I had a spirited debate with a fairly well known professional bettor on Sunday night after the games were finished. We were both having the same problem; trying to figure out somebody – anybody – in the AFC worthy of support down the stretch as a Super Bowl contender.
Frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of choices, and our debate primarily consisted of finding fatal flaws in whatever team the other guy brought up.
My power rating numbers have seven of the top 10 in the NFL residing in the NFC (Seattle, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carolina, Arizona, Dallas and Detroit). An eighth team could join that group after Aaron Rodgers gets healthy for Green Bay.
All three of those supposedly elite level AFC teams have problems, which is why I included a fourth contender in my discussion below.
Six AFC teams sit at 5-6, tied for the final Wild Card spot. I took the liberty of including all six in this overview, despite the fact none are going anywhere in January. Even though three more AFC teams are 4-7, just a game back, I don’t expect a late season rally from Cleveland, Oakland or Buffalo.
Frankly, if any of that trio makes the postseason, it speaks volumes about the six currently above them in the standings!
SERIOUS SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS
Denver: The Broncos offense is as good as any in the NFL, especially with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball giving some much needed balance. That being said, they’ve been shut down after halftime in each of the last three weeks: 13 punts, three turnovers, three touchdowns and one field goal on their 20 second-half drives. Their coaching situation is in flux, with Jack Del Rio not commanding the same respect John Fox did in the locker room.
The defense has been spotty at best, particularly on the highway in games at Dallas, Indy and New England – good passing teams. Nor should we forget that with their OT loss against the Patriots on Sunday night, Peyton Manning’s career record in games where the temperature falls below freezing dropped to 2-9 SU, including a playoff loss at home last year. They’ll be playing outdoors in January.
New England: Yes, Tom Brady showed us again how clutch he can be, rallying the Patriots from a 24 point deficit to pull out the win against Denver. It was vintage Brady, like we saw in Foxboro earlier in the year in their last-second comeback win over New Orleans. But before we get too carried away with the Pats, there are all kinds of flaws that can’t all be overcome with coaching and quarterback play.
The defense got gashed for 280 rushing yards against the Broncos; a stop unit that’s missing their core up the middle, with defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, along with LB Jerod Mayo all languishing on injured reserve. New England’s receiving corps is still very much a subpar unit and it is paper thin – a key WR or TE injury would decimate this team.
And that January mystique is long gone; a team on a 2-8 ATS run in the postseason since the 2007 playoffs, including five SU losses as favorites during that span.
Cincinnati: Despite losing a boatload of talent on the defensive side of the football due to season ending injuries, the Bengals still have a Super Bowl caliber stop unit; as the Patriots found out earlier in the year – Mike Zimmer can coach up a defense! Cincy has gotten solid offensive line play.
Their offense is loaded with big play weapons; quick strike TD guys who can demoralize opposing defenses. But Marvin Lewis’ next playoff win will be the first in his 11 years on the job. And Andy Dalton simply hasn’t developed into a consistent downfield thrower; not a trustworthy QB in the slightest. Then again if Joe Flacco can get hot in January last year, who’s to say Dalton can’t do the same this year?
Indianapolis: I know the Colts are flawed. I know they’ve been outscored 93-12 in the first half of their last four ballgames, and been blown off the field by the likes of St. Louis and Arizona in the last three weeks. The trade for Trent Richardson could go down as one of the worst in modern NFL history.
The defense is spotty on a good day. But Andrew Luck is that good, and if the Colts can beat Seattle, San Francisco and Denver in the regular season, they’re capable of winning some playoff games as well.
NOT SO SERIOUS CONTENDERS
Kansas City: Andy Reid was an upgrade over Romeo Crennel. Alex Smith was an upgrade over Matt Cassel. But given the track records of those two guys, do you really think KC is going to make noise in January? Their offense doesn’t work for extended stretches of ballgames.
This once elite stop unit is now injury riddled and they’ve allowed 400-plus yards in each of their last three ballgames. KC is 9-2 due to a remarkably weak schedule, and I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if they have a losing record from here on out.
Pittsburgh: Teams that start the season 0-4 don’t make the Super Bowl. Sure, they’ve bounced back from the dead with five wins in their last seven games, and the offense has found some balance now that LeVeon Bell has gotten decent blocking in front of him.
Make no mistake about it, Dick LeBeau’s defense is no longer capable of shutting down a potent passing game, as we’ve seen on multiple occasions this season. If you’re going to win in January, you’ve got to be able to get stops against quality QB’s. Pittsburgh can’t.
San Diego: Philip Rivers has been an elite quarterback at various stages of his career, and he’s certainly playing at a Pro Bowl level again this year. But on a yards-per-play basis, the defense ranks dead last in the NFL; a stop unit capable of making the KC offense look explosive.
This is not a Super Bowl caliber defense, plain and simple.
Tennessee: Since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over for the injured Jake Locker, he’s thrown 5 TD’s without an interception, led a game winning drive against Oakland, and has a QB rating of 110.7 – elite numbers. But Chris Johnson has only a single 100 yard rushing game this season and held under 40 on five separate occasions.
A week ago, head coach Mike Munchak was in danger of getting fired. Now he’s supposed to lead this team to the Super Bowl because they rallied to beat Oakland? I’m not buying it.
Baltimore: The Ravens won the Super Bowl last year because Joe Flacco got hot at the right time; masking their numerous flaws. While the defense is playing at an elite level in recent weeks, they can’t move the football, with poor offensive line play, a bottom tier receiving corps and a major drop-off from Flacco.
On a yards-per-play basis, only the hapless Jaguars have a weaker offense this year.
Miami: The Rich Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal ripped apart this locker room and exposed the coaching staff as somewhat out of touch. They’re 2-6 since a 3-0 start, and were out-yarded by more than 100 in both wins during that span.
This isn’t a playoff team, let alone a Super Bowl contender.
NY Jets: I’ll give Rex Ryan credit, because they were lined at 6 or 6.5 wins prior to the season; the lowest total for any team in this group. Ryan turned what looked like a complete disaster of a season back in August into a mediocre campaign, thanks to a strong defense and some power rushing football.
Geno Smith’s QB rating through his first 11 career starts is worse than Marc Sanchez’s was at that same point. Geno isn’t leading any team to the playoffs at this stage of his career, let alone the Super Bowl.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]