Handicapping the AFC from a Steelers' Perspective

Marky Billson@@MarkyBillsonContributor IJune 27, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 20:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots celebrates with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the Patriots 21-12 win against the San Diego Chargers during the AFC Championship Game on January 20, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

In analyzing the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers for Bleacher Report, I am inclined to believe they will be an improved team for the following reasons:

A.) They suffered no key losses and will benefit from the gains received in the draft and by having running backs Rashard Mendehall and Willie Parker return from injury.

B.) The schedule will be easier.

C.) The offensive line simply cannot be any worse than it was last year.

Assuredly, the Steelers won’t be the only improved team in the American Football Conference.

Tom Brady returns from injury, San Diego figures to be better than .500, and there is always a surprise team, such as the Miami Dolphins last season.

So, who will be the contenders for the Steelers’ crown? And who will be the surprise teams of 2009?

In researching former Super Bowl winners, there is a pattern dating back to 1983 (the season of Super Bowl XVIII, when the Los Angeles Raiders beat Washington in 38-9):

A.) Almost every Super Bowl winner made the playoffs the season before.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

B.) The exceptions to this rule, the 2001 Patriots, 2000 Ravens, 1999 Rams, and 2003 Patriots, can be broken down into two categories:

1. Teams employing a new starting quarterback for the majority of their Super Bowl winning season (Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer, Kurt Warner).

2.  Teams showing improvement during the previous season. In the case of the 2003 Patriots, New England’s strong, 6-3 finish in 2002 after a 3-4 start spoke of better times ahead. This also was the pattern of the 1982 Washington Redskins, who retained Joe Theismann as their quarterback from 1981 but also finished that season 8-3 after an 0-5 start, and the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, who retained Joe Montana from 1980 and finished 3-2 in a 6-10 season after a woeful 2-14 1979 season.

This formula doesn’t eliminate a whole lot of AFC teams from contending in 2009, but it does throw out the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Perhaps Terrell Owens will be the addition needed for Buffalo to make the playoffs in 2009, and maybe David Garrard can regain his 2007 form, but it’s safe to say both of these teams are more than a season away from joining the elite of the National Football League and overthrowing the Steelers.

Realistically, let’s throw out the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos as well. The Chiefs have added quarterback Matt Cassel, but one gets the feeling it’s going to take more than him for the Chiefs to go from 2-14 to their first conference/league championship in 40 years, and few would argue Kyle Orton or Chris Simms are improvements from Jay Cutler at quarterback for the Broncos, losers of their final three games in 2008.

Cleveland doesn’t have the look of a champion, either. They lost their last six games in 2008, all by scoring 10 points or less. Running back Jamal Lewis enters his 10th year in the NFL; he failed to rush for 100 yards in any game last season.

Their defense ranked just 13th in the conference, and to repair this, new head coach Eric Mangini brought five players from the Jets with him. The Jets finished ninth in the conference in defense.

Even if quarterback Brady Quinn beats out Derek Anderson and becomes an All-Pro, how much can Cleveland realistically expect to improve from 4-12?

The New York Jets will have a new quarterback. First-round draft choice Mark Sanchez may be a future star, but no rookie quarterback has ever taken his team to the Super Bowl, and the other signal caller, Kellen Clemens, doesn’t seem to be a likely candidate to go there, either.

The Jets drafted well, have a solid offensive line, feature two Pro Bowlers on defense in cornerback Darrelle Revis and nose tackle Kris Jenkins, and they would seem to be a dark horse contender, if they just didn’t have to go against history and a brutal schedule to win the AFC title. Wait until 2010.

The three most likely candidates to “rise from the ashes” of the AFC are the Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, and Oakland Raiders, who finished their 2008 seasons with 3-0, 5-1, and 2-0 records, respectively. Ironically, the Texans’ sole loss during this time was to the Raiders.

For all the talk of Al Davis going against the grain, Oakland has a promising quarterback-running back duo with JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden. They have quality reserves with newcomer Jeff Garcia and Justin Fargas.

The Raiders even signed three new offensive linemen to protect their quarterback, as the Raiders were 1-7 when allowing more than one sack last season.

While Oakland is a budding power on offense, Houston IS a power, finishing third in the NFL in total yards. Quarterback Matt Schaub threw for more than 3,000 yards despite playing in just 11 games, and though the knee injury he suffered mid-season spoke of the Texans’ historical failures to protect the passer, Houston allowed only 32 sacks in 2008.

Schaub has weapons. Andre Johnson was the leading receiver in the NFL. Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels both finished with just less than 900 receiving yards. Steve Slaton finished 30 yards short of the conference rushing lead in his rookie season.

The problem is both of these teams struggled defensively. The Raiders have passable talent, with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha leading a pass defense that allowed fewer yards through the air than any other non-playoff team in the AFC.

However, Oakland was 31st in the NFL against the rush in 2008 and didn’t make any significant upgrades on defense. An improvement from 5-11 is likely, especially without the coaching chaos that ruined the Raiders’ 2008 season.

If second-round pick Michael Mitchell and oft-injured Tyvon Branch have monster seasons at safety, the Raiders could contend for a division championship, but a conference title seems out of reach.

Houston is different. First-round draft choice Brian Cushing promises to be a star at middle linebacker. Dunta Robinson is a shutdown corner who has received criticism for missing some offseason workouts, butPlaxico Burress once did that and the Steelers went 15-1.

The Raiders hope to improve defensively; the Texans, 8-8 last season, most assuredly will.

And while the Bengals seemed to fall back to their laughingstock ways last season, they were with Carson Palmer for only four games. Seventeen players finished on injured reserve.

Despite a 4-11-1 record, the Bengals had the sixth best defense in the AFC in 2008—tops among teams with losing records. The signings of strong safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, along with the arrival of linebacker Rey Maualuga, will only make it better.

Less than three years ago, Sports Illustrated called the Steelers-Bengals rivalry the nastiest in the NFL. The Bengals lack the running game to make the playoffs, but they might restore the “nasty” in the rivalry.

Moving to the playoff teams of a year ago, while the Steelers did not suffer any key losses, the Tennessee Titans lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to free agency and the Indianapolis Colts let Marvin Harrison go. It’s hard to fathom either of these teams improving in 2009 as a result.

In trying to match these teams up against the Steelers for AFC supremacy, while both teams have better offensive lines than Pittsburgh, they have few other advantages.

For instance, even if one was to say Peyton Manning was a better quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger, the Colts lack the receiving talent the Steelers have with Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, and Heath Miller, and it seems to be a stretch to say running back Donald Brown will become a more productive player in his rookie season than Willie Parker will.

And will new head coach Jim Caldwell be a George Seifert or a Ray Handley?

The Titans’ passing attack is unspectacular, to the point that Nate Washington, the Steelers’ third receiver in 2008, may start for the Titans this year. One wonders if running back Chris Johnson will be able to carry the load for a second straight season.

Defensively, the Steelers had the top defense in the NFL last season and suffered no key losses. Unless Pittsburgh’s defensive players get old in a hurry or suffer mass injuries, it would seem this would be a huge advantage for the Steelers over the Titans and Colts.

Bottom line, look for the Colts and Titans to be looking over their shoulder at the improving Texans more than winning one of the two byes in the AFC playoffs.

San Diego will improve. If, for instance, the Chargers beat every team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 on their schedule and lose to every one that did, they’ll still finish 10-6.

That still won’t be enough to compete with the elite of the AFC. Though Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman returns, San Diego finished dead last in the AFC in pass defense, yet they did not draft anyone for the secondary until the fifth round and signed no impact free agents.

This leaves four teams to challenge the Steelers; the aforementioned upstart Texans, a long-shot pick, and Baltimore, Miami, and New England. 

What the Ravens figure to do better than the Steelers in 2009 is protect the passer, as Baltimore allowed 16 fewer sacks in 2008 than Pittsburgh and drafted tackle Michael Oher in the first round.

They'll also rush for more yards. Pittsburgh has a talented trio of running backs in Parker, Mendenhall, and rookie Frank Summers, but so does Baltimore with Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Ray Rice.

There’s just something about Ray Rice not being able to crack the Ravens' starting lineup that makes the trio stand out a bit more than the Steelers'.  

But Pittsburgh will likely have a superior passing attack. Joe Flacco is good, but he doesn’t have the receivers Roethlisberger does.

It is hard to decipher any really big advantage either defense has when compared to the other. Pittsburgh was ranked at the top of the NFL last season and has a superior pass rush, but Baltimore hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than two seasons.

Both teams will be trying out new cornerbacks. Baltimore does lose inside linebacker Bart Scott, who went with former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets, but it appears the primary question in assessing these two teams is if the Steelers can improve their pass protection and if the Ravens can develop a receiver to compliment Derrick Mason.

There’s a lot to like about Miami—a great ground game, led by Ronnie Brown.

Former West Virginia quarterback Pat White should add new dimensions to the Wildcat formation with a run/pass option Brown does not posess, linebacker Joey Porter, who accumulated 17 ½ sacks last season, is still in his prime at 32, and Chad Pennington is the Dolphins’ best quarterback since Dan Marino.

What makes the Dolphins so intriguing is they addressed so many of their needs through free agency and the draft. Miami had the worst pass defense of any team in the AFC with a winning record, so they brought in free safety Gibril Wilson from Oakland and cornerback Eric Green from Arizona while drafting cornerbacks Vontae Davis in the first round and 6’3” Sean Smith in the third.

Those who say the Dolphins’ 11-6 record was buoyed by a last-place schedule should acknowledge Miami did not lose a single game to a team with a losing record in 2008.

That leaves the New England Patriots, and, despite not making the playoffs, they finished 4-0 and will be replacing Cassel with Brady. They fit the formula.

There is the school of thought that the 32-year-old Brady might not be the same quarterback he was before his injury. Remember Terry Bradshaw's elbow?

Then again, 33-year-old Dan Marino returned from a season-ending ankle injury in 1993 to throw for more than 4,400 yards in 1994.

If you had to bet on Brady slumping or excelling upon his return, which way would you bet?

The Patriots made some nice veteran additions, including running back Fred Taylor, wide receiver Joey Galloway, and cornerback Shawn Springs.

New England doesn’t seem to have a real weakness, but they did have a mediocre run defense in 2008. Only one AFC team with a winning record, Indianapolis, had a worse defense against the run than the Patriots did. New England drafted nose tackle Ron Brace in the second round to address this need.

In comparing the Patriots with the Steelers, it could be said that while the Steelers struggled with offensive rankings in 2008, the Patriots struggled with defensive rankings.

What the Steelers may have on the Patriots is the presence of legitimate defensive stars. No Patriot defenders were named to the Pro Bowl last season for the first time since 2000.

Miami’s old “No Name” defense of the ‘70s was a misnomer, because the Dolphins DID have stars; Nick Buoniconti, Jake Scott, Manny Fernandez.

But Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” had more, which helped them overtake the Dolphins in that era.

If the Steelers and Patriots meet in the playoffs, Pittsburgh would have to utilize this advantage with an influential turnover or other big defensive stand to win.

That said, here are my predictions for the AFC Playoffs, with five of the teams capable of ending their season in Miami. 

  1. Pittsburgh (13-3)—Have more stars than any other team in the conference.
  2. New England (12-4)—Perhaps the most complete team in the AFC. They’ll visit Heinz Field for the Super Bowl again.
  3. Houston (11-5)—This will be their breakout season. But can they win a divisional playoff game on the road?
  4. Oakland (10-6)—Another surprise, but one-and-done in the postseason.
  5. Baltimore (12-4)—Consistent, but Flacco needs better receivers.
  6. Miami (11-5)—Don’t dismiss.