Contenders and Pretenders: AFC Playoff Outlook
New England Patriots- The Patriots have weaknesses as a football team, but anyone who says that they are not a contender does not what they’re talking about. They have Tom Brady and that alone makes them a contender. However, the Patriots have an extremely weak pass defense, and this is something that teams like Pittsburgh would potentially be able to expose if they come at the Pats with the proper game plan. With Matt Schaub out for Houston, there are no other teams in the AFC that can beat New England in a shootout. The Steelers and Ravens both have the potential to beat them if they can control time of possession and win the turnover battle. The Steelers have already done that this year, and the Ravens have given the Patriots problems in the past.
Pittsburgh Steelers- The Steelers have been slept on by many analysts all year. When teams begin to get older, like Pittsburgh is, there are always doubters as to whether or not their success will continue. In Pittsburgh’s case, they have proved themselves to still be an elite team in the NFL this year. The defense, which wasn’t playing up to its usual standards for the first few games of the season, is now playing at a typical Pittsburgh level. They are ranked number two in total defense and number 10 in total offense. If the Steelers run into the Ravens in the playoffs, expect a battle as the Steelers would not want to lose three times to their biggest rival. If the Steelers were to run into the Patriots, they would have to deal with Bill Belichick’s adjustments from the first matchup. Belichick would be sure to bring more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than he did in the first matchup, but the Pats have a shaky and inconsistent pass rush. Roethlisberger’s thumb is a concern after a poor showing against the Chiefs, but I expect this to be less of an issue by playoff time.
Baltimore Ravens- Many believe that the Ravens are finally putting the pieces together to bring home another Lombardi Trophy to Baltimore. After their hard-nosed performance against the 49ers, even some skeptics are turning. My issue with the Ravens this year is the same issue that I’ve always had with the Ravens. Joe Flacco is not an accurate quarterback, and I don’t think he ever will be. When the game is on the line, you simply cannot trust Flacco to make the critical throw in tight coverage. I am not of the belief that you need a high-powered passing offense to make a playoff run, but you do need a reliable quarterback. When you couple this problem with the fact that the Ravens biggest weapon on the outside, Torrey Smith, is only a rookie, you get a passing offense that is erratic at best. If the Ravens feed Ray Rice the ball the way they always should, then this problem can be minimized and they might be able to get past it. The Ravens match up well with the Patriots, but they haven’t played a healthy Steelers team yet and this could be the difference in a third matchup with Pittsburgh.
Houston Texans- The Texans lost all hope when they lost Matt Schaub. It’s really a shame, because the Texans were having a superb season. They are ranked number one in total defense, and number eight in total offense. Arian Foster, when healthy, has been great this year. However, there are no quarterbacks on the Texans roster that can put up points against defenses that can stop the run like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Texans will likely get bounced in the Divisional round if they do indeed get a bye week.
Oakland Raiders- The Raiders are having a great year. The Carson Palmer trade, which I was at first highly skeptical about, has turned out reasonably well. Palmer is throwing for a solid amount of yards, but has thrown far too many interceptions as well. This could plague the raiders come playoff time. The reality with the Raiders is that although they will likely win the AFC West and make the playoffs, they don’t really belong there. They will make it as a result of winning an extremely weak division, not as a result of being a very good team.