AFC Playoff Contenders – Pros & Cons

With five weeks remaining in the NFL’s regular season, it’s clear that teams like Miami, Tennessee, and San Diego will not be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Who will is a much tougher question. Eight teams in the conference have winning records, but five of them are only a game over .500. Who should we be taking a serious look at as the season starts the home stretch?

The Favorite

New England

  • What’s to Like
    Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the best coach/QB combination in the modern era – arguably in history. They’ve won more than two-thirds of their games together and have captured four Super Bowls. The Pats are third in the league in total offense and second in scoring and, unlike some years, feature a defense that’s just as good as the O (sitting fourth in the NFL in scoring).
  • What’s Not to Like
    While Rob Gronkowski may have escaped a major injury on Sunday night in Denver, the team looks to have lost defensive stalwart Donte Hightower for at least a couple weeks. Hightower’s injury is just the latest for the decimated squad. Left tackle Nate Solder is out for the year, as is guard Ryan Wendell and running back Dion Lewis. Wide receivers Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Julian Edelman all missed Sunday and it is unclear if/when they’ll return. Corner Tarell Brown is out for the year as is defensive end Rufus Johnson. Linebacker Jamie Collins hasn’t been seen in a month.The Pats went a decade between Super Bowl titles before winning it all last season. The current roster does not feel like a championship squad despite being 10-1. The injuries have them looking like a very different squad the last three weeks.

Top Challengers

Denver

  • What’s to Like
    Trailing 14-0 in poor conditions with a backup quarterback at the helm, the Broncos found a way to beat New England on Sunday. In two starts, signal caller Brock Osweiler has been an enormous upgrade over Peyton Manning. He’s completing 67-percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. Before getting injured, Manning managed just under 60-percent, nine scores, 17 INTs, and 6.8 yards per attempt.With a capable QB, running back CJ Anderson is showing signs of breaking out of a season-long slump. Add in a defense that ranks number one in yards allowed and third-best in scoring, and there is a lot to like about the 9-2 Broncos.
  • What’s Not to Like
    It’s hard to trust coach Gary Kubiak. He was under .500 in eight years as coach of the Texans and won only two playoff games during that span. The team’s offense ranks 25th in the league in yards, and their 19 turnovers are seventh worst. Kubiak and John Elway are going to be tempted to turn the reigns back to Manning when he recovers. Top wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has caught just four of 21 targets during the two games Osweiler has started.

Cincinnati

  • What’s to Like
    The Bengals have allowed the fewest points in the league while scoring the fourth most. They rebounded from back-to-back losses against the Texans and Cardinals by beating St. Louis 31-7 on Sunday improving to 9-2. Quarterback Andy Dalton ranks third in the NFL in passer rating. Cincinnati has more players on its roster that the franchise drafted than any other squad in the league, which has led to incredible (and cost-efficient) depth.
  • What’s Not to Like
    Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in playoff games with half of those games coming at home. The Bengals have played the second easiest schedule in the AFC this year. Both their punting and kicking units rank among the bottom half of the league. Their Week 16 contest against the Broncos, very likely with a bye on the line, is being played in Denver.

Longshots

  • What’s to Like
    Of the 6-5 group, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh have played a lot of the season without their star quarterbacks. Houston is red hot. The Chiefs have played the toughest schedule in the entire league. The Jets rank in the NFL’s top-ten in both points allowed and scored.
  • What’s Not to Like
    The Colts have looked better with Matt Hasselbeck than Andrew Luck, but Luck will definitely get the reins back when healthy. The Steelers, Texans, and Chiefs all are without their star running backs for the rest of the season. The Jets have lost four out of six with their only victories coming against the Jaguars and Dolphins at home.

 

(Photo credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode]. Photo has been cropped.)

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