Following are a number of whispers we've been hearing from around the AFC:
• There's speculation that Steelers WR Hines Ward could be playing his final regular-season home game at Heinz Field in Week 16, as his role has waned in the Pittsburgh offense. Ward, 35, is under contract for each of the next two seasons and is slated to make $4 million in salary each year. While it's logical to wonder if Ward, given his age, role and compensation, might not be back with Pittsburgh next season, it will also be interesting to see whether the Steelers can re-sign Jerricho Cotchery, who's slated to be an unrestricted free agent.
• The Patriots suffered a big loss in Week 15 when Andre Carter injured his quad, sending him to injured reserve. Carter led the team with 10 sacks. "It's hard to replace a guy like Andre," Patriots OLB Rob Ninkovich told PFW. "Not only does he have great production on the field, but he is a real good guy to have in the locker room and a great leader for us." Mark Anderson, who has nine sacks, is expected to replace Carter, but he doesn't have the run-stopping abilities that Carter showed all season.
• TE Scott Chandler has been a pleasant surprise to the Bills this season. Injuries have kept him off the field of late, but he is still having one of the top seasons for a tight end in a decade in Buffalo. Heading into Week 16, Chandler has 35 catches for 360 yards, and his six receiving touchdowns are tied with Stevie Johnson for the team lead. His contract is up at the end of the season, but we hear the team really likes Chandler and the dynamic he brought to the offense. There is a lot of inexperience at the No. 2 tight end spot, though. One daily team observer pointed out the busts Buffalo has had drafting a tight end early and they may want to try to add one in a late round, sign a free agent or develop who they have.
• One of the reasons that we haven't seen much of Dolphins rookie RB Daniel Thomas is the fact that the offense has really centered around Reggie Bush, who is putting up career numbers running the football. Thomas might get some extra opportunities in the last game after Bush passes 1,000 yards rushing, but the rookie hasn't provided the impact some expected after Miami traded up to get him.
• The loss of Jordan Shipley to an early-season knee injury took a solid possession receiver out of the Bengals' offense, and his absence continues to be felt, the way we hear it. The Bengals have liked what they have seen of Andrew Hawkins, a former CFL player, and his quickness and playmaking ability have been apparent when he's played inside. However, were Shipley still in the mix, the Bengals would have one more dependable short-area target for QB Andy Dalton — something the offense could use, we're told.
• Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron offered the following assessment on DE Jayme Mitchell, who's had just 1.5 sacks this season in 12 games (11 starts): "He's had a number of injuries that have slowed him down. They kind of accumulated on him over the year. I think that's affected his play to some degree. He's a guy that works at it. He's a consistent effort guy for us and has done a decent job."
• Titans head coach Mike Munchak again showed in Week 15 that he is loyal to his players even when they're struggling — perhaps to a fault. We hear the first-year head coach might have had too long a leash on QB Matt Hasselbeck in the loss to the Colts. Hasselbeck (calf) was clearly at less than 100 percent, but by the time Munchak made the move to Jake Locker in the fourth quarter, the damage had already been done.
• Until recent weeks, not much had gone right for the Colts. But word is offseason acquisitions Jamaal Anderson and Ernie Sims have actually played well this season. The past two weeks, in particular, the two former first-rounders have stood out, with Sims leading the team in tackles in Week 15 and Anderson making two big tackles for losses in the win over the Texans. Both players signed one-year deals in the offseason, but could receive offers from the Colts to return in 2012.
• Although some people have speculated that Jaguars GM Gene Smith could go back to the drawing board and use another high draft pick on a QB, given Blaine Gabbert's rocky rookie campaign, we hear that is not going to happen. Smith is going to sink or swim with Gabbert.
• The Texans' offensive line has been one of the best in the league this season, but Week 16 was not a good day for the unit. ORT Eric Winston was manhandled by Colts DLE Robert Mathis, and ORG Antoine Caldwell, after a strong showing in his first start of the season in Week 15, also struggled in pass protection.
• For the second season in a row, Chargers RB Ryan Mathews is playing his best towards the end of the season. He rushed for 90 or more yards in each game between Week 12 through 15, and along with Mike Tolbert, has rejuvenated the San Diego rushing attack. "Ryan's more patient on his runs, his pass protection has gotten a lot better," Tolbert told PFW about his teammate. "He has gotten a lot better, getting more comfortable in the offense because he was banged up a lot last year. He's doing good things and only getting better."
• The Raiders opted not to place QB Jason Campbell on injured reserve after he suffered a broken clavicle in Week Six. Now the quarterback has resumed throwing and working out with the team, but we hear it is unlikely he will be ready enough to play at any point this season. A free agent after the season, it is expected Campbell will sign elsewhere and look for an opportunity to start.
• Though things change quickly in coaching searches, it is likely a safe bet to scratch out Kirk Ferentz's name as a candidate for the Chiefs' head-coaching job. The University of Iowa head coach released a statement saying that he, "fully intends to be at Iowa next year and well beyond 2012." There was speculation Ferentz would come to K.C., as he worked closely with Chiefs GM Scott Pioli when both were on Bill Belichick's staff with the Browns in the 1990s.
• The Raiders and Broncos not only have two of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, they are the two best big-play running teams in the league. Oakland has 20 runs of 20 or more yards this season, most in the league, while the Broncos are tied in second with 19, through the first 15 weeks of the season.