NFL Midseason Review: AFC
Well I’ll be damned. Sometime between the immense pleasure we all got from the 49ers having three losses and the power lines that were knocked down by ESPN’s erection for Peyton Manning, an entire half of the NFL regular season passed. This season has already been fascinating, with the defending Super Bowl champs sitting in third place in their division and the Cleveland Browns being considered as a contender for a Wild Card spot. Here’s a closer look at each team’s performance and outlook thus far.
New England Patriots
I’m not sure our national sense of Schadenfreude was ever as high as it was when Patriots got dickwhipped by the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago. Since then, however, they’ve turned it around, with 4 consecutive wins (three of which were convincing blowouts). It looks like the Patriots are on track to once again claim the AFC East, which mostly goes without saying at this point, since winning the AFC East is like outscoring three beagles on an algebra test.
First, a quick question: Are we positive that Reno 911’s Lieutenant Dangle isn’t QBing the Bills?
Supposedly that man is Kyle Orton, the man who has stepped up as QB2 so many times that his career reads like a never-ending loop of the Friday Night Lights pilot episode. Somehow, Orton has snagged a couple consecutive wins, albeit against the Vikings and the Jets. It’s still an impressive feat, seeing as both starting running backs are injured and the Bills have few offensive threats. Sure, they have rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but New York state law dictates that he can only have big games when I’m playing against him in fantasy football.
The Dolphins appear to be just as frustrating as they were last year, when they failed to secure a Wild Card spot by losing two mind-numbingly winnable games in Weeks 16 and 17. As Tannehill waffles between being slightly above-average and slight below-average as a quarterback, the team faces at least four difficult games (Lions, Broncos, Ravens, Patriots) in the second half of the season. But they also play the Jets twice, so maybe they actually are setting themselves up to barely lose the Wild Card spot again.
New York Jets
Hoo boy. The Jets are so lost and hopeless, it’s not going to be long before CNN starts providing around-the-clock coverage speculating as to their whereabouts. They finally parted ways with Geno Smith — the Ambrose Burnside of NFL Quarterbacks — and are now fielding Michael Vick as their first-string quarterback. They also now have Percy Harvin, which is hilarious because they don’t have a quarterback who can complete passes to him. All they lost is a draft pick, and that’s okay, because they don’t need to do any rebuilding in the coming years. The only silver lining for the Jets is that Rex Ryan is almost certainly going to be fired at the end of this year (if not sooner), which means the Jets can continue looking toward the future, and Rex Ryan can maybe drop 50 pounds and be a stunt double for Kelsey Grammer.
After Week 3, the Bengals looked like a Super Bowl contender. Then A.J. Green got injured, they played some tougher teams, and now they’re looking closer to what they looked like last year: a solid team that has a great shot at winning the AFC North and will probably lose in the Wild Card round of the playoffs because they’re the Cincinnati Bengals. They also have a mysterious tie against the Panthers, which is a fun wrench tossed amidst what is already a clusterfuck division.
The Ravens have played three games this year against above average teams (two against Cincinnati, one against Indianapolis). They’ve played five games against middling or below average teams (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta). Guess which three they lost and which five they won. The rest of the Ravens’ schedule reads like a Who’s Who of overrated, disappointing, or perennially abysmal teams, so it would be surprising if Flacco & Company didn’t nab at least a Wild Card spot.
Do you want to know how puzzling the Steelers are this year? They beat the Browns by 3, then lose to the Browns by 21. They lose to the Tampa Bay Goddamn Buccaneers, then end the Colts’ five-game winning streak with a 51-point performance. I’d call them a Jekyll & Hyde team, but implying that Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing is that heavy-handed would be a disservice to his legacy. They still have two games against the Bengals and a decisive match-up this week against the Ravens, so they’ll have to get it together if they want a playoff bid. If that means hiring a band of pirate mercenaries to maroon Cortez Allen on a remote island in the South Pacific, so be it.
First of all, we should congratulate the Browns on making it to Week 8 without already being eliminated from playoff contention. Oddly enough, the Browns are still in the hunt for the AFC North. But they’re only in the hunt as a squire, or someone else sort of along for the ride and not allowed to participate in the actual hunting. The return of His Blazedness, Josh Gordon might rejuvenate the Browns for the last six games of the season, but as long as their offense continues to rest on the shoulders of Brian Hoyer and Ben Tate, they probably won’t be able to edge out their strong division opponents for a playoff spot. Seriously, let’s not forget that they had to mount an incredible comeback to beat the Tennessee Titans, not to mention that they handed a win to the Jacksonville Jaguars, which I thought was something all NFL owners had just agreed not to do.
Do you remember that guy in high school that had everything? He was the valedictorian, quarterback of the varsity football team, lead in all the plays, homecoming king, and he had a hot girlfriend? You remember? That’s the Indianapolis Colts. Their quarterback is, by several metrics, the best in the league. They have surprising depth at wide receiver and a running back who is at least good enough for them not to have to start Trent Richardson, King of the Unforced Fumbles. Their defense, at its best, can shut out one of the best teams in the AFC. And, most importantly, their division consists of the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars. I’d feel better about the future of mankind after watching The Act of Killing than I would by simply reminding myself that last year the 7-9 Titans were the second best team in the AFC South by a three-win margin.
Remember after Week 2 this year, when there was speculation that the Texans could be a huge threat this year because they beat the Raiders and the Redskins? Man, that was hilarious. That being said, three of the Texans’ four losses have come at the hands of very good teams. Houston’s defense has had some big moments, but one J.J. Watt does not a playoff-qualifying team make. Especially when Ryan “Secretly An Avett Brother” Fitzpatrick is the starting quarterback.
Let’s be clear: Jake Locker is not a good quarterback. He is not a franchise quarterback. He will never lead a professional football team to a Super Bowl win. Having Jake Locker as your starting quarterback is like drawing a King and an 8 in Texas Hold ‘Em; in theory, it’s not the worst thing you could have, but with 15 other teams, you are definitely not going to win. With that in mind, it is devastatingly sad that The Hurt Locker is viewed as the high watermark of Tennessee’s offensive potential. With Locker’s injuries, Tennessee has started an aging quarterback inexplicably nicknamed Clipboard Jesus and now a late-round rookie quarterback who’s personality is apparently so egregiously annoying that J.J. Watt brushed aside his perfected personal brand to be a dick to him. Honestly, I don’t see one single element of the Titans right now that makes them competitive.
As disastrous as this season — and the last five, for that matter — has been for Jacksonville, there are some silver linings. Not this season, of course; they could win out the rest of the season and they’d still miss the playoffs. But if Denard Robinson can get two consecutive 100-yard weeks behind Jacksonville’s offensive line, there’s hope. Blake Bortles is even showing signs of improvement when he isn’t throwing multiple pick-sixes in one game. If Jacksonville can make the most of their preposterously high draft picks this year, and probably the next year or two after that (disclaimer: history tells us that they probably can’t do that), they could develop into a robust franchise. They probably won’t, because they’re the Jacksonville Jaguars. But they could.
The way I see it, this season has three non-exclusive likely outcomes for Denver. 1. Denver plays New England in the playoffs and the media refuses to shut the hell up about Manning vs. Brady. 2. Denver plays Indianapolis in the playoffs and the media refuses to shut the hell up about Manning playing his former team. 3. Denver goes to the Super Bowl and the media refuses to shut the hell up about the team’s meltdown at last year’s Super Bowl. Whatever happens with the Broncos this year, rest assured you’ll hear all about it. They could lose out the rest of the season, end up 6-10, and we would still hear them talk at length about Peyton during the Super Bowl. That is, unless the other omnipotent media pole, Johnny Manziel, rises to the surface.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are already starting to resemble the 2013 Chiefs. They’ve already made the transition from “Oh it’s just the Chargers” to “Are the Chargers the best team in the NFL?” to “The Chargers are fine, I guess.” According to the 2013 Chiefs narrative, the next move is “The Chargers could have been good, but they just have too many injuries.” You know what sport people get injured in all the time? Football, people. It’s nothing new. That being said, I think whoever loses this Week 9 game between San Diego and Miami will definitely not make the playoffs, seeing as it would mark a 3-game losing streak for the Bolts and it’s somehow one of the easier games in Miami’s schedule moving forward.
Kansas City Chiefs
I’ll be honest: when Kansas City got blown out by the Titans in Week 1, I made a mental note to myself along the lines of “Chiefs probably won’t make the playoffs ever again.” Then they throttled the Patriots and the Dolphins and eked out a win against the then one-loss Chargers. Suddenly, the Chiefs have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Their schedule for the remainder of the season is a smattering of difficult games (Steelers, Broncos, Cardinals, Seahawks) and painfully easy games (Raiders x2, Jets) with little in between. Kansas City should be one of the most interesting teams to watch throughout the second half of this season.
The Raiders’ schedule through the rest of the season is far from easy. If they don’t beat the Rams in Week 13, there’s a high likelihood they end up pulling the Rod Marinelli. Best case scenario, they win two games.
1. Denver Broncos (14-2)
2. New England Patriots (12-4)
3. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
4. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
5. Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1)
6. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
8. Miami Dolphins (9-7)