Now we venture into the fierce territory where this year’s Superbowl champion lurks to its forthcoming ascent to glory, the American Football Conference. I’m so old that I remember when the NFC Championship was the real Superbowl and the AFC team was the sacrificial lamb for the big game. In fact, the NFC’s absolute dominance over the AFC in the 1980s and 1990s may have been the reason why the commercials, with their over-the-top humor, sex and spectacle, became more watchable than the games themselves. This dynamic has turned 180 degrees, however, where any of the six playoff participants in the AFC would be legitimate favorites to beat any NFC team that emerged. Today we’ll start with the East and the North, then finish with the other two divisions tomorrow.
New England Patriots
Everyone’s getting all a-swoon with the sudden resurgence of the defending champs. I say, in the words of Winston Wolf, “Let’s not start [CENSORED] each other’s [CENSORED] just yet, gentlemen.” Let’s see who they’ve beaten during their four-game winning streak: Jets (3-12); Tampa Bay (Florida team playing in cold); Buffalo (5-10); Jets, again (3-12). They’ve dominated weak competition (especially in their own division) while losing games to quality teams. If they win this week and Cincinnati loses, if I’m interpreting NFL seeding rules correctly, they would get the #3 seed. Their reward? Hosting the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers. If they get the #4 seed, they play Jacksonville (Florida team playing in cold weather. Either way, a wild-card win sends them either to Denver or Indianapolis for the divisional round. I’m not counting them out until they’re on the losing side of the score at the end of the fourth quarter, because these guys are money when it matters, but I’m not telling Bob Kraft to clear another space in the trophy case, either.
Wow, this is the most interesting team that nobody at all is even discussing. First-year head coach Nick Saban tells the media that he’s punting the entire season in terms of wins and losses in favor of evaluating talent for next year, which was fodder for ESPN Radio for a good two weeks of hand-wringing. Since that time, they’ve won five in a row with a chance to finish with a top-eight record in the conference. Heck, if they were in the NFC, they’d be competing for a wild-card spot. Not to mention that wandering pothead Ricky Williams has run for more than 600 yards and five TDs in limited duty, including 172 last week against Tennessee. This team is going to the playoffs next year, and maybe the Superbowl year after next.
This is the team that motivated me to stop engaging in weekly picks. Sandlot regular contributor Tuck explained it best: “Buffalo beats teams with weak run defense, loses to teams with strong run defense.” The Bills just lack any sort of personality—what are they? A running team? A passing team? A defensive team? Answer: A mediocre team that’s going nowhere anytime soon.
New York Jets
I know that many people, myself included, looked at the Jets’ run last year and thought 2005 was when they would take the next step to compete for a championship. Well, that hasn’t happened, obviously, and whether Herm Edwards stays or goes, it’s time to select “Restart” from the main menu and begin rebuilding a new team. Curtis Martin is long past his prime and should either retire or accept a limited role in the same way Marshall Faulk has in St. Louis, and they need to cut ties with Chad Pennington and find a new quarterback. May I suggest Brad Smith from Missouri? He’ll be available in the second or third round if they want to take a chance.
This is when we start talking about playoff experience. Marvin Lewis has it from his time with the Ravens, but this is his first time as the head coach. His talented but young team has virtually no experience with the NFL playoffs. You know what the playoffs are like? It’s like the difference from going to a small high school with a graduating class of less than 200 in which you were at the top of your class, lettered in four varsity sports, never had to do homework and got a big, fat scholarship to a big university. When you get to the big university, the work is ten time harder than you ever had, the reading volume is overwhelming, classes are huge, and everyone in them is just as smart or smarter than you. That’s the difference between regular season success (high school) and the playoffs (big sink-or-swim university). Can the Bengals handle the pressure and intensity? Their first-round foe will probably be Pittsburgh or perhaps Jacksonville. They are on the flip side of New England: they have to beat Kansas City, who’s still hanging on to playoff hopes, on the road in order to host a game against either Kansas City or Pittsburgh. KC doesn’t lose at home in December. Who would you rather play, the Steelers or the Jags? If I’m Marvin Lewis, I’m throwing in the towel this weekend. But will resting key players like Palmer and the Johnsons derail their momentum? I’m telling you, this is juicier than a daytime soap opera. Stay tuned...
This team’s nickname (and their QB’s) ought to be Lazarus. A juggernaut for the first ten weeks of the season, Big Ben gets hurt, they lose crushing games to Baltimore, Indy and Cincy, where they are all but left for dead in the playoff race as Jacksonville, San Diego and Kansas City all look poised to pull away. Ben’s got a bad knee and a broken thumb. Bettis looks like the mileage has finally broken down the bus. The formerly dominant secondary gets picked apart by Manning and Palmer. “Lazarus, come forth!” They dominate Chicago on the road, no less, expose Minnesota’s fraudulent resurgence, then annihilate Cleveland. Now all they have to do to get to the playoffs is beat Detroit at home in Pittsburgh. Can you say, “slam dunk”? If I were a gambler, I’d bet the house on this game. They’ll get either New England or Cincinnati next week in the wild card round, and at this point, I’m picking the Steelers to win either of those games.
So what’s up with this team? As I predicted earlier this week, Brian Billick’s staying put as the head coach for at least another year. Kyle Boller has emerged in the past 2-3 weeks as a legit QB and team leader. Tasmanian Devil Ray Lewis should be back from injury next year to solidify a defense that is still one of the most formidable in the league. Playing a schedule based on this year’s losing record—at least outside of the division, which will be just as tough next year—the Ravens have to get to the playoffs next year or else clean house; in my mind, with all things equal, they’ll be out of excuses.
This was not Romeo Crennel’s team. Romeo Crennel won’t have his team for another two years. They need a quarterback and a running back. Again, may I suggest Missouri’s Brad Smith, even if you move him to RB? The defense will come together next year. The offense will need two years to come together. They will be improved next year, and a force to be reckoned with year after next. It’s to the credit of Cleveland’s ownership that they are not using Charlie Weis’s instant success at Notre Dame to hold against Romeo; it’s much harder to coach up an NFL team than it is a college team because the talent at the pro level is much higher and more equal. Little things like discipline and play execution make a much bigger difference in the college ranks, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where Weis resides. It takes more than that in the pros; it takes talent and time for a team to buy into a coach’s entire system, and Crennel’s just going to need the time to implement his.
Tomorrow: AFC South and West