By: Rich Bergeron
The New England Patriots (5-3) and the Denver Broncos (4-3) are the only two teams in the NFL's AFC who lead their respective divisions while carrying three losses on their records going into week nine of the season. Both teams are dealing with some growing pains and adjustment issues, and both are led by legendary quarterbacks. If they can manage to keep their latest momentum in full swing they will surely make the playoffs. Whether they make the Super Bowl or not will likely depend on the AFC's other two division leaders: The Baltimore Ravens (5-2) and the Houston Texans (6-1). The Texans and Ravens are each having phenomenal years so far, but the Texans dominated when the two teams met in week seven. It all adds up to an exciting race to the playoffs where any of these teams could enjoy continued success or end up as epic failures.
Here's my ranking for these teams and the reasoning behind the numbers:
#1: The Houston Texans: AFC South Division Leader
The Texans suffered just one loss so far this season against the Green Bay Packers (5-3), and they're shaping up to have one of their best seasons in franchise history. Though their quality of competition hasn't been top notch, they have wins against two other AFC division leaders after besting the Denver Broncos by six points in week three and blowing out the Baltimore Ravens in week 7 by a score of 43-13. Quarterback Matt Schaub (140-222, 1,650 yards, 10 TDs) and running back Arian Foster (168 carries, 659 yards, 9 TDs) are the real anchors of this offense. Andre Johnson (34 rec., 444 yards, 2 TDs) and Owen Daniels (33 rec., 416 yards, 4 TDs) also account for more than half of Schaub's passing yards. The Texans offense is second in the leauge in average points per game with 30.9, but the real story of this team's dominance this year might be found on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive End J.J. Watt already has 9.5 sacks on the season in just his second year in the league out of Wisconsin. Cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph have five combined interceptions for 158 yards and two TDs. The Texans rank 6th in the league in average points allowed per game with 18.3, 3rd in average total yards allowed with 283, 5th in average passing yards allowed with 200, and 4th in average rushing yards allowed with 83. This is a team with near perfect balance, and it may be a while before they see another loss.
#2: The New England Patriots: AFC East Division Leader
The Patriots endured some tough losses against less than stellar teams early in the season, but those hiccups don't define this team. They lead the league in points scored with a total of 262, including 30 touchdowns, and they enjoy a 92-point spread between points scored and points against (170). They also have the highest average yards per game on offense (440.8). The defense is not as daunting as it used to be, but don't sleep on this squad. Coach Bill Belichick will make the needed adjustments to strengthen the team on both sides of the ball between now and the playoffs. He already brought in veteran Cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week in exchange for draft picks. Talib has a history of bad behavior, but New England is like a reform camp for players with poor attitudes and discipline issues. Talib should be able to help shore up a secondary in serious need of some stimulus. Quarterback Tom Brady (209-320, 2,408 yards, 16 TDs) may not be as elite as he was in his earlier days, but he's still a formidable offensive threat. He also has a solid running game backing him up this year with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden combining for nearly 1,000 yards so far and 7 touchdowns. Bolden is averaging 5.4 yards on 54 carries while Ridley has a 4.8-yard average on 150 carries. Brady just needs to use the run threat to his advantage and try to develop a better working relationship with some of the team's new receivers. Wes Welker (60 rec., 736 yards, 2 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (43 rec., 580 yards, 7 TDs) can't do it all in the weeks to come, though they are essential cogs in the offensive machine. The Patriots will get a game off in week 9 with a bye, but they should bounce back strong against The Buffalo Bills in week 10 and the Indianapolis Colts in week 11. The defense will get up to speed and start making huge improvements over the next few games. Once the Pats gain some real separation from the other teams in the division, this team will be a lock for the playoffs and could be headed for another Super Bowl.
#3 The Denver Broncos: AFC West Division Leader
All-Star QB Peyton Manning (176-257, 2,113 yards, 17 TDs, 4 INTs) was expected to be the savior of the Denver Broncos this season, but he had a rough start and had to overcome some serious stumbling blocks. He's also dealing with a weak link in the lack of a strong running game. Willis McGahee has 4 TDs and a 4.5-yards-per-carry average and is bearing the brunt of the running responsibilities. He has 554 yards on 123 carries so far, but if the Broncos are going to be a Super Bowl level team he'll have to do much better. The receiving corps is really starting to mesh with Manning and helped the team put together a recent two-game winning streak. Demaryius Thomas (39 rec., 679 yards, 4 TDs) and Eric Decker (38 rec., 484 yards, 5 TDs) are two reasons this team is ranked 4th in the NFL in average passing yards per game (292.9) and third in the league in total yards with a 405.3 average. Defensively, the Broncos are doing fairly well and holding down the eighth position in both total yards allowed per game (319.3) and passing yards allowed per game (213.3). The team has 19 sacks already spread out over multiple players with Outside Linebacker Von Miller (6 sacks) and Defensive End Elvis Dumervil (5 sacks) setting the tone. Dumervil also has four forced fumbles while Miller has one to his credit. Outside Linebacker Wesley Woodyard has three sacks of his own and one forced fumble to go with his team-leading 61 tackles and two interceptions. The Broncos definitely have great balance, but the key to this team's success will be continued improvement. As is, Denver is a playoff contender. If they can build on the momentum created by putting together two straight wins over the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints, they have the potential to be Super Bowl champions, cementing Manning's legacy as one of the best quarterbacks to ever wear an NFL uniform.
#4 The Baltimore Ravens: AFC North Division Leader
The Ravens have historically been notorious for running one of the most powerful defensive units in the NFL, but this year the offense is the team's top performing squad. Even so, the team is currently outside the league's top ten in average points scored per game (24.9, 11th place), average total yards (355.1, 16th place), average rushing yards (104.1, 20th place), and average passing yards (251, 13th place).The Ravens also currently have a mere 13-point difference between points scored for (174) and points scored against (161). Quarterback Joe Flacco (150-252, 1,837 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) is just too inconsistent to put this team anywhere near the X on the playoff map this year. This team is definitely in position to get to the playoffs, but they won't get through the gauntlet of better AFC teams to wind up in the Super Bowl. Featured back Ray Rice has 5 TDs and a 4.9-yards-per-carry average at the halfway point of the season, racking up 524 total rushing yards so far. Rice also happens to be the team's third-best receiver with 29 receptions for 245 yards. He simply can't keep doing it all for this team, and his main support is Bernard Pierce, who has only 23 carries and 122 yards without a touchdown yet. The team's top two receivers (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith) have just 5 TDs combined and less than 900 receiving yards on 56 combined catches. These numbers might be acceptable with the defense dominating the league like they used to, but this year's defense is weak. They rank last in the league in average rushing yards allowed per game (142.9) and 28th in average total yards against (400). Inside Linebacker Ray Lewis is still a solid leader on defense and leads the team with 57 tackles, but he only has one forced fumble and one sack so far. Defensive End Haloti Ngata is the team's sack leader with just three total sacks on the year. This defense is a shell of what it used to be, and it's no wonder there's talk of this being Ray Lewis' last year in the league. The Ravens may win a game in the playoffs, but look for them to bow out early the first time they face serious competition.