By Faraz T. Toor
If you’ve paid any attention the past few weeks to the ESPN BottomLine as it has scrolled past your screen, you may have noticed that ESPN threw out every obscure fact about the Super Bowl 50 matchup that the world could handle.
One of those facts that has become more documented has been about the quarterback that represents the AFC in the Super Bowl. Yes, I’m talking about how the team that has represented the conference in the Super Bowl 12 of the past 13 years has been quarterbacked by either Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger.
As Jayson Stark will tell you every year, the competition in the NFL is a joke, so there is unlikely to be any true improvement to parity even if Manning retires before the 2016 season. Instead, we may see a new face take his place in the Big Three.
Brady’s New England Patriots and Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers are sticking around, of course; both teams won’t lose many players in free agency, and Pittsburgh’s dangerous offense only stands to get better with Le’Veon Bell expected to come back from his season-ending knee injury.
But if you’re looking for a third team to slip in to become an AFC juggernaut — an AFC team that really will be the only legitimate threat to go to the Super Bowl every year outside of the Patriots and Steelers — there are some candidates in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Indianapolis.
Before Denver Broncos fans throw their Super Bowl decals at the screen, there is a footnote: the Broncos will likely still be a giant in the short-term. As long as their historically stingy defense sticks together through this offseason, they’ll be at worst the second-best team in the AFC in 2016.
But in regards to long-term success in the Big Three, look again to the Manning-Brady-Roethlisberger dominance of the conference over the past 13 seasons: an excellent quarterback is almost a necessity for a team to grab a share of the AFC balance of power for years on end.
Brock Osweiler, the expected successor to Manning in Denver, had a 48.8 total QBR in 2015, ranked 24th in the league, and was sacked much more often than Manning. Osweiler very well may turn into a good quarterback if given time and a large sample of starts, but the jury’s still out on him becoming one of the best QBs in the game like Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger.
For the sake of analysis based on more evidence, then, let’s examine the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Indianapolis Colts, AFC teams that better fit the mold for long-term supremacy.
The Bengals made major strides towards long-term supremacy this past season, even if they did not win a playoff game. Their front office has slowly drafted young talent for every phase, all of which coalesced this year. Jeremy Hill, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Carlos Dunlap, and Geno Atkins, are mostly in their mid-20s and were all drafted by Cincinnati.
The end result of all that talent, along with some older additions like Rey Maualuga, Adam Jones, and Reggie Nelson, was a Bengals team that was one of the best in the NFL across the board.
Cincinnati was in the top ten in points scored and points allowed. It had some of the better players in the league in its passing and receiving game, its pass rush, and its secondary. And it posted a 2.2 percent special teams DVOA. Few teams had as few holes as the Bengals, with as many young players, a promising indicator for Cincinnati being a long-term power in the AFC.
Perhaps more significantly, however, were the strides that the Bengals’ quarterback made this year. Andy Dalton — yes, another one of those talents that the team drafted and raised — had a transcendent 2015.
Before he broke his thumb late in the year, Dalton threw almost half as many interceptions (7) as he had in any of his previous five NFL seasons, and he by far had his best season for Adjusted Yards gained per pass attempt (8.9) and QBR (73.1, fifth-best in the league).
Cincinnati has to be giddy about those numbers, because those are tallies that suggest Dalton may be able to compare favorably with Brady and Roethlisberger in terms of advanced quarterback metrics going forward, a necessity for the Bengals to make their first Super Bowl in nearly 30 years.
But Cincinnati may stop giggling soon. As promising as the Bengals’ future is for competing with the Patriots and Steelers for the AFC’s berths in the Super Bowl every year, they still need to win at least two consecutive playoff games to get there. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how the Bengals have struggled in their attempts to win just one.
It’s harsh considering they didn’t have Dalton for their playoff game against the Steelers, but the reality remains that the Bengals’ postseason victory drought continued despite having their deepest roster in years.
While they would be favored to break through their big game funk next year with a healthy Dalton, there’s a chance their roster won’t be as strong when that time comes. The Bengals have decisions to make in the offseason about some of their young talent, as the kids are slated to hit the market.
Jones and Mohamed Sanu, two of their best receivers, helping spread out secondary hunger for Green, will be free agents this offseason. Putting even more pressure on the Bengals’ front office, Adam Jones, Nelson, and George Iloka, major cogs in their secondary that stuffed so many teams this season, will be on the market as well.
So many key players — many of whom are young and could be on the team for years — being free agents could ruin the long-term dominance plans for the Bengals, and make it that much harder for fans to see them representing the AFC in the Super Bowl even once over the next five years.
A team that doesn’t have a big game bugaboo, however, and could slip into Peyton’s spot in the balance of power is Baltimore. You know that one year neither Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger made it to the Super Bowl? That would be the 2012 season, when the Ravens last won the Super Bowl.
Already, the current John Harbaugh-led Ravens have shown that they have the edge over the Bengals when it comes to winning big games. Harbaugh’s team has beaten the Big Three four times despite being the weaker team each time. Able to compete with the Big Three? Check.
The Ravens certainly did not look like a team built for the long-term last year, losing 11 games and being outscored by 73 points, but they lost more than 15 players for the season. If everyone heals up for the 2016 season, there’s no reason to believe the Ravens won’t be their usual dominant selves given that they’ve won 77 regular season games since Harbaugh took over. General dominance in the conference? Check.
With the regular season and playoff authority of the Ravens, then, showing themselves to have been peripheral contenders with the Big Three for years, is there anything to hold them back from taking Manning’s share of power?
That’s the cue for Cincinnati to tip its glass and grin: the Ravens do not have the requisite of an excellent QB.
Despite how often people want to bring up Joe Flacco’s ten playoff wins, the Ravens can hardly rely on him to carry the team. Aside from the 2012 postseason when Flacco was the hottest QB on the planet for a month, the Ravens’ quarterback has been only above-average for his entire career. In only one of his seasons has his QBR been above 59, and he has never been intercepted fewer than ten times in a season.
Flacco’s been able to rack up playoff victories thanks to dominant defenses that have carried him, instead of the other way around as Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger have consistently done to make 12 of the last 13 Super Bowls. The Ravens have been able to compete against the Big Three, not him.
So that brings up to our last and best candidate, a team familiar with numerous Super Bowl berths: the Colts.
Like Baltimore, Indianapolis took a step backwards last year, but its pedigree of long-term success is well in place. After New England, it was the dominant team in the NFL up until Manning’s neck injury.
And while the Colts have slipped back a bit and have not made a Super Bowl since 2009, they are making strides overall, going one round further into the playoffs in each of Andrew Luck’s first three years in the league, churning out 11 wins each season.
They were .500 last year and were not a great team in Luck’s first three seasons, yes, but the Colts, like the Ravens, still managed playoff success each year despite going against better teams. The Chiefs in 2013 and the Broncos in 2014 were better than the Colts, yet they did not falter under the odds and roster deficiencies like the Bengals have done so often in recent years.
The knock on that is that Luck has not been an excellent QB when it comes to advanced metrics. In his two best seasons, 2012 and 2013, Luck posted QBRs of 67.4 and 63.5, respectively. Those aren’t bad marks, but he was not in the top five in the league in QBR either of those two seasons, fell to 13th in 2014, and was near the bottom of the NFL in QBR last season.
But where the Colts’ resume squeezes past the Bengals’ and Ravens’ is in regard to Luck’s ceiling. Unlike Flacco, the other quarterback with playoff wins, Luck has a much higher ceiling. Despite being prone to turnovers and sacks, Luck has posted better QBRs than Flacco in each season he’s been in the NFL besides 2014.
At this point at the age of 31, Flacco is unlikely to significantly up his game and seal up his mistakes. Luck, however, has years to work on his turnovers and could be even closer to the top of the league if he gets a stouter offensive line.
Some postseason triumphs would make the Bengals look like the rosiest team in the AFC outside of New England, Pittsburgh, and Denver. But until then, the Colts seem to have the most advantages and the best future for competing for Super Bowl berths on a (somewhat) consistent basis.
Judging the future of the AFC is still a tricky prospect, despite how three-sided it has been since 2001. A new monster QB and team could come out of nowhere: If Osweiler stays in Denver and breaks out like Dalton did this season, then the Broncos would probably be the best team in the NFL in 2016 and could win for years on end; a rookie quarterback might suddenly enter the scene and dazzle quickly like Luck and Russell Wilson did; or maybe Blake Bortles does get a better offensive line and plays well beyond his 46.4 QBR from last year.
But if you’re looking for a quarterback and a team with the best ceiling, the most success, and more than a small sample size, that’s Luck and his Colts.
Sorry again, Cincinnati.