|Picking up where I left off on the post below, here's a rundown on the AFC...|
It was a slow start out of the gate for New England, as they barely escaped a loss at home to Buffalo in their opener, and only a dropped pass saved them in a home game against Baltimore. But overall, the Patriots look like they are rounding into form and Brady's playing at a very high level again. The Jets, after a 3-0 start, came back to earth. Rex Ryan's team looks like one right on the cusp of the playoffs--they'll play some great games, some maddening ones and end up right on the edge of the postseason. As expected here, Miami has come down to earth. Buffalo is hanging around at 3-4, but nothing they have done outside of that opening Monday Night in Foxboro even suggests a winning season, much less a playoff one. The Patriots will run away with this division as expected.
This division race is one of the best in football. Cincinnati looks like a legitimate surprise team. After the loss to Houston a couple weeks ago, one wondered if they might lose the mojo. But they came back and took apart the Bears. Pittsburgh hasn't looked like a Super Bowl champ yet, but they have won four in a row and beat the Vikings last week, even if it took a deflected interception to do it. And Baltimore is much better than their 3-3 record shows. They lost in the closing moments three straight weeks to the Patriots, Bengals and Ravens, all on plays that should never have happened. If their spirit isn't broken, they are more than capable of a Super Bowl run. In Cleveland, Eric Mangini's performance suggests that Favre's problems with the Jets a year might not have been just a bum shoulder--he might have had a bum coach too.
The main reason for preseason hesitation on Indianapolis was whether the coaching change to Jim Caldwell would disrupt the Colts just enough to make them lose their edge. Whatever happens the rest of the way, a 6-0 start pretty well sets that concern to rest. Indy's pretty well set the entire division to rest on top of it. They are three games ahead in the loss column and is either Houston or Jacksonville really going to catch them? The Jags seem to have stabilized after an early season that had them looking like one of the league's lost franchises. And the Texans following up their win over the Bengals with another tough one against the 49ers was impressive. This conference is tough at the top, but if you start looking for teams to fill the last wild-card berth you can find a lot of flaws, and if Houston can play defense they could sneak in. As for poor Tennessee, we hope the front office remembers all the good times Jeff Fischer has brought to this organization and doesn't run him out the door now that hard times are here.
What else is there to say, but "Wow!" Think back to the first game of the season and Denver beating Cincinnati 12-7 on a miracle touchdown pass at the end of the game. Who didn't think it was just an ugly game between two lousy teams. Fair to say no one saw it as a game that would settle a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs (which it would if the season ended today). The Broncos are going to remember last season, when they needed one win in their last three and failed to get it, a true football reincarnation of the 2004 Yankees, albeit not quite as bad. But that team didn't play defense the way this one did, and you can't help but think that not only can Josh McDaniel coach, but maybe he was right about Cutler too, as this version of Denver isn't a turnover machine. San Diego is three games back and they've come on the last two seasons. But the further this team drifts from the Marty Schottenheimer era, the worse their tackling and fundamentals become. The Chargers miss tackles like no one else in the league. They still have talent and can't be counted out, but this is looking more like the Philip Rivers Show than a football team with each passing week. Oakland and Kansas City bring up the rear.
Wild-Cards: Ravens & Chargers
Conference Champ: Patriots
Super Bowl: Patriots over Vikings. That was my story at the start of the season and I'm sticking to it.