Examining the NFL at the midway point: AFC

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns (25) celebrates his recovery of a Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate fumble during an NFL football game in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017. Pittsburgh won 20-15. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Yesterday, my colleague Brian provided us with insight on the NFC at the midway point of the NFL regular season.

Today, I’ll take a look at the far less interesting AFC.

Why do I say that, you ask?

Because as far as I’m concerned, there’s the Patriots, the Steelers a big gap, then the Chiefs, then an even bigger gap with everyone else.

Rarely, if ever have I been so sure that you could pencil two teams into a conference championship game this early in the season, but such is the state of the AFC right now.

I could be wrong, of course, which is part of the fun.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the divisions.

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East: The Patriots have won this division eight years in a row and 13 out of the past 14 seasons. Quite simply, I don’t see that changing.

Tom Brady, even at 40, is showing little signs of slowing down. This offense is putting up similar numbers to the Randy Moss years when they simply ran teams off the field.

The defense isn’t great, obviously, ranking toward the bottom of the NFL in every major category. They don’t have to be great, just good enough. And if there’s one thing you can count on with a Bill Belichick coached team, it’s that they make adjustments and get better as the season goes on.

The Bills have been a nice surprise through the first half of the season at 5-3, and I think Sean McDermott had done a great job. The defense is legitimate, but there’s just too many limitations on offense for me to consider them a serious contender.

The Dolphins at 4-4, and the better-then-expected Jets at 4-5 are still in the thick of the wildcard race, but aren’t capable of giving the uppper echelon teams any problems.

My prediction: The Patriots win this division going away.

North: Quick, who has the biggest division lead in the NFL? Yep, it’s the Steelers, who are at 6-2 and already have this division all but locked up.

They are of course, hoping for much more than that, and I don’t think they’ve come even close to peaking.

Offensively, they are putting up yards, but not a ton of points. Much like the Patriots, however, expect them to start clicking in the second half. And like the Patriots, they have a very soft schedule that should see them blowing teams out on a regular basis.

The only game either team isn’t guaranteed of being a big favorite in is on Dec. 17 when they play each other in Pittsburgh. That game will almost certainly determine home field advantage.

Defensively, the Steelers are one of just two teams in the league to have recorded multiple sacks in every game and are second in the league in scoring defense. It’s a defense that is young and for real.

Baltimore at 4-5 and Cincinnati at 3-5 may contend for playoff spots, but are very limited on the offensive side of the ball. Cleveland is a dumpster fire.

My prediction: You can already pencil in the Steelers for another division title.

South: This is a division that is being shaped largely in part due to injury. One injury, in fact, that of Houston Texans’ rookie QB DeShaun Watson, who suffered a torn ACL last week in practice and is out for the season.

With him, I think the Texans were the third best team in the AFC. Listen, some guys you can just tell are going to be special, and Watson is one of those guys. He came in and set the league on fire and his injury is bad for the game.

With that being said, this becomes a two horse race between a pair of 5-3 teams – Tennessee and Jacksonville.

Jacksonville’s defense is statistically the best in the league, giving up just 14.6 points per game. Blake Bortles has had his struggles at quarterback, but all he needs to do is make just a few plays per game and not turn it over. The defense is good enough to win games on its own.

Marcus Mariota has been banged up, but when healthy, he’s shown all the makings of being a franchise quarterback. I actually think his growth is being stunted a little bit by the coaching staff, and a move like the Rams made with Sean McVay, who has worked wonders with Jared Goff, would benefit him.

Indianapolis isn’t going anywhere at 3-6 and without Andrew Luck, but Jacoby Brissett has shown flashes and I think he finds a starting gig somewhere else next season.

My prediction: I really like Jacksonville to win this thing.

West: The thought was that Oakland may challenge Kansas City for the division title, but that’s just not the case.

I love Derek Carr, but the Raider defense has been one of the worst in the league this season, and they just simply can’t outscore everybody.

Kansas City is in good shape here, although I think people got a little too excited about their 5-0 start. This is a good team, but ultimately would need a lot to go right to beat New England or Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

The Chargers are fun to watch, playing in that soccer stadium in Los Angeles, but aren’t a real threat.

The same goes for Denver, although for totally different reasons. The defense remains one of the league’s best, but the quarterback play has been atrocious.

It’s safe to say John Elway will be looking for his next franchise quarterback, probably via the draft, in the offseason.

My prediction: Kansas City

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Wild Card: Honestly, who knows? I’ll go with Baltimore and Oakland.

AFC Champ: I’ve seen this song and dance way too many times. Until Pittsburgh proves it can beat New England in the playoffs, I’m not going to pick against the Patriots. If the Steelers get home field advantage, I like their chances a little more and I do think they are the more talented team. However, they need to make some serious adjustments against Brady, who has absolutely owned them in his career.

League MVP: I’m going to agree with my colleague Brian here and go with Carson Wentz. He is in the midst of a special season, just his second in the league. The future of the Eagles is very, very bright with him.

Coach of the Year: Again, we’re going to agree. McVay has completely transformed Goff and that Rams’ offense – it’s really remarkable. The defense was already good and at 6-2, this is a team that is going to make the playoffs and is good enough to do some damage when they get there.

Offense Player of the Year: Wentz. Brady, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Kansas City rookie RB Kareem Hunt will also garner consideration.

Defensive Player of the Year: Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys defensive end has already registered 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, and that front seven is playing as well as any in the league. Calais Campbell, Bobby Wagner, Ryan Shazier and Jalen Ramsey also will vie for this award.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: I would have said Watson is a slam dunk, but since his injury, Kareem Hunt is now the no-brainer choice. He currently leads the NFL in rushing yards, a phenomenal feat for a young player, even if he doesn’t end the season there.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett would be a frontrunner if he could stay healthy, but I think Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore may be the choice. There’s a reason the Saints defense has completely reinvented itself from one of the league’s worst the last three years to one of the best this year, and he is a huge reason why. He may already be a top five corner in the league. Colts safety Malik Hooker and Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt will also factor in.

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