The AFC at the halfway point
Before I started wring this article, I went back to my column from September 5 which had my predictions for the 2014 NFL season.
In the AFC East I picked New England to win easily, as I felt the rest of the division was very weak. In the AFC North, I picked Cincinnati with the thinking that Andy Dalton has matured as a quarterback and the overall Bengal team was strong. I also had Baltimore coming from the AFC North as a wild card playoff team.
Like most, I felt that Denver would win the West and Indianapolis the South with the second wild card team being Kansas City from the West. Now with most clubs having played eight games, this is where they stand.
New England is indeed the first place team with a 6-2 record to date. The Patriots started slowly with a loss at Miami and were also beaten soundly at Kansas City. There were many who said that Tom Brady was done and we have seen the last of the Patriots dynasty.
Well, as Lee Corso likes to say, ”Not so fast, my friend.” The demise of Tom Brady was greatly exaggerated and the Patriots are strong as usual. This past Sunday they played perhaps their best game of the season in a 51-23 trouncing of the Bears. The Pats have a key game coming this Sunday against Denver and that matchup may tell us which team in the AFC is the strongest.
Brady and Belichick have won four straight since that blowout loss at Kansas City.
Two clubs that have done much better than expected are the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins. Buffalo has come on strong since veteran Kyle Orton took over at quarterback. The Bills sit at 5-3 and may be one of the surprise teams in the NFL. Orton has solidified the quarterback position and the defense keeps games close.
A month ago in Miami it looked as if both Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill were done. However, since the team’s bye week, the Dolphins lost a close game to Green Bay and had convincing wins against Chicago and Jacksonville. Dan Marino has done an excellent job helping Tannehill with his game, as the quarterback has played better as of late. Miami’s next three games will tell the story, as the Dolphins play San Diego, Detroit and Buffalo.
At the bottom of the AFC East resides the New York Jets. The Jets have struggled all season and were blown out by the Bills last Sunday. Quarterback Geno Smith was replaced by Michael Vick but that may be too little too late. I can see the Jets competing for the first overall pick in the draft.
The AFC North has been much more competitive than I thought it would be. Cincinnati is in first with a 5-2-1 record but they hold only a half-game lead over both Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Bengals started out strong, winning their first three games, but have struggled in October with two losses and a tie. It has been difficult for the Bengals to overcome the loss of All-Pro receiver A.J. Green. A strong win over Baltimore last Sunday helps and Green should be back shortly. I still see Cincinnati as the best team in the division.
The loss of A.J. Green has stung the Bengals in recent weeks.
Baltimore has done a good job overcoming the Ray Rice scandal, but their season still has been a bit of a roller coaster. The Ravens’ best win was over Pittsburgh in Week 2, but their two losses to division-rival Cincinnati may turn out to be a difference maker when it comes time to decide who gets in the playoffs.
Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh has been up and down, but as of late it has been more up. They have won two in a row with the 51-34 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday being very convincing. In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns.
This week’s game against Baltimore on Sunday night will tell us a lot. The winner will be in the driver’s seat for a wild card slot if not the division championship.
Like Buffalo in the East, Cleveland has been one of the surprise teams in the NFL. This year was supposed to be the coming out party for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. That hasn’t happened, as veteran Brian Hoyer is playing mistake-free football and has led the browns to a 4-3 record. Meanwhile, Manziel is frustrated, having thrown only one pass all season.
As I figured, Indianapolis sits on top of the division, but barely with a 5-3 record and a one-game lead over Houston. The Colts started slow, losing their first two games but came back to win five in a row. That win streak came to a halt Sunday as the Steelers romped over the Colts 51-34.
The Colts offense can score points, but the defense is suspect having given up 23 points per game. While Indy should hold on to win the division, if they want to do anything in the playoffs, the defense has to play better.
I don’t think you will find too many people who thought Houston would be 4-4 after eight games. They are winning with a very average quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick. The defense is playing great football led by probable league defensive MVP J.J. Watt.
No surprise here as Luck and the Colts are on top of the AFC South through eight weeks.
The defense could be even stronger in the second half as first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is back after an early-season knee injury. Rookie head coach Bill O’Brien is doing an outstanding job in his first year leading an NFL club.
Tennessee has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt, but the results haven’t changed. They are struggling with a 2-6 record going into their bye week. Things don’t get any better after the bye as the Titans will face Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. One of the reasons for Tennessee’s poor play is that the team doesn’t have a quarterback. Former first-round pick Jake Locker is a bust and has been benched. An early-season injury didn’t help Locker. The Titans then went to Charlie Whitehurst and he wasn’t any better. Last week, rookie Zach Mettenberger got the start and while he threw for 299 yards, he also threw an interception and took a few sacks.
Mettenberger is supposed to be the starter for the remainder of the season, but I think the Titans brain trust will find out that he isn’t the answer. While Mettenberger has a strong arm, he has no movement skills and is a very inconsistent passer.
The plan in Jacksonville was for first-round quarterback Blake Bortles to sit and learn for a year and become the starter in 2015. That plan lasted only a few weeks as Bortles took over in Week 3.
The Jaguars may have been better off sticking to the plan as Bortles has struggled. While he has completed 63 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns, he also has 12 interceptions. Bortles has arm strength and athleticism but he is not very instinctive and that may prove to be the thing that slows his development. It’s still a wait-and-see situation.
The West just may be the most competitive division in the AFC. While Denver is the class of the division with a 6-1 record, both San Diego and Kansas City are competing for wild card slots. Last year, this division had three teams in the playoffs and the same may happen again in 2014.
In Denver, as good as Peyton Manning has been his whole career, this year just may be his best. He has already thrown for over 2,200 yards and 22 scores. His interception total is only three through seven games.
Will Rivers and the Chargers rebound this weekend in Miami?
The Broncos’ only blemish this season is an overtime loss in Seattle. In the last four games, the Broncos have won by an average of 16 points. While Manning is leading the offense, the defense as a whole is playing outstanding football.
Denver’s next three games are on the road, beginning with a matchup at hot New England this Sunday. That three-game road trip will tell us a lot about the Broncos.
It’s hard for me to get a strong feel for San Diego. After a one-point loss at Arizona to open the season, the Chargers put together a five-game win streak. During that streak, they were playing as good as any team in the NFL.
However, over the last two weeks, San Diego has had a close loss at Kansas City and then was beaten at Denver by 14. Injuries have played a big part in the losing streak. The problem with those losses is that both were against division rivals which can hurt their playoff chances.
This week the Chargers play at Miami in a game that has to be classified as a “must win”. A loss will seriously hamper the team’s playoff chances.
Like San Diego, Kansas City is a hard tem to get a handle on. They opened the season with two straight losses but have come back to win four out of their last five. The last two wins against San Diego and St. Louis have been impressive and the Chiefs just may be on a roll.
The next four games are all winnable as Kansas City plays the Jets, Buffalo, a struggling Seattle team and Oakland. If they win all those games, I feel the Chiefs are as good as in come playoff time.
Oakland hasn’t won a game all season and the head coach has already been fired. While there still could be more changes coming after the season, the good news is that the Raiders have found their quarterback of the future. Second-round pick Derek Carr is the best of the rookie quarterbacks and looks to have a bright future. Now the job is to surround him with a strong supporting cast.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggabe