The Denver Broncos are winning the old-fashioned way and it may pave the way for the future

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It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

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Can the Vikings really survive this season?

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Are we about to see Sam Bradford’s career defining year?

The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.

Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.

Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.

What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).

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Peterson didn’t have a great rushing start to the season, but his injury still leaves a huge hole to fill.

The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.

He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.

Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?

It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.

There’s something worse than being the worst team in the league, and it’s the San Diego Chargers

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Will we look back on 2016 as the start of something new? Or as another in a long list of wasted seasons?

Edit: At the time of this post, the Chargers pulled their contract offer from third overall pick Joey Bosa. He has since been signed by San Diego to a 4-year, $28.5m contract (similar contract to what was originally offered).

The San Diego Chargers are in a bad spot.

This isn’t a revelation by any means, but in a year where nearly every NFL team has a reason to be hopeful for 2016 or beyond (yes, even Cleveland), it’s worth acknowledging that San Diego is lost.

Since the great era of LaDainian Tomlinson came to a close in 2010, the Chargers have missed the playoffs in every year but one. As if consistently missing the playoffs isn’t bad enough, it’s how San Diego is failing that is giving them some serious long-term issues. Save for last year’s abysmal 4-12 campaign, the Chargers have won between 7 and 9 games since 2010, preventing them building a team through high-quality drafts. Things were looking a bit better when last year’s 4-win season finally yielded a top-5 draft pick, but they even managed to screw that up, failing to lockdown third overall pick Joey Bosa. Another 6-9 win season looms in 2016. The years following hold many questions and I fear the answers leave the city of San Diego without an NFL team.

The consistent heart, soul, and face of the Chargers has been Philip Rivers, who is in a unique position of being one of the better QBs in the league on a struggling team. He’s been remarkably healthy and successful in his career (individually, that is), playing in every game since 2006 and throwing for over 3000 yards in every season (most years over 4000). If there’s been one bright spot for Chargers fans to look for in the darkness of the past few years, it’s Rivers. But at 34, his retirement looms and the window for building a better team around him is rapidly closing. Soon, Rivers will be gone and the Chargers will be left pondering an even darker future: the search for a new franchise QB, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns.

Another “franchise” player in Eric Weddle was let go this offseason after nine seasons with San Diego. His departure not only leaves the team with a defensive leadership hole to fill, but it revealed a level of dysfunction that is scary to realize. There was a lot of buzz about Weddle being fined by the team in 2015 for watching his daughter perform at halftime instead of joining the team in the locker room. In the following months, Weddle was extremely vocal about how poorly the Chargers front office and coach treated him in subsequent contract negotiations. The three-time Pro Bowler joined the Ravens this offseason.

Who really knows how poorly Weddle was treated, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is perception and draft picks like Bosa and countless free agents have to decide if they want to bet their career on Weddle exaggerating the truth.

As if all that doesn’t paint a bad enough picture for the future, remember the fact that San Diego narrowly evaded relocation for the upcoming season. The franchise agreed to remain in San Diego for at least one more season while they review plans for a possible move to LA (to share a stadium with the Rams) or Las Vegas. Pay close attention to the sights and sounds of the Qualcomm Stadium crowd and you’ll wonder why they cheer for a Philip Rivers interception. It’s because the seats are filled with visiting fans, so much so that you’ll see a sea of orange when they host division rival Denver. With the San Diego faithful getting drowned out in their own stadium, relocation seems inevitable and that’s any fan’s worst nightmare.

As a San Diego Charger fan, what do you realistically root for in 2016? Another 8-10 win season that leads to an encouraging playoff berth, but still leaves them floating in NFL draft purgatory? Or another bottom-dwelling campaign that grants them a chance at a total rebuild, but sends them to Los Angeles to begin that rebuild?

Philip Rivers’ final years are sliding away with nothing to show for it and how they perform in 2016 could finally determine where they go in the future, figuratively and literally.

The Bills and Texans Experiment: How far can a great defense take you with a below-average QB?

The Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans boast a couple of the best defenses in the NFL this year. Their weakness lies on the other side of the ball at QB. We’ve seen great QBs carry poor defenses to the playoffs, but can either of these elite defenses pull off the reverse for their QB?
No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo's defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo’s defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

You might best remember the Bills for their fantastic defensive performances late in the 2014 season against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Although the game resulted in a loss, the Bills intercepted Manning twice, kept him under 180 passing yards, and most importantly, kept him touchdown-free. This was easily Peyton’s worst game of the year. The main issue for Buffalo was stopping running back CJ Anderson, who found the endzone three times. That trifecta of scores aside, Buffalo actually made life difficult for Anderson, who finished with only 58 yards on 21 carries (2.8 yards/carry).

As impressive as this was, the pinnacle of Buffalo’s defensive success came against Rodgers, the eventual MVP of the league. Rodgers experienced the same struggles as Manning, throwing two picks and no TDs. This was his only game all season without a touchdown. But perhaps the most stunning stat of all from that game was Rodgers’ pass attempts, which reached 42 by game’s end. Unlike Manning, who only threw the ball 20 times, Rodgers was slinging all game. Time after time, Buffalo answered the bell, stifling the MVP like we’ve never seen before. This time the Bills prevailed in 21-13 victory.

Buffalo ended the season with arguably the best defense in the league, allowing just over 18 points per game (4th in NFL), just under 5000 yards total (4th), and 30 takeaways (3rd). Despite trading talented linebacker Kiko Alonso, they show no signs of slowing down this year. Defensive savant Rex Ryan has taken over the head coaching duties and finds himself in charge of yet another team with questions at QB, much like his former New York Jets.

After winning an offseason QB competition, Tyrod Taylor was tabbed the starting QB for Buffalo. The Virginia Tech alum has only appeared in 14 games since being drafted by the Ravens in 2011. In reality, he’s only truly played in one NFL game. This was in 2012, when the playoff-bound Ravens rested their starters in a meaningless season finale. Taylor went 15/25 passing, 149 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. It’s safe to say that Taylor’s ability to play in the NFL has yet to be tested with real action. Being named the starter for Buffalo is by far the biggest feat of his career and we’ll finally get to see what Taylor can do.

JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney look to make life difficult for opposing QBs.

Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt look to make life difficult for opposing QBs. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The predicted success of Houston’s defense largely lies in its talent. Many believe defensive end JJ Watt is the best player in the NFL, MVP or not. He forces offensive coordinators to form plays around him or–to be realistic–avoid him. Fans are thrilled at the return of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick from the 2014 NFL draft who suffered a season-ending injury last season. Houston will also welcome former New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, hoping he can make a similar impact in their system. From Brian Cushing to Johnothan Joseph, Houston has talent and depth all over this defense and it’s why they are expected to be one of the NFL’s best.

Much like Taylor, QB Brian Hoyer had to survive a QB competition before being awarded the starting role. Hoyer has a bit more NFL action we can look at, but still a limited sample size. The last we saw of Hoyer was last year in Cleveland, where he was the starter as well. Hoyer found success early, helping the team reach 7-4 before struggling hard in the next two games. At 7-6, Cleveland decided to give Manziel a shot at salvaging the season. This effort fell flat as Johnny Manziel was roughed up in his first NFL start, handing the starting role back to Hoyer after an injury. The painful last weeks of the season finally came to a close as the Browns finished 7-9, missing the playoffs.

So Hoyer has found some scattered success in the NFL, but not anything to raise our eyebrows over. He’s average at best and like Taylor, will be tasked with winning games with an elite defense behind him. Can these guys do enough to take their teams to the playoffs? Both teams will likely be competing for the AFC wildcard spots, as their rivals in the Colts and Patriots have strongholds on their respective divisions. They’ll be looking at competent and successful QBs like Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger vying for the very same spots. These QBs are used to moving the ball effectively and putting large numbers on the scoreboard. More importantly, they are QBs used to making the playoffs (except for Tannehill, yet).

In a time where there are so few great QBs coming out of college, a playoff birth for either the Bills or Texans will mean hope for those teams without a decent QB. It will mean that being stuck with a below-average passer isn’t a death sentence as long as you can grow a strong defense behind them through the draft and free agency. For now though, it remains a tough task as teams without a good QB continue to miss the playoffs year after year.

AFC North: Cannibalization inevitable?

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

In case you haven’t noticed, the AFC North is the best division in football. Didn’t see that one coming. Not only does every team have a winning record, but each team sits at least two games above .500.  As it stands now, the Cleveland Browns lead the division at 6-3 (yes you read that right), Cincinnati follows at 5-3-1, with Pittsburgh and Baltimore right behind them at 6-4. It’s as tight as can be. While many of the other divisions have a couple teams battling it out, all four teams in the AFC North have a legitimate chance to be the division champ. It’s shaping up to be one of the best division races ever.

Back to basics for a second. Every division sends its winner to the playoffs, with a chance to send a second team to the playoffs if they have a good enough record for a wildcard spot. Every now and then a division sends three teams to the playoffs. The AFC West did it last year when Denver took the division and Kansas City and San Diego won both wildcard spots. With how well each team is playing in the AFC North this season, the division looks poised to send three teams to the postseason like they did back in 2011. But with key division matchups remaining, is the AFC North doomed to eat itself alive?

Four division games remain: Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati (Week 14), Cincinnati @ Cleveland (Week 15), Cleveland @ Baltimore (Week 17), and Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh (Week 17). There are 16 different ways these games can play out and based on these scenarios, we might be able to get a sense of how important those non-division games are for all four teams. Because 5-3-1 Cincy has to play 6-4 Pittsburgh twice, we can guarantee that one of these two teams will have five losses from remaining division play alone. Additionally, Cleveland has to play within division twice and Baltimore has one division game remaining so either of those squads could have five losses after those games. In fact, there is an 87.5% chance that two teams will have five or more losses after their remaining AFC North games. There’s a slim chance (37.5%) that either the Browns or Bengals will win out in their remaining division schedules, leaving them with only three losses.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to distribute division losses to their AFC North foes.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to deal division losses to their AFC North foes.

Why does this matter? If you haven’t checked lately or read my post on the AFC playoff picture, the AFC wildcard race is extremely tight. The room for error is razor thin and getting thinner with every passing week. As far as the wildcard spots go, we are looking for records right around 10-6 to have a shot. Depending on the results of coming weeks, that estimation could dip to 9-7 or even rise to 11-5. Keeping this window in mind, the AFC North might be in a little trouble if two teams will have five or more losses after remaining division games. If, for instance, Pittsburgh loses both games to Cincy, they’ll have win out the rest of their schedule to go 10-6. Didn’t I say the room for error was thin?

The good news for the AFC North is that there are some scenarios in which every team puts itself in a decent position. There is a 62.5% chance that all four squads will have below six losses after their remaining division games. This will give some teams–like Baltimore if they beat Cleveland–some breathing room when it comes to their remaining schedule. These are the scenarios that give the AFC North the best chance to send three teams.

Seeing how this will all shake out is the fun part. Those non-division games could crush the dreams–for both the division and wildcard spot–of any of these teams. You could argue that those are the games that really matter most. Like pointed out before, a six-loss team (after division games) would have to consider every non-division game a must-win.

With all this mess, can the AFC North really send three teams to the playoffs? Pay attention to those vital non-division games because we already know the AFC North is gonna rough itself up a bit.

Pumping the brakes on the Dolphins

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Last week I broke down the AFC playoff picture and didn’t give Miami much of a chance to make the playoffs. They didn’t have quality wins (save for New England in week 1) and faced a tough second-half schedule (and still do). But last week they ripped the San Diego Chargers 37-0 for their third straight win, catching the attention of many. Miami = playoff bound? Those are the murmurs I’m hearing this week.

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Where were those headlines before the Chargers game? There’s a reason we didn’t see them and one big win won’t convince me so easily.

Before I say anything else, I have to give the Dolphins credit. In a game I picked as my lock, Miami made me look like a fool for going with the Chargers. I did not see such domination coming. Perhaps they’ll prove me wrong again. But for now, let’s look at things realistically for Miami.

I have to believe at least two teams from the AFC North will make the playoffs, leaving one wildcard spot for seven teams. Even after a big win over one of those teams, they aren’t leading the race. They share the same record as Kansas City, Cleveland, and Buffalo, but are trailing each team due to tiebreaker rules. And you better believe tiebreakers will come into play in such a tight AFC. They’ve already fallen to KC and Buffalo earlier this season.

What is encouraging from the Dolphins is their conference record (4-2) and the fact that they haven’t had any bad losses. A loss is loss of course, but when Miami has had to take care of business–against Jacksonville and Oakland–they have. This makes me pretty confident they can pick up three wins against the Jets (twice) and Vikings.

Miami's remaining schedule.

Miami’s remaining schedule.

The rest of their schedule is full of good teams and brutal road games. They have to go to Detroit this Sunday, Denver in week 12, and New England in week 15. I seriously cannot see them beating the Pats or Broncos on their home turf. Detroit gets Calvin Johnson back, who should only add to the surprising success the Lions are having thus far. If Miami can keep it going and win in Detroit, they could be poised for a run. I don’t see it happening. Luckily for Miami, they don’t necessarily need this game.

They host Buffalo on Thursday night in week 11, an absolute must-win game. They already lost to Buffalo badly in week 2 and cannot afford to drop a home win against a potential wildcard team, not to mention a division rival. Another toss-up comes at home in week 14 against Baltimore, yet another wildcard team they are competing with. If they can pick up these two wins, along with those three “take care of business” games, they’ll find themselves at 10-6, certainly a record good enough to make the playoffs. However, which 10-6 record will be rewarded? The Bills, Chiefs, Chargers, Ravens, Browns, Steelers, or Bengals could all realistically go 10-6 (or Bengals 10-5-1). They all have tough schedules too, but I have to believe we’ll see at least a couple of those teams reach the double-digit mark. If it happens to be the wrong teams, Miami could find itself on the wrong end of the playoff bubble.

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

It’s certainly doable. Miami showed us they are fully capable of competing with any team in the NFL with their rout of San Diego. But where was that when they got shellacked by Kansas City (29-10) and Buffalo (34-15)? Are they just now starting to find their groove? We’ll get a good indication against Detroit this weekend.

And what about Ryan Tannehill? After week 3, we were hearing rumors about him getting benched. Now after a few good games against bad defenses, he’s suddenly our new favorite rising star? In Miami’s last four wins, Tannehill has faced the pass defenses of Oakland, Chicago, Jacksonville, and San Diego. All four rank in the bottom third of the NFL in opponent passer rating. Detroit ranks third in that category. Let’s see how he does then.

All I’m saying is, let’s slow down with the Dolphins. Don’t get tricked by one big win. They will not win the AFC East and still face a tough road to a wildcard spot. They still have had troubles playing to their potential, including last season. I’m not buying into Miami just yet, but they have plenty of opportunities ahead to prove me wrong.

Halfway through, first look at AFC playoff picture

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

The second half of the NFL is the best half of the NFL. We think we know who these teams are by now (for the most part) and now the race begins. We’ll take a quick look at the AFC playoff picture as it starts to take form for the first time. Trust me, I am just as interested in the NFC but it is simply too early take a look over there. Spoiler alert: it’s wide open. Not to say the AFC isn’t wide open, which it is, but we can at least take out a few teams to clear up the early picture.

Before the season started, we looked at the AFC and saw three divisions where there was an overwhelming favorite. We couldn’t quite mark them down yet because we at least had to see them play. Well, eight weeks have past and those teams are who we thought they were. The Patriots, Colts, and Broncos are all division winners. Mark it down. In pen. Yes I see you sitting there a game behind, Bills and Chargers. It’s not gonna happen. Have fun fighting for the remaining two wildcard spots. You have company.

On the opposite side of things, there are four teams we can absolutely declare dead. And again, we could have before the season started but, to be “fair” I guess, we gave them a shot. No surprises are to be had here. Take out the Jets, Jaguars, Titans, and Raiders. They’re done.

Before we get into the huge pack fighting for those two wildcard spots, we should talk about the division complicating everything: AFC North. Obviously this remains the last division spot to be filled and could also send a wildcard team, maybe even two. The problem? Without the entire division being tied, the AFC North teams are virtually as tight as they could possibly be. They are so close, in fact, that the division leader Bengals (4-2-1) have less wins than the two teams trailing them (Ravens and Steelers 5-3)! To make matters worse, the team in last (Browns) has a winning record at 4-3. All four teams have a legitimate shot at winning that division. This means, of course, that all four teams also have a legitimate shot at finishing last. I mean, someone has to place last. Moving forward with this playoff picture, we’ll have to keep all four of these teams in the back of our mind as possible division winners, wildcard teams, or last place teams. As more division games take place (Ravens at Steelers this weekend, Browns at Bengals next week), things will start to clear up. For now, we deal with a bit of a complicated, and crowded, pack of wildcard contenders.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

Considering the teams we’ve already knocked out or talked about, there are only five squads remaining in contention for those elusive two wildcard spots: Chargers (5-3), Bills (5-3), Chiefs (4-3), Dolphins (4-3), and Texans (4-4). But again, we are forced to consider those four from the AFC North, making it nine teams in the race. To make the picture a little easier to manage, I break these teams up into three groups. First, we have four teams–Chargers, Bills, Ravens, Steelers–in the lead pack at 5-3, along with Cincy at 4-2-1. These are the teams in the best position as it currently stands. If the season were to end today, the Chargers and Bills would be your two wildcard teams. These teams are in a good spot, but not by much. Right behind them is the “step behind” group, with the 4-3 Chiefs, Dolphins, and Browns. If you want a concise group of teams to watch in the AFC, keep your eye on these three for the next couple weeks or so. Every win one of these teams picks up from here on out will make the AFC that much more competitive. Finally, we have a group with a single member, the 4-4 Texans, who are on the outside looking in. Yes, they only have one more loss than the preceding group, but when they finally hit their bye in week 10, all the other AFC teams will have a chance to gain ground. Remember, with only two teams filling the wildcard, the Texans will need a lot to go their way when they don’t win.

So that’s the picture. Three groups with a bunch of good teams. But what really lies ahead for the AFC? Right off the bat, I have to say that things do not look good for the Dolphins. They face a brutal stretch where six of their next seven games are against teams with at least five wins. This includes games in Detroit, Denver, and New England. Their week 1 win over the Patriots is the sole quality win to this point. Their other wins have come against abysmal Oakland, inept New York Jets, and underachieving Chicago. If the first half of the season has been any indication of who the Dolphins are, then I can’t see any way they make it to the playoffs with what lies ahead.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

The Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals are as much of a toss-up as you can get. Baltimore has looked great but was just swept by the sliding Bengals, and the Steelers are as inconsistent as can be. Good luck figuring them out any time soon. But what about the Browns? We are so used to seeing the big three fight it out year after year that we may overlook the team that we’ve heard for years now is “going to contend soon.” So does Cleveland actually have a shot to take the division? They absolutely do, but would have a much better shot in any other division. They have a crucial four-game stretch where they face teams with four wins or less (aka beatable teams). If they go 2-2 or less in these next four, the wildcard spot becomes their only hope. These are games they need to win. Meetings with the Colts and Ravens still lie ahead. Losing such critical ground in a rabid division such as the AFC North be nearly impossible to recover from. Even a wildcard spot will become difficult to achieve with teams like the Chargers and Bills gunning just as hard.

The eye-test has me loving San Diego more than Buffalo or Kansas City, even though KC just beat the Chargers in week 7. Their running game is eviscerated with injuries, yet Philip Rivers continues to carry the team to win after win. But like Miami, a brutal stretch awaits that has the potential to derail their playoffs hopes. They face Baltimore, New England, Denver, and San Francisco from weeks 13-16. They’ll need to get out of there with at least a couple of wins to secure a wildcard spot. The Chiefs and Bills are a couple teams I’ve been low on for most of the season, but have impressed me with recent wins. They face each other in week 10 in what could be a season-defining game. The winner will own the head-to-head tiebreaker in the case that these two finish with the same record.

So that’s where we stand halfway through the season. Enough drama for you? Just wait, every passing week will yield better and better games. It should have been readily clear that I have no idea how the AFC play out. I guess my gut feeling says we’ll see one AFC North team (pick one) and the Chargers steal those two wildcard spots.

If you thought the first half of the NFL season was good, buckle up.