NFL: An Analysis of the 3-Horse Race for the AFC Championship

Bill WashinskiContributor IIIDecember 3, 2011

NFL: An Analysis of the 3-Horse Race for the AFC Championship

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    With respect to the majority of the AFC, the team that is most likely to challenge the Packers in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI is coming down to who will win out of a three-horse race among the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers.

    All three teams have solid reasons for why they can win the AFC and also weaknesses that can prevent them from doing so—continue for an analysis of all three teams as well as a brief analysis of the other AFC Playoff contenders.

The New England Patriots

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    To paraphrase the great Mark Twain: The reports of the Patriots' midseason demise were greatly exaggerated. The 8-3 Patriots endured their only their third set of back-to-back losses in nine seasons and are currently riding a three-game winning streak to put them in a four-way tie for the best record in the AFC. 

    One very strong advantage the Patriots have going for them is their remaining schedule is the easiest of the AFC contending teams (on paper and based on Week 12 standings)—putting them in position to secure a bye week and potentially the No. 1 seed.

    Why the Patriots Should Win the AFC

    The standard answer that you’ll get from the “professional” media is Brady and Belichick. It’s also so basic that it’s insulting because that is the limit of the analysis you’ll be provided by analysts paid to forecast these types of things. 

    The Patriots have the AFC’s most potent passing game, which is more important than ever in the Roger Goodell era. Goodell became NFL Commissioner in 2006 and his influence on the game subtly began to change the style.

    Since 2007, the Super Bowl participants have largely featured teams that rely heavily on the passing game and feature franchise QBs. The recent crackdown on physical defensive play provides a noticeable advantage to a precision passing offense—as one of the best ways to defend against it was physical play and hitting WRs. 

    Under the current system, it’s difficult to envision the 2001 Patriots upset of the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.  But the Patriots are well suited to play in the Goodell flag football era. 

    Why the Patriots Will Not Win the AFC

    It’s been well documented that the Patriots haven’t won a postseason game since the 2007 AFC Championship, including twice losing home playoff games. 

    How big of an influence is that? 

    The short answer is that there is none. However, the weakness of the Patriots defense is another story. 

    Although the statistical performance has improved during their three-game winning streak, it should be pointed out that the opposing offenses were anemic and twice they played against back-up QBs. 

    The apparent improvement on defense, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Upper-tier QBs have had from successful outings to field days on the Patriots.  And teams with the right personnel have been able to scheme against the Patriots offense—which lacks the ability to stretch the field and features a running game that must first be set up by the pass and is not successful the other way around.    

    While none of the teams the Patriots play the rest of the regular season have the right talent to challenge New England, the playoffs will be a different story.

The Baltimore Ravens

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    The Ravens are reminiscent of two modern-era NFL teams—the 1970s Rams and 1990s Steelers—in that they showed remarkable consistency over a period of years, finishing with records among the best in the league during the regular season.  

    However, come playoff time, the shortcomings of the two teams (most specifically lacking a franchise QB) led to playoff disappointments. However, both the Rams and Steelers of the era finally did break through and win a conference championship, although they lost the Super Bowl (albeit to dynasty-level teams in competitive games).  

    The Ravens have been knocking on the door for years and seem well positioned to finally follow in the steps of the 1979 Rams and 1995 Steelers to win the conference championship.

    Why the Ravens Should Win the AFC

    The 2011 Ravens finally overcame the hump of the Steelers, sweeping them in the season series for the first time since 2006. The inability to overcome Pittsburgh has forced the Ravens into Wild Card games and playing on the road in the playoffs.  

    With the tie-breaker in hand and a schedule almost as (statistically) easy as the Patriots, the Ravens are in control of their destiny to finally earn a top seed and a bye week. The Ravens have a great mix of playoff experience, veteran leadership (the only team in the league featuring two “sure-fire” first ballot Hall of Fame players— Ed Reed and Ray Lewis), overall talent and a genuine hunger. There is something to be said for a team that has tasted postseason success over several years but has fallen short and has extra desire to win a championship.

    Why the Ravens Will Not Win the AFC

    The Ravens' most potent offensive weapon is running back Ray Rice. They have a team that would be more ideally designed if it were 2001-2005, the pre-Goodell era league. In particular, since 2007 only two Super Bowl participants have featured a running back with over 1,000 yards and only one (2009 Saints—No. 6) finished with a Top 10-ranked rushing game. 

    While the Ravens' statistical offensive balance at a glance would seem to indicate they are not as reliant on the running game as they are the passing game (No. 15 in passing, No. 27 in rushing), a closer look at their games reveals that in games where Ray Rice is prolific, the Ravens do well, and in games in which he has been held in check, the Ravens have been vulnerable and needed late defensive breakdowns by their opponents to win. 

    Joe Flacco is a solid QB, but unremarkable and inconsistent. He does not do anything particularly “special” and that is a problem in a league that is pass-heavy—Flacco is going to have to raise the level of his game and do so in the extreme pressure of the NFL playoffs.  

    Despite his 4-3 playoff record, Flacco’s actual playoff performance has been far from stellar—where by comparison the Ravens' top AFC competition features QBs who by the same points early in their careers, turned in some spectacular playoff performances and won a Super Bowl, but have repeated the experience to the tune of seven total appearances and five Super Bowl wins among them. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The defending AFC champions have evolved on the fly, starting the season off with the team that lost by six in Super Bowl XLV and finally seeing the age of the team that has enjoyed a remarkable seven-year run that kicked off with a 15-1 season in 2004 and enjoyed three Super Bowl appearances and two wins.  

    It became apparent within the first month that age had finally begun to catch up with them, so they began to adapt by replacing long-tenured veterans with talent developed in house, particularly at WR, DL and even the secondary, resulting in a different team that started the season.

    Why the Steelers Should Win the AFC

    The Steelers will require at least one Ravens loss and will need to win out to earn the bye week, which was a big part of their 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl runs. They also have endured injuries to significant players, which has cost them games, but they have still managed to be at 8-3.  

    Although there has been some talent turnover, much of the team still is in the prime of their careers with game-changing talent on both sides of the ball. If the Steelers enter the playoffs injury-free and fully loaded, they will be tough on the road or at home—and since the 2005 Steelers win in Super Bowl XL, two other teams have advanced to (and won) the Super Bowl playing three road games, proving it is not necessarily an anomaly to accomplish the feat.

    Why the Steelers Will Not Win the AFC

    The Steelers defense—statistically—appears to be as dominant as past units, but the change of personnel (Aaron Smith) and aging of NT Casey Hampton has made their rush defense vulnerable only a year after featuring the second-lowest rushing yards allowed in a season in modern NFL history. 

    While considering the diminished impact of rushing in this Goodell-era NFL, it still is a weakness that can be exploited and holds the Steelers' vicious pass-rush in check. 

    Offensively, the Steelers have been an enigmatic team since Bruce Arians became the offensive coordinator. Despite a team loaded with offensive talent, the offensive production is inconsistent—at times being unstoppable and others unproductive (often in the same game). 

    The Steelers have been able to win consistently with this kind of timely offensive production coming to life when needed because the defense has been dominant.  However, by a combination of age and change of rules, the Steelers defense cannot be counted on to consistently shut down the opposition and allow the offense to come to life only when really needed—the offense will have to perform at the productive level more consistently. 

    The Steelers are on the outside looking in at a bye week, needing a perfect stretch run or an unlikely Ravens collapse to gain a bye week, which would force them to play a road playoff game (aside from neutral site games) for the first time since January of 2006.

The Remaining AFC Playoff Contenders

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    The Texans—Would have been just as much of a contender, if not the favorite, if not for the injuries to Matt Schaub and Mario Williams

    The Raiders—The Carson Palmer trade was criticized after it was first made, but he’s been pretty good since he began starting. The real Carson Palmer hasn’t been seen in years—the mess that has been the Bengals wore him down. But it’s asking too much of him to carry the Raiders deep, in particular with such a porous defense.

    The Bengals—The surprise team of the AFC has shown tremendous promise with their rookies and defense, but they aren’t ready to play with the elite.

    The Broncos—Tebowmania has the Broncos winning games, but the same thing happened with Vince Young, Kordell Stewart and Michael Vick, then the magic of winning games with the running QB gave truth to the reality that real success cannot happen without a real passing game.

    The Jets—Two AFC Championship games in a row has not been reflected in the 2011 Jets in any way as they have regressed significantly.

    The Titans—A year that could have been a potential disaster could result in a division title if the Texans' injuries derail them down the stretch, but the Titans are not a real playoff threat.