Remember the good old days, when the NFC dominated the AFC? The NFC won thirteen straight championships from 1985 to 1997. The tide turned with Elway's Broncos in XXII. The AFC has won 8 of the last 9, and the way the teams are stacking up, I believe the AFC will make it 9 of 10 after SuperBowl XLI. Furthermore, I predict the World Champion will be one of these four teams.
The AFC playoffs will be incredibly competitive, from the wildcard round all the way to the conference championship. Winning in the playoffs will be largely contingent on team matchups. This is why seeding will be so important. My predictions here relate to how these divisional champs will finish their regular seasons and be seeded in the playoffs. We'll get into predicted results of the playoffs a little later.
#1 Indianapolis Colts are 10-2 and face the Jaguars, Bengals, Texans and Miami, with a winning percentage of .500. The Jags and Bengals are fighting for a playoff spot and those should be tough contests. Homefield advantage is a great benefit to the Colts, but they can't stumble during this final run or they'll lose their #1 seed.
How about that offense? 3rd best scoring in the league. Manning's passer rating is over 100 yet again, with 22 TDs and only 8 INTs. He is continuing to direct a very dangerous passing attack. However, their rushing attack is not impressive at all, which keeps them in the top 10 for pass attempts. That's a lot of passes -- besides New Orleans & the Colts, no team in the top 10 pass att. has a winning record; forced to throw when behind. The Colts may have trouble grinding out a win if they can't run & keep the clock moving. Nevertheless, this offense is a gleaming, relentless machine. They top the NFL with a 56.8% 3rd down conversion. No one else in the league is over 50%. Their 15 giveaways are tied for 4th fewest in the NFL. They are also in the top 10 for fewest penalties.
How about that worst run defense in the league? Worst per carry avg, most 20+ yard runs. Not being able to run or stop the run is yielding a woeful time of possession. In their two losses, the Colts gave up 219 rush yards (6.3 per carry) while farting back 3.4 ypc to the Titans, and to Dallas they gave up 7 1/2 minutes in t.o.p. while throwing 39 passes (resulting in two INTs). The pass defense is good, yielding a high completion percentage but few yards per pass; this means the safeties are good.
How about them special teams? Hard to assess punt cover, because the Colts punt the least in the league. Kick coverage (they kick off a lot) is very, very poor. FG % is top ten, as are punt & kick returns.
#2 San Diego Chargers are also 10-2, and face the Broncos, Chiefs, Seahawks and Cardinals. Brutal - three playoff teams in a row. The win % of these opponents (I'm not counting the Cardinals as an opponent) is .639. At least they get AFC West rivals Denver & K.C. at home.
How about that offense? Indeed. LaDanian Tomlinson is your MVP. 23 rush TDs, 3 receiving TDs, 2 passing TDs. The stats don't do him justice: Tomlinson is the most beautiful runner since Sweetness. It doesn't even look like he's trying, just gliding along. He's lost exactly one fumble this year. Oh, and Philip Rivers? Top five passer rating, with All-Pro Antonio Gates snaring the 4th most TDs (tied) in the league. Having the least giveaways in the NFL yields them the second best turnover margin in the league.
How about that defense? The Chargers lead the NFL in sacks. Nevertheless, they are slightly more vulnerable to the pass than the run (sixth best in the NFL). This is a good, dynamic defense that played very well when its top two players (Merriman & Castillo) were out.
How about special teams? Very good punt cover, good returns. Top ten FG %.
#3 New England Patriots are 9-3 and face the Dolphins, Texans, Jags and Titans, a percentage of .438. Like the Ravens, they only face one playoff contender. The Patriots haven't played well recently, but no one in their right mind wants to face this team in the playoffs. 7th most penalty yards is a sign of trouble. I'm giving them the nod for #3 seed over the Ravens because they have better balance of offense, defense & special teams, though not in recent weeks.
About that offense? During last week's otherwise poor performance versus Detroit, QB Brady went 14-15 and won the game. He is statistically having only a very good, not great year. But, like Iceman said to Maverick at the end of Top Gun: "I'll ride your tail anytime!" The combined, balanced attack has the Patriots at #8 in scoring. However, their 12 fumbles tie them for 3rd most fumbles in the league.
Check the defense? Rather quietly, the Patriots have an incredible defense, despite massive injuries and free agent losses. They are 3rd in scoring defense in the NFL. The run defense is 3rd as well. The pass D yields too many yards, but they have allowed only 8 TDs and snared 16 INTs (again, third best margin in the league behind Chicago and Baltimore).
Especial Teams? Coverage teams are good, punt return is very good and kick return is #1 in the league. FG = below average.
#4 Baltimore Ravens are 9-3 and face the Chiefs, Browns, Steelers and Bills, who have a win percentage of .438. The Ravens are ferocious on defense, and with McNair's leadership, the offense is finally not an utter liability. If the Ravens won it with Trent "Luc Longley" Dilfer, they can certainly do it with a healthy McNair.
Speaking of the offense: McNair has made the difference this year. Last year's Ravens averaged 16.6 ppg, 8th worst in the league. They are now hovering around the top ten, with 21.3 ppg. McNair's play has been good, not great, but he's got the intangibles to win those ugly games the Ravens always seem to be in. The rushing has twice as many rush TDs per game as last year (but still only .667), and are tied for second lowest yards per rush yards in the league. Remember, RB Lewis went over 2,000 yards in 2003. What happened to the O Line?
Let's consider that defense: Best in the AFC, and lead the NFL in defensive TDs. +14 turnover margin is best in the NFL. They have the 2nd best run D in the league, top 10 pass D (allowing 11 TDs and 20 INTs, 2nd most behind Chicago). The D doesn't have to win every game (as Chicago's does), but it is by far their strongest unit.
Special Teams? Nothing special on coverage (surprisingly), but good returns. FG % = tied for 3rd best in the NFL.
One of these AFC teams will likely win one the Lombardi Trophy. Hands off, chowderlips, all these belong to the Washington Redskins.