Following what proved to be a rather bizarre regular season, several teams played pretender while never truly having a shot at contention.
The Buffalo Bills were supposed to possibly crack into the upper echelon of the AFC. Pffft… please! As long as Bill Bellichick and Tom Brady are still in New England and Ryan Fitzpatrick is under center in Buffalo, that won’t happen. Meanwhile, those Patriots won the division again for the millionth consecutive year (give or take). The Steelers were finally too old to contend this year; the proof is their planning early vacations; by Pittsburgh standards of course.
Speaking of standards, to quote former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green: “the Bears are who we thought they were.” That’s a team with a great defensive core but not enough firepower to contend with the Packers, make the playoffs or save Lovie Smith’s job. Yikes.
Then there’s the Giants, who went from Super Bowl champs to as bad as the Cowboys in a New York minute. Is it me or do Eli and Peyton’s teams not do well in the same season?
Now that we’re down to eight, let’s break down the Super Bowl contenders and pretenders, starting with the AFC.
Denver Broncos AFC Number 1 seed: There is a reason that the Denver Broncos hit the number one spot in the final week of the regular season. They are quite possibly the only team in the league to consistently get better as the season progressed.
Here’s what we know: Peyton Manning is not only a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the year but also for league MVP. Here is a guy who had four neck surgeries, weathered questions of retirement, age and diminishing arm strength but came back to have one of his best statistical seasons to date. His QB rating of 105.8 and 37 TD’s are his highest totals since 2004. But enough about Peyton, he’s not the only reason they’re a big time contender.
Denver’s defense has simply been astonishing all season. No remaining team in these playoffs has given up fewer yards per game. The Broncos have also given up the third least amount of points with 289 against and are lethal on third down, only allowing opposing offenses a 31 percent conversion rate. This group is downright nasty and vastly underrated. This team is the only one in the NFL that ranks in the top five in both offense and defense. History has shown that a team that is hot heading into the playoffs generally plays well. They’ve won 11 straight games. CONTENDER
Houston Texas AFC Number 3 seed: Unlike the Broncos, Houston held the number one spot for the majority of the season. However, they’ve struggled over the past month or so. Even though they’ve managed to do what they’re supposed to and snuck by the Bengals, they haven’t progressed as the season has continued. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. The Texans had quality road wins, albeit in Week 3 at Denver and an impressive defensive showing at Soldier Field in Chicago.
In the second half of the season, extra time was needed to beat the lowly Jags and then the Lions on Thanksgiving. They were run out of New England during a Monday nighter in Foxboro and fell to the three-seed as a result of yet another road blunder at Indy.
This Texans team is lights out at home but you never know what you’re going to get when they’re out on the road in hostile territory. Opposing defenses have figured out how to keep Andre Johnson under control. That’s huge knowing Houston doesn’t have a true number two wide receiver. Johnson has caught six touchdowns the last two seasons combined. 39 NFL receivers caught six touchdowns this season alone.
Will Texan fans get the team that was the NFL’s best in the first half, or the slumping team of the second half? Until they prove otherwise, I’m betting the latter. PRETENDER
Baltimore Ravens AFC Number 4 seed: Like the Texans, the Ravens started off the season hot, winning five out of their first six games. They struggled down the stretch and they did not beat any of this year’s postseason teams on the road. Not a single one.
Joe Flacco’s inconsistent play on the road, the suspect utilization of Ray Rice and their less-than-stellar defensive play are all major question marks for this team. Ray Lewis, arguably the best linebacker in the history of the game will retire after this “last ride.” As only he could, he’s galvanized this team with his retirement announcement. As great as an individual talent he is on the field, he’s even better motivating his teammates and coaches. He’s also in tune with his team. He knows they are not playing their best football and timed his announcement perfectly. No I’m not saying it was not genuine to his fans but it was also strategically timed to rally the troops. It very well could, but the only thing we know about this team for sure is that they play well enough at home to pummel the Giants but lowly enough to lose at Philadelphia.
They’re inconsistent, especially away from the comfy confines of M&T Bank Stadium. PRETENDER
New England Patriots AFC Number 2 seed: This is surprising. Not!
Don’t get me wrong, there were some issues on the offensive line throughout the first month of the season. That was evident, especially in losses to Baltimore and Arizona. Those issues have been corrected since then and Bellichick, Brady and company have soared, winning nine of their last 10 with outbursts of 45, 49 and 59 points respectively.
The offense converts on third down 49 percent of the time which was best league wide, and they led the league in scoring once again.
There have been some question marks on defense but the pass defense has been better since the acquisition of Aqib Talib. The run defense is top-10 and that will be important against backs like Foster and Rice within the conference. The Pats also boast an 11-1 record against the AFC. CONTENDER
***Check The Good Point tomorrow for the NFC breakdown.