By Dave Cuthbertson
The years of the the Patriots, Steelers, Colts and Chargers dominance has passed, but the window is not entirely closed for those four dominant teams of the 2000s. There is a lot of change and the Peyton Manning shift is likely one that changed the balance of power since he is playing like an MVP.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Patriots (5-3) have ruled the AFC East and that does not look to end anytime soon. Tom Brady is ranked third in QB Rating in the AFC and leads the conference in passing yards and quietly has an incredible 16:3 touchdown to INT ratio. The defense is improved as they are giving up the 28th most passing yards in the NFL and only the 8th most rushing yards int he NFL. Offensively the Patriots are actually running the ball better than passing. Again, across the entire NFL they are 5th in passing and 4th in rushing. Startling numbers especially considering Aaron Hernandez was injured for a few games.
One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in the NFL is the play of Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins (4-4). He’s not putting up stellar numbers but he is providing a spark to a team that sure needs it. On the other side of the ball, they’re 30th in defensive passing and 3rd in rushing yards allowed. This team is a true project but after years of irrelevance, they Dolphins are in prime position.
The always disappointing Jets (3-5) are suffering without many of their key players and are 26th in passing, and allowing a startling 141 yards per game on the ground (29th). Even without Revis the Jets are 6th in the NFL in passing yards allowed but it doesn’t matter when you can’t stop the run.
The Bills (3-5) highly anticipated defense is 24th in passing and 31st in defense. While CJ Spiller is having a fantastic year, Ryan Fitzpatrick is moving in the wrong direction – oddly enough after he signed the huge contract. The Bills just need more weapons on offense and a change in defense because the talent is there.
The Ravens (6-2) are one of the leagues most injury bitten teams. Ray Lewis is down, Ed Reed is old, Ngata missed some games, and Webb is hurt. The Ravens are only in the top half of the league in one major area: passing yards. They are 15th. This team blew out Cincinnati in the opener but haven’t looked as impressive since – which includes a stomping at the hands of the Texans yet they sit atop what is a very overrated division.
The aging Steelers (5-3) continue to linger and are riding a three game winning streak. Their losses are tough losses and their players are coming back from injury. Big Ben has proven he is resilient and Wallace/Brown are one of the better WR tandems in the NFL. This team is very balanced and in terms of defense, they are leading the NFL in passing defense and are 7th in rushing yards allowed. Steelers defense continues to be the story. It should also be noted they have a very easy second half schedule.
The Bengals continue their rebuilding as Dalton/Green is the AFC’s closest thing to Stafford/Megatron (sorry Manning/Thomas and Schaub/Johnson) but Green’s athleticism is simply ridiculous. This team has a ways to go in order to become a have versus a have not but they are young and should improve – especially since they’re going nowhere and face a brutal schedule.
The Browns are a train wreck. 19th in passing, 27th in rushing and not much better on defense. Trent Richardson and Weeden show signs of improvement but this franchise is going through a massive face lift.
The Texans (7-1) got slapped by the Packers – but aside from that loss – they’re the class of the AFC. 4th in pass defense and 2nd in run defense gets it done. Throw in Schaub/Johnson/Foster on offense and this team is built to steamroll everything in their path. However, the remaining schedule has ups and downs include two dates with the young Colts towards the end of the year and the Patriots.
The Colts (5-3) already have more wins than last year with not a huge improvement roster-wise except for the big change of Andrew Luck at quarterback. The Colts are 6th in the NFL in assing and are 11th in pass defense. This team is on the cusp of greatness as is Andrew Luck. They may make the playoffs this year but as previously mentioned, they play the Texans twice in the final three weeks.
The Titans (3-6) are a mystery – especially considering Chris Johnson missed the first part of the season with the “I forgot how to run” syndrome. Losing Locker to an injury definitely did not help and while Kendall Wright is a decent addition, their defense is porous at best.
The Jaguars (1-7) are in the same position as the Browns. Continuous turnover at the QB position and MJD is the only thing they have going for them. The best stat for the Jags? 25th in passing yards allowed. Simply pathetic.
Spoiler alert: Peyton Manning is going to the Hall of Fame. The Broncos (5-3) got off to slow, Manning-esque, start. Now that he and Thomas have developed a rhythm, the 4th best passing attack in the NFL faces a light second half schedule with the only real test…is themselves. An easy schedule down the stretch helps their playoff positioning. Willis McGahee is the biggest beneficiary of #18. The defense is 10th in passing yards allowed and 12th in rushing allowed – all good signs for Denver. The Chargers (4-4) have no identity and it’s so tough to have confidence in anything they do other than stopping the run (4th best). Other than that this team is in disarray and changes will be coming. The Raiders (3-5) are 7th in passing but 31st in rushing. This team is another one that has one great area but needs to fill in the rest of the blanks. Speaking of blanks, the Cheifs (1-7) have not led during regulation this year. Sure they’re third in rushing but that ultimately isn’t helping them win games. There’s something about the Chiefs, who don’t have the same gloomy feeling the Jags and Browns do, that just can’t get it done. Consider the turmoil at QB and the Chiefs may be in line to have a certain USC quarterback at the helm next year.
Here are my picks for division winners:
AFC East: Pats
AFC North: Ravens
AFC South: Texans
AFC West: Broncos
(That was easy)
Who takes the wild card?
A very weak AFC makes it easy to see the playoff picture but the seedings will be interesting
AFC MVP: Peyton Manning – Mr. MVP brings the Broncos back to a pocket style of play that Elway would be proud of (and certainly is)
AFC LVP: Shad Khan – worst owner in sports.
AFC Coach of the year: John Harbaugh – the guy has taken this team from a defensive unit to an offensive show that still has holes to fill. Sure the sexy pick is Kubiak but he’s built that team for years, whereas Harbaugh has done this transformation very quickly.
(Honorary mention? Peyton Manning)
The AFC seems to be the a Texans conference but this is the NFL and the Patriots just need to play defense in the playoffs and they’ll be fine. Remember the Colts Super Bowl run a few years back? Kinda like that.
– By Dave Cuthbertson. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveSportsGuru