AFC: 8 Teams That Will Compete For the Super Bowl Next Season
The window of opportunity on the New England Patriots winning more Super Bowls with both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the sideline at once is closing.
Yes, the team is in the big game once again but we all know this is a team that can crumble to pieces in a flash. To think that Brady, Belichick and Vince Wilfork are all this team has one the roster since the last Super Bowl win is unthinkable.
The Patriots are still the class of the AFC East and possibly the AFC Conference, but there are teams that could make a claim toward that title. I fully expect the Patriots to be back in the playoffs in 2015 and potentially make a run toward the Super Bowl, but once Brady decides to walk away and become Gisele Bundchen’s husband, the end of an era will close and another chapter will be written in NFL history.
The NFL won’t see many more quarterback-coaching combinations like this one – it just doesn’t happen. Possibly Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers and a few others, but certainly not as successful.
Here are eight teams – besides the Patriots, who will compete for the playoffs in the AFC next season. Information obtained for this story came from ESPN.com.
No team overcame the number of distractions and injuries as successfully as the Ravens. Sure, a soft schedule helped. The Ravens' 10 wins came against teams with a combined 60-99-1 record (.378). But it's certainly an accomplishment for the Ravens to finish as the last AFC North team standing for the third time in four seasons.
Only five teams allowed fewer points, no running back ran for 100 yards against them and only one defense got to the quarterback more often. The Ravens' defense finished No. 8 overall, its best finish in three years. But what cost the Ravens in the end was the injuries and shaky play in the secondary.
The Steelers ended what equates to a postseason drought for a franchise that has won six Super Bowls. They followed consecutive .500 seasons with the 11-win campaign that delivered their first division title since 2010. The Steelers' first-ever playoff loss to the Ravens, even with extenuating circumstances, takes some luster off what Pittsburgh accomplished by winning its final four regular-season games for the first time since 2005.
The game obviously has passed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau? Please. LeBeau did some of his better work in cobbling together a defense beset by injuries and inexperience. The Steelers hung in defensively despite a slew of injuries, improving against the run and forcing seven turnovers during their four-game winning streak at the end of the regular season.
They were No. 2 in total defense, with the defense leading the league in forcing three-and-outs. They were the league's No. 2 scoring team with 486 points, the third-highest single-season total in franchise history. All quality efforts, all duly noted, much like nine Pro Bowl selections and Peyton Manning's 39 touchdown passes. Still, a playoff grade alone would be far lower. For the body of work the Broncos weren't quite an A effort this time around because of the playoff loss following a bye.
As you would expect, the offense pales in comparison with the historical output of '13 -- a single-season record of 606 points. At times the Broncos moved the ball with the same ruthless efficiency of the season before, but too often they couldn't find enough rhythm or touchdowns in times of need.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Hard to complain about back-to-back 9-7 seasons for coach Mike McCoy. But this team had lofty expectations and did not reach those goals. Specifically, the offense underperformed in the second half of the season, which is curious because McCoy is considered one of the best offensive minds in the game.
At times the Chargers seemed to move the ball at will. But ultimately this team went as far as its ability to run the ball. Ryan Mathews played in just six games this season because of injuries, and the Chargers finished No. 30 in the NFL in rushing. That is a major reason why San Diego will be watching the playoffs from home.
The Colts finished third in total offense, first in passing yards and fourth in average time of possession. Defensively, they were 11th overall, but they continued to struggle stopping the run, finishing 23rd in the league. The Colts were dead last in red zone defense as teams scored on 66 percent of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line. If grading strictly off their performance in the AFC Championship Game, the Colts would get a failing grade. But they took another step toward their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
This team took a few weeks to come together. Early in the season they lost some games they should have won, but they got better, more physical and more mentally tough.
The team's MVP came from this unit and they reversed an important statistic. The Texans defense had only 11 takeaways in all of the 2013 season, but in 2014 they led the NFL with 34. They forced a turnover in all but one game -- the season finale -- breaking what was the league's longest streak. The Texans held their opponents under 300 yards in every December game.
First-year coordinator Bill Lazor definitely upgraded Miami's offense. The Dolphins improved their points per game from 19.8 in 2013 to 24.25 in 2014. They also became the first team in franchise history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Ryan Tannehill) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Lamar Miller) in the same season.
The Dolphins were exactly what their record indicated: average. They were a .500 team across the board. Miami finished 8-8 overall, 4-4 at home and 4-4 on the road. It doesn't get more mediocre than that.
The Bengals hated using injuries as an excuse, but without some of the hits they had this season, perhaps they would have had an extra one or two wins. Vontaze Burfict's absence in particular handcuffed the defense. Cincinnati ought to be rewarded for making the postseason a fourth straight season, but points get taken away for losing in the wild-card round again.
After promises of having a beefed up, run-focused scheme, the Bengals didn't showcase it much when it mattered most Sunday. Quarterback Andy Dalton displayed improvements at times.