At this point in the season, teams have clearly emerged as contenders, pretenders and mediocre, middling squads that will be neither playoff teams nor picking in the top 10 of next year’s draft.
Elite teams have emerged as well in each conference. There’s no arguing the status of defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, still undefeated on the season, or even San Francisco’s 49ers, 9-2 and dominating their conference competition.
In the AFC, the larger playoff picture may be a bit muddled, but there are three teams that have emerged as truly elite squads and seem like the three teams most likely to vie for the conference’s spot in the Super Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are those teams.
Each has a particular claim to fame in 2011. The best part is that we haven’t seen the best of each team yet. Here’s a look at why each team is a member of the AFC elite.
If the playoffs started today, the Patriots and Ravens would have the first two spots. Houston and Denver would be the third and fourth seeds. The Steelers would be fifth and the Cincinnati Bengals would be sixth.
The only other teams still feasibly alive are the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
The three elite teams have identical 9-3 records, and all would be reasonably close to being undefeated if they hadn’t faced each other.
The three non-elite teams all have significant questions around them and have started to show cracks in recent weeks. The elite teams just seem to be peaking at the right time.
Baltimore has always been a competitive team, but this year, they’ve emerged as something more. They’ve solved their most-hated rival, the Steelers, twice this year and have been dominant against other playoff competition.
The Ravens have finally developed a dangerous passing game to go with running back Ray Rice. Rice is still the Ravens’ key to victory, but Joe Flacco and his corps of receivers have been able to make splash plays as well (Rice had little effect on the second Pittsburgh game. Flacco went out and won the game with his arm).
There aren’t a lot of chinks in the armor here. The Ravens’ biggest failing this year has been getting up after a big game. That could hurt in the playoffs, where all the games are huge. Joe Flacco still has to prove he can win the big games in the playoffs, too. He’ll once again be pitted against Super Bowl veterans like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
The years since 2001 that the Patriots have not been elite can be counted on one hand with several fingers left out. They’ve always been in the picture. The window might finally be starting to close, albeit slowly, but this year could be another big year for Bill Belichick’s squad.
Tom Brady is still among the best in the game, and he’s made do without elite receivers. He still has Wes Welker, but he’s also found a new target in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who’s fast becoming the next great tight end in football.
The chinks here are a little bit more evident, mostly stemming from a very questionable defense, but Belichick knows how to win football games regardless of the team he has on the field, so he will likely find a way to navigate in the playoffs. The toughest test will be winning against two elite teams that boast exactly the right skill set to counter his favorite ploys, but Belichick has done that before.
Last year’s AFC champion is back this year and out to prove that a team can lose the Super Bowl and be back in it the next season. The Steelers are the kind of gritty, hard-working team that wins championships, and they seem like they are getting better each week.
Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to them is that Baltimore beat them twice. Why? This team thrives on adversity. Having to go the wild card route or at least having a very difficult path to another AFC North title is exactly what makes this team so dangerous.
The Steelers boast talent everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than among their receivers. They have the best receivers in the conference, and perhaps in the NFL, led by speedsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Add in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s a deadly combination for opponents.
The Steelers, like the Ravens, have few visible chinks. They haven’t had the healthiest season, but are getting better at the right time. They are older on defense, but they’ve started to involve some great young talent, too. They will be dangerous at home or on the road.
The rest of the AFC is a big question mark. The AFC West is a battle between the Oakland Raiders, who win one week and lose another week, and the Denver Broncos, who are starting quarterback Tim Tebow but who haven’t really faced an elite squad with him under center.
The AFC South is dominated by surprising Tennessee, which doesn’t seem to have the talent to sustain a playoff run, and Houston, who is now down to their rookie, third-string quarterback.
Among the wild card contenders, no team looks like a serious threat to navigate past the three elite squads. The New York Jets may have the best chance for that, but they’ve withered in the face of these teams before.
While surprises happen, it seems like the AFC will come down to which of the three elite teams will survive the longest.
They each have one ingredient that the other teams do not: elite quarterbacks.
If I had to go into a game and needed to win it, I would take Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady or Joe Flacco over anyone else in the AFC. Flacco hasn’t really put his name on the board yet as an elite passer, but he’s getting there, and he’s already better than Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow or Carson Palmer.
Elite quarterbacks are going to win championships. Look back at the AFC champions in the last decade. Roethlisberger has won three times, Brady has won four times and Peyton Manning has won twice. The only other quarterback to win the AFC in that span is Rich Gannon in 2002.
Coaching is big too. Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh represent some of the best coaches in the NFL. The Ravens are still the dark horse of the three, but they are still a well-coached team.
Tomlin is the master motivator. He spins any situation into something he can use to get his team to perform. Injuries don’t effect him. He’s created a culture in which the next best player steps in and must perform at the same level as a starter. It seems to be working.
Belichick is the eccentric wizard who can beat anyone. His teams are consistently impossible to beat, particularly at their home stadium, and they also can vary their playing style to suit the opponent. Not a lot of teams can do that every week. The Patriots can.
Harbaugh is the high-emotion guy. He gets his team up and excited for big games like Tomlin does, but he does have to watch creating too much of a culture in which the big games are the burn outs. Still, he’s coaching in the league’s deepest division this year and doing it well (he’s tied for first place).