Ok, maybe not everyone, but take a look at some expert picks and betting sites and you’ll be convinced the AFC belongs to two teams: New England and Pittsburgh.
A July post from USA Today has New England and Pittsburgh as the top two seeds in the conference, then meeting in the AFC Championship. For The Win poses six teams as Super Bowl favorites, the only two from the AFC being the Pats and Steelers. Look at Las Vegas odds and you’ll see, you guessed it, New England and Pitt as the top two AFC contenders. It’s a lot more consistent than the race for the NFC, where it’s a take-your-pick between Carolina, Green Bay, Arizona, and Seattle.
It’s not like this doesn’t make sense. New England has been a staple of the AFC elite for about 100 years now and Pittsburgh looks to field what will be the top offense in the NFL, even with some of their top playmakers serving suspensions. But expectations and reality are very different and both these teams have flaws that could undo them, as well as AFC foes that can sneak up in a hurry.
To me, the New England Patriots are once again the most complete team in the AFC. If it’s not a two-team race or four-team race, it could be a solo act from the Pats. They may have lost Chandler Jones to the Cards, but staples such as Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Jamie Collins can lead a solid defense that ranked in the top 10 last year. Their top-5 passing offense took no steps back either, bringing back a plethora of weapons in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski. They even added TE Martellus Bennett to open up some room for Gronk in two-TE sets (as if he needed any). Sounds a lot like last year, which is both good and bad. Despite the Pats rolling to a 12-4 record in 2015, they lost the 1-seed to Denver with two late losses. This proved to be the Pats’ undoing as they struggled on the road in Denver, losing 20-18 in the AFC Championship.
One year later and that top seed is as crucial as ever. This is why Tom Brady’s four-game suspension should be taken as a serious threat to New England’s 2016 campaign. Jimmy Garoppolo will start Weeks 1-4 and how they come out of that will seriously shape the AFC. With limited exposure to Garoppolo in the regular season, I won’t try to predict (yet) how he’ll do against Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo. What’s not up for debate is the fact that a 1-3 or 0-4 start is possible and would set the Pats back tremendously. With Brady at full strength, the Pats looked like one of the best teams in the NFL last year at 12-4. Three or four early losses would force Brady to go nearly undefeated just to match that mark. On the flip side, a perfect 4-0 start from Jimmy could be the start of the solo act we mentioned earlier. The pressure is on early and the Pats know how they perform in the first four weeks could determine if they play in the last four.
The Steelers have suspensions of their own to deal with, but they might be able to deal with them a little better. Martavis Bryant, the second-most targeted WR on Pittsburgh last year, will serve a 1-year suspension. LeVeon Bell, Pitt’s top rusher, will serve four games. With both these guys, Pittsburgh’s offense might be unstoppable. Without them, they’re pretty damn good. Clearly, it’s not the offense that bothers me.
The Steelers defense ranked 21st in the NFL last season and I’m skeptical that they will greatly improve in 2016. With 2014 draft picks coming into their own, Pittsburgh fans are excited to see a new, young defense emerge. Seeing how they perform in tests against Cincy, New England, and New York (Giants) could show us how they might look in a playoff run. The biggest concern with the Steelers, however, is their health. A midseason injury to Big Ben cost him four weeks, LeVeon Bell played only five weeks total, and Antonio Brown was kept out of a crucial playoff game against Denver. Altogether, the hobbled Steelers couldn’t live up to their potential. Saying “if they’re healthy” is really easy and fun, but just one bad hit to Ben, Bell, or Brown could derail Pittsburgh’s hopes once again.
Even if things go great for these two AFC powerhouses, they shouldn’t ignore a couple teams that showed us flashes of greatness last season. Cincinnati won the AFC North last season and it seems like everyone is overlooking them. Cincy will return a lot of the same talent that helped them go 12-4 a season ago. Their defense allowed the fewest most points in the conference while scoring the third-most. Andy Dalton was on pace for his best season yet until he got injured late in the season. In his first four seasons, all of which he played a full 16 games, he never cracked 90 in passer rating. Last year, he posted a 106.3 in 13 games. I see no reason why Dalton can’t repeat this success in his 6th season as a pro. TE Tyler Eifert’s early injury is a cause for concern, but Cincy’s solid all-around squad should be able to win a few without him. Don’t overlook this 12-win team that was a rare Dalton-injury away from competing for a Super Bowl spot.
Similarly, the Chiefs are demanding respect after a fantastic 11-5 season. First, let’s back up a couple seasons. In 2012, this was the worst team in the league (2-11). After hiring Andy Reid, they surged to an 11-5 record in 2013 and dipped to 9-7 in 2014. They were a pretty decent team going into last season, but a 1-5 start dropped them off everybody’s radar. Ten straight wins later and Kansas City was the NFL’s hottest team. Sound at all familiar? Try last year’s Super Bowl runner-ups, the Carolina Panthers. Following a great 12-4 season in 2013, Carolina fell off our radar with a 3-8-1 start. Five straight wins (including a playoff win) later, the Panthers were somehow the hottest team. In case you don’t remember, they carried this momentum into a dominating 15-1 season in 2016. Oh and by the way, Carolina hired a new coach (Ron Rivera) in 2011 following a 2-11 season.
Eerily similar events aside, continuity is a powerful force in the NFL and a staple of the NFL’s top teams. Carolina clearly has it now with Rivera and Cam Newton, and it would appear the Kansas City Chiefs have the same in Reid and Alex Smith. I loved the way this team looked last season and I’m optimistic (perhaps too much?) for their chances to contend in the AFC on 2016.
New England and Pittsburgh look great on paper, but as we see every year, paper is rendered meaningless after one bad event or one surprise team. Beware of a simple two-team race turning into a much more complex AFC mess.