Our sources around the AFC are hearing the following whispers:
• Jets CB Antonio Cromartie has played well since a game to forget in Oakland in Week Three, when he committed four penalties. Sometimes the forgotten corner playing opposite Darrelle Revis, Cromartie has avoided the hiccups and has only three penalties in the last seven games. The tandem of Cromartie and Revis continues to pay dividends. Opposing quarterbacks are completing only 54.4 percent of passes against the Jets.
• With injuries to LBs Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, it was a surprise to see Patriots ILB Gary Guyton not taking a more prominent role on defense in Weeks 10 and 11. We hear that Guyton is a good replacement for Jerod Mayo, as he is smart and can line up the defense. It speaks to what they think of Guyton that the Patriots have used Tracy White, a special-teams contributor, in coverage. Undrafted LB Jeff Tarpinian, who was used against the run, is now on injured reserve.
• Along with the Dolphins' improved play has been an increased use of rookie FB/TE Charles Clay, as the team has used two-TE sets more often than going three-wide. Clay caught his first touchdown in Week 11 and had a pair of big catches in Week Nine. He had only one catch on two targets against the Cowboys. We hear the Dolphins needed some time to figure out how to use him, and the versatile rookie has been left open often by defenses keying in on Brandon Marshall.
• One Browns defender quietly playing a key role is CB Dimitri Patterson, who's done a solid job covering the slot. Browns CB Sheldon Brown, who played with Patterson in Philadelphia, told PFW that Patterson's addition was an important offseason move for the defense. "Dimitri has held his own," Brown said.
• Ravens WLB Jameel McClain's responsibility has grown with MLB Ray Lewis missing the last two games with a foot injury, as he's assumed the task of relaying the signals to the defense. "He did a great job of communicating with the guys in the front and the back," Ravens DT Haloti Ngata said after Baltimore's win vs. San Francisco on Thanksgiving. "He did a great job of filling gaps, too. It's great that Jameel could step up like that and if Ray Lewis ever steps out like that again, we know what we're going to get out of McClain."
• Suddenly, RB depth could be a strength for the Browns, with Montario Hardesty (calf) set to return and Peyton Hillis (hamstring) making major strides in his recovery, too. This comes after Chris Ogbonnaya played his two best games of the season in Weeks 10 and 11, rushing for a combined 205 yards. However, once Hardesty and Hillis are back, Ogbonnaya's role figures to shrink. "I think if our backs are healthy then Hillis is the starter, backed up by Montario, backed up by Obi," head coach Pat Shurmur said Nov. 25.
• Almost as puzzling as the lifeless running game for the Titans is the lack of discipline from the club. Rookie head coach Mike Munchak cut his coaching teeth as a no-nonsense, detail-oriented teacher, yet the Titans rank 29th in the league in penalty yards edge. Making matters worse, the club seems to be regressing, with 278 penalty yards combined in the past three weeks. Playing more disciplined football will be a major point of emphasis for Munchak's men down the home stretch.
• One might mistake Colts RB Donald Brown for one of the better backs in the league from listening to vice chairman Bill Polian tell it. Polian said on his radio show this week that Brown has been "terrific." But it is obvious from listening to head coach Jim Caldwell that he doesn't hold Brown in quite as high regard. The 2009 first-rounder has made strides this season, but he has a long way to go toward figuring into the club's long-term plans.
• With Jaguars ORT Eben Britton, who was placed on injured reserve last week, appearing in only four games this season after playing in only seven games in 2010, the Jaguars' future outlook along the offensive line remains a little hazy. OLT Eugene Monroe has played well recently, but rookie Will Rackley continues to struggle and C Brad Meester will be 35 before next season begins. Moreover, backup OT Guy Whimper is clearly not the answer, making it likely the Jaguars will have to address the offensive line again this offseason.
• Texans PK Neil Rackers' recent struggles have been largely a result of inexperienced second-year long-snapper Jonathan Weeks, who was responsible for two bad snaps in Week 10 that led to misses. Rackers has been almost automatic during his two seasons in Houston, although one source recently pointed out that Rackers has never had to deliver in crunch time for the Texans. Houston's offense and defense have been clicking on all cylinders lately, but the special teams have fallen off as the season has worn on.
• Matt Cassel's season-ending wrist injury forced the Chiefs to find a replacement at quarterback, which is why they claimed ex-Bronco Kyle Orton off waivers on Nov. 23. Orton will back up Tyler Palko, but we hear he is expected to start sooner rather than later. The question for the Chiefs will be if Orton does well over the final month of the season and they have to decide if they want to bring back the free-agent-to-be to compete with Cassel next summer for the starting job.
• The Raiders have been pleased with the production of Aaron Curry since acquiring the strong-side linebacker in a trade with the Seahawks in October. While his stats have been far from jaw-dropping, Curry's ability to cover tight ends and make open-field tackles has allowed fellow Oakland LBs Kamerion Wimbley and Rolando McClain to make more big plays.
• Denver's secondary has improved since replacing Rahim Moore at free safety with Quinton Carter. Though both players are rookies, Carter seems to have a better grasp of the defense and plays better alongside veteran SS Brian Dawkins. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said of Carter, "His tackling has been outstanding. He really brings a security blanket back there."
• Chargers CB Antoine Cason was benched earlier in the season, and though he has regained his starting job, his struggles have continued. According to a source, Cason is losing the ball in the air too often, allowing receivers to make plays even though the defender is in good position. His struggles highlight all the problems San Diego has had defending the pass this season.