Following up yesterday’s look at the NFC, I wanted to take a look at the AFC, where I think the picture is much more wide open. With Atlanta being taken out by-and-large by injuries, the NFC is really about 7 teams trying to fill 6 spots – the AFC, by contrast has 10 legit teams and even a couple at 5-7 that aren’t mathematically eliminated just yet.
New England (7-5) – a couple of weeks ago, the Patriots annihilated the Titans 59-0 and seemed to be on cruise control in their division and ready to make a serious playoff run, but after dropping 3 of 4, they suddenly find themselves in a dogfight for their division. I still think they’re the best team in the east having quality wins (QW, win against a team currently 0.500 or better) against ATL, BAL, MIA and NYJ. Fairly easy schedule remains – only JAX is a quality opponent – suggesting that they’ll make it in barring a big collapse, but they certainly don’t have the aura of danger of previous Pats teams.
Miami (6-6) – the big turnaround team from last year got out to a terrible start, going 0-3, and still being stuck at 3-5 a month ago. They’ve gotten some QWs – NYJ (2x) and NE last week. Big game with JAX this week and a finale versus the teetering Steelers will likely tell the tale. Still, I don't think this team can go very far.
NYJ (6-6) – sort of the anti-Dolphins. Rex Reed’s team race out to a 3-0 start, but have been scuffling for wins ever since. Their only QW was an age ago (September) against NE. They have a couple of winnable games (TB and ATL) and then two against IND and CIN, who may not be playing for much. That bodes fairly well, but I think these guys are done.
Cincinnati (9-3) Consider that they lost their 1st game on that crazy deflection play against DEN and you can argue that they should be the 2nd best team in the conference. QWs versus GB and season sweeps of division rivals PIT and BAL (and CLE, but those don’t count). Like the Eagles, inexplicably lost at OAK and that may keep them from getting a 1st round bye. Still, they’re the Bengals, so how much can you believe? I’ll believe a lot more (or not) after their next two games MIN and SD.
Baltimore (6-6) Nobody really seems all that Wacko for Flacco anymore as the sophomore QB has had all sorts of issues. Like the Jets, they got out to a hot start (3-0) and then dropped three in a row – granted, it was to NE, CIN, and MIN – but aren’t those the caliber of teams they’re going to have to beat in the playoffs? (Their QWs are against SD, DEN, and PIT) They have a pretty good chance of making if they can sweep against PIT, which is the last decent team on their schedule, but they're not playing like contenders.
Steelers (6-6) Like NE, the mighty have fallen in recent weeks. The Men of Steel seemed to shake off a sluggish start and were cruising a month ago at 6-2 after cranking out QWs vs. SD, MIN and DEN. Now having dropped four in a row (including head-scratchers to KC and OAK), the Champs will be lucky to get a chance to defend with GB, BAL, and MIA to close after a gimme at CLE this week. Is it really all Troy Polamalu and his hair?
Colts (12-0) The mirror of the Saints in the NFC, the Colts have won every week this season – sometimes not so pretty, but Peyton Manning has gotten it done (QWs = JAX, MIA, ARI, NE, BAL) while taking time off from his full-time job as a product spokesperson. With a 3-game lead on home field advantage, they’re almost assured of playing at home through the AFC Championship. The whole “resting for the playoffs” hasn’t worked so well for the Colts in the past. It’ll be curious to see what they do differently, if anything, this year.
Jacksonville (7-5) Who invited these guys to the playoff race? Probably the most under-the-radar decent team in the league, the Jags only QW is a win against the NYJ. They’ve beaten a bunch of mediocre teams but will have to earn their playoff spot with games against MIA, IND, and NE coming up. I don't see that happening.
Chargers (9-3) This was supposed to be a cakewalk year for the Bolts, but DEN’s 6-0 blitzkrieg at the beginning of the season derailed that parade. After struggling to 2-3, SD has rolled off a league-best 7 straight wins (QWs = MIA, NYG, PHL, DEN). Tough games against DAL and CIN will determine if they are legitimate contenders to take out the Colts, or another good-but-not-quite-good-enough Norv Turner team.
Denver (8-4) After blazing out to six straight wins, the Broncos came back to earth with four straight losses. They got off the schnide with a good win against NYG and have a slew of other QWs (CIN, DAL, NE, SD). Two tough games (IND and PHL) will tell us if they’re more like the early-season winners or mid-season losers but two should-be wins (OAK, KC) suggest that the Broncos will get a WC and maybe even the division if the Chargers falter down the stretch.
All-in-all, I’m not sure that there’s anyone that will be able to contend with the Colts at home in the playoffs. I think the Pats are starting to show their age, and the Bengals – well, they’re the Bengals. The only real possibility is the Chargers if they can improve their defense for the stretch run. For what it’s worth, I think the Ravens will be the last WC team (after DEN).