 65 percent of snaps and reserves around 35 percent. Rookie DE J.J. Watt has been getting spelled more often lately, and he played arguably his best game of the season at Tennessee in Week Seven.