Let’s took a snapshot look at each AFC team as we go past the mid-October point on the calendar…
New England: I like the way the supporting elements of the Patriots are coming along, especially the running game. The defense still needs work if this is going to be a Super Bowl team come January, but they’ve at least shown an ability to come up with enough plays to allow Tom Brady to win.
Buffalo: The bloom is off the rose a bit with recent losses to Cincinnati and the New York Giants, but Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ability in the passing game should be well-established now. The Bills need a better pass rush if they are going to compete consistently. Buffalo is a poor man’s version of the Patriots, right down to the good quarterback with a Scotch-Irish last name and if you’re going to be a poor man’s anything, the Pats aren’t a bad rich role model.
NY Jets: The offense is still looking for an identity, as the running game is good, but not great and Mark Sanchez isn’t in rhythm with his receivers. Defensively, the Jets are soft against the run. There’s plenty of time to fix things and being 3-3 with the toughest part of your schedule behind you (road trips to Oakland, Baltimore and New England) is tolerable.
Miami: This looks like a hopeless franchise right now, with problems everywhere offensively and only a couple linebackers and the corners to really build around. The sooner they get a new coach in the better.
*The AFC East is clearly New England’s to lose and short of Tom Brady getting hurt, it’s hard to see how they won’t win it again. This division is about the Jets and Bills jousting for playoff position.
Baltimore: This is a team that has a Super Bowl quality to it, as the haven’t been shy about pounding Ray Rice and that opens things up in the passing game, rather than trying to do that in reverse, as was too often the case last year. The defense is still looking good, but with Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis all older players, let’s see how they hold up.
Pittsburgh: Every time I’m ready to bury the Steelers they come up with a big performance, which is a tremendous credit to Mike Tomlin, who keeps squeezing the most out of a team whose overall talent base is well behind Baltimore’s and certainly New England’s. But unless the offensive line really becomes a consistent force, it’s going to be a lot to ask for another division title and Super Bowl run.
Cincinnati: Don’t sleep on the Bengals, who are 4-2 and free of all the drama that came with Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco last year. They’re running the ball with Cedric Benson, playing decent defense and Andy Dalton is coming along at quarterback. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie quarterback to push them to the playoffs, but they’re a lot further than anyone could have expected.
Cleveland: Do sleep on the Browns, who are showing themselves to be vastly overrated as a breakout team. Peyton Hillis’ magic is gone, in no small part because the offensive line is lousy, there’s not much in terms of receiving talent and the defensive front is shaky.
*Baltimore’s won four playoff games in the last three years, but the failure to win a division has sent them on the road. Everything’s all set up for them to win the North and get a home game this time around. If Pittsburgh steals the division this year, Tomlin should be inducted immediately into Canton.
Houston: The injury to Andre Johnson takes a lot of the juice out of this offense and the season-ending injury to Mario Williams is absolutely devastating and makes you wonder if this franchise will ever get it together. Even when a season opens up the way this one has, the injuries still get them.
Tennessee: I really like what Mike Munchak has going in Nashville, but their own injury to Kenny Britt at receiver cost them some desperately needed explosiveness and as much as I like a running game & defense approach, the Titan D isn’t good enough to make that work. Still, an interesting team with vet Matt Hasselbeck in town and Chris Johnson seeming to get back in rhythm after his holdout, on top of the lockout.
Jacksonville: Other than Maurice Jones-Drew, there’s not much reason to watch the Jaguars. The Blaine Gabbert era has begun at quarterback, but I would think the Jack Del Rio era at head coach is going to end.
Indianapolis: This is a disgraceful performance by veteran players who should’ve been anxious to prove they can at least compete without Peyton. As it is, Manning might become the first athlete in history to win MVP without playing a game.
*It’s a pretty bad division these days, but it will be interesting, with Houston having more talent, but Tennessee perhaps having more chemistry. And either team would be a tough out at home for a wild-card entry come January.
San Diego: They don’t have that same explosiveness, with Philip Rivers not in gear, a circumstance for which my Fantasy team has suffered (at least I picked Ryan Fitzpatrick for insurance). But they are running the ball consistently and most importantly they’re winning games early and not digging themselves a big hole.
Oakland: They’re a ½ game back of the Chargers and tied in the loss column, and I was starting to like the Raiders to win the AFC West for the late Al Davis. But this sudden trade for Carson Palmer is misguided and likely to harm the developing chemistry that was becoming apparent in Oakland, along with the solid running game. And it’s another blow to the career of Jason Campbell who deserved better than what the Raiders and Redskins before them, dealt him.
Kansas City: Like Indianapolis, they looked like an absolute joke early on. Unlike Indy, they’ve put it together and while injuries are going to prevent them from repeating their AFC West title, they are again a functionable franchise that can at least compete week-to-week. Admittedly, not the highest praise in the world but after the 48-3 debacle in Detroit back in Week 2, the Chiefs were a long way from even that.
Denver: The problems with defensive personnel are very apparent on this team and Tim Tebow isn’t going to solve them. Come to think of it, I don’t think Tebow is going to solve the offensive problems. But Kyle Orton did play himself out of the job, and if nothing else these coming games provide a chance for it to become apparent that Denver’s quarterback of the future is not on the roster right now.
*This is going to be the best division race in the AFC, with the Chargers and Raiders going down to the end and the stakes will be high. Both are good enough to do some damage in the playoffs. Neither is so good that we can assume a wild-card awaits the runner-up.