Still Extremely Premature AFC Playoff Picture
The NFL has reached its midway point. The sample size has grown large enough for fans to know which teams are contenders and which are pretenders. There is still plenty of football left in 2014, but here is how the playoff picture looks in the AFC through Week 9. Click here for the NFC.
One Seed: New England Patriots (7-2) - Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have made all us "experts" look silly since claiming them "finished" after the Week 4 blowout on Monday night. New England has won five straight since that night, outscoring opponents, 201-108. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy and has reasserted himself as Brady's No. 1 target over that stretch, catching 36 balls for 516 yards and four touchdowns. When Gronkowski is rolling and demanding double-teams, it opens up space for the rest of the offense. There is no concern regarding Stevan Ridley's injury as Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray are poised to fill that void, but there is still a question mark surrounding the inexperienced offensive line. Even still, New England is the front-runner for home field advantage throughout the playoffs with its victory over Denver in Week 8.
Two Seed: Denver Broncos (6-2) - This team is arguably still the best in the league despite its mishap last Sunday. Denver's offense is short of its record-setting pace it set last year, but it is still in the top five in points per game, yards per game and passing yards per game. The running game hasn't kicked into full gear yet, but it has improved since Ronnie Hillman took over after Montee Ball suffered a groin injury. The defense is much, much better than a season ago with free agent additions DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and draft pick Bradley Roby. The defense is the best in the league at stopping the run and is ranked seventh with 24 sacks. Denver will easily win the AFC West, the question is can it repeat as conference champions.
Three Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) - There isn't a hotter offense in the conference. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown six touchdowns in each of the last two games, an NFL record. In the last three games, all victories, the offense is averaging over 41 points per game. It's no coincidence rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant was activated at the start of the winning streak. The rookie has five touchdowns in his first three NFL games and with him and second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton trending upwards, defenses can no longer double-team Antonio Brown. Much like the offense in the first six games, the defense was very inconsistent, but Dick LeBeau's group has also turned the corner. Pittsburgh has seven takeaways in the last three games, which is more than the unit had in the first six games combined. The Steelers play the Bengals twice in the last four weeks of the season, and those games will decide the division.
Four Seed: Indianapolis Colts (6-3) - Another very talented team, Indianapolis will end up as the fourth seed because of losses to Denver and Pittsburgh. The Colts, however, will have a shot to knock off the Patriots in Week 11 and unlike the games against the Broncos and Steelers, Indianapolis gets New England at home. Similar to the days with Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck is carrying the team. He leads the league with 3,085 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. Indianapolis also proved on Monday night their defense is a lot better with cornerback Vontae Davis in the lineup. He went down with a knee injury early in the Steelers lost, and the Colts went on to allow 522 passing yards and 51 points. Against the Giants with Davis back, Eli Manning barely completed 50 percent of his passes. With a weak schedule, the Colts have a chance to move up this list, but in order to be considered a real contender in the conference, they must beat New England at home.
Five Seed: Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1) - The Bengals have the inside track to winning the tough AFC North as they swept the Ravens, but Cincinnati has yet to play either the Browns or Steelers. The Bengals have swept the Steelers just once this century and have swept the entire AFC North only once back in 2009. In order to accomplish those feats, Cincinnati will have to get healthy as arguably the team's three best players, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Vontaze Burfict, have missed significant time this year. Green returned last week against Jacksonville, but Bernard and Burfict will likely sit out again and miss this Thursday night's game versus the Browns. Jeremy Hill replaced Bernard nicely in his first start with 154 yards on 24 carries against the Jaguars. Even when Bernard returns, Hill will remain an important part of the Bengals rushing attack that is ranked ninth in the league. Besides the four division games, Cincinnati has a tough road game in New Orleans Week 11, and then hosts Denver on Monday night right before the season finale in Pittsburgh.
Six Seed: Baltimore Ravens (5-4) - Quite honestly, Baltimore has been the most well-rounded, consistent team in the AFC North the first half of the season. The offensive line has made major improvements and has turned Joe Flacco back into a good quarterback. Fans also have to give this team credit for avoiding a collapse in light of the Ray Rice fiasco. Despite those great things, the Ravens are in last place. A couple balls didn't bounce their way in both games against Cincinnati, and then they lost twice on the road to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. It doesn't really matter Baltimore is in last place at the moment, but what does matter is that 2-3 division record. In order to win the division, Baltimore is going to have to win it outright because they won't own any tiebreakers. After their bye week, the Ravens play at New Orleans, San Diego, and at Miami. If they can win two of those games, particularly the ones against San Diego and Miami, the Ravens will win at least 10 games and have the wild card tiebreak over the Chargers and Dolphins.