Every team has now played at least half their games, and fans are starting to get a better indication of who is a contender and who is a pretender. The AFC is more wide open than it has been in years. Besides Houston, the rest of the teams in the conference have yet to prove they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That doesn’t mean the race for the last five spots won’t be exciting. Here is the AFC playoff picture after week nine:
One Seed- Houston Texans (7-1): Besides for a hiccup against the Green Bay Packers that the country saw on Sunday Night Football, the Texans have been impressive in 2012. Quarterback Matt Schaub is having an impressive season with 1,918 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. More importantly, Schaub has limited his mistakes: four interceptions and just ten sacks at the half way point. Running back Arian Foster leads the AFC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns with 770 yards and 10 TD’s. On the defensive side of the ball, Houston is third in the NFL and first in the conference in points allowed. Clearly the best team in the AFC, the possibility of injuries is probably the only thing keeping this team away from its first one seed in franchise history. Next week’s matchup in Chicago should be a great one.
Two Seed- Denver Broncos (5-3): Even though Baltimore has a better record at this point, Denver has a much greater chance of improving as the season goes along. Quarterback Peyton Manning did throw two interceptions last week against Cincinnati, but only has six on the season with 20 touchdowns and is also well on his way to another 4,000 passing yards season. But what makes Manning perhaps more dangerous than he has ever been is the fact Denver can play defense. Linebacker Von Miller already has nine sacks on the season which is good enough for second in the conference. Defensive Lineman Elvis Dumervil hasn’t been too shabby either with six sacks in eight games. This team has won its last three games and could easily go on a tear with @Carolina, San Diego, @Kansas City, Tampa Bay and @Oakland the next five games.
Three Seed- New England (5-3): Yes, Baltimore has the tie breaker over New England, but the Patriots once again have one of the easiest schedules in the league. The Patriots could win their next four games with the Bills and Colts at home then the Jets and Dolphins on the road and be 9-3 in the middle of December. Once again, Quarterback Tom Brady is having a great season with 2,408 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But the Patriots have added another dimension to their offense. Whether it is Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden or Shane Vereen running the ball, each back has averaged at least 4.2 yards per carry and Ridley is averaging 89.5 yards per game. And first round draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower have made an immediate impact on the front seven which is now one of the best in the league, but can the secondary improve enough for this team to make another Super Bowl run?
Four Seed- Baltimore Ravens (6-2): Although they have the second best record in the conference, the Ravens have struggled at times this season. They were blown out by Houston 43-13 and lost to Philadelphia who has now fallen to 3-5. In their last four wins, the Ravens defeated the Browns by seven, the Chiefs by a field goal, the Cowboys by a mere two points and then came back to beat the Browns again. Those aren’t exactly the supreme teams of the league, but one thing is for sure, Baltimore knows how to win close games. But with linebacker Ray Lewis now out for the season, there really is no telling how good this defense will be for the rest of the season. The Ravens have won their last nine division games and may have just enough to hold off the surging Steelers for the division title. The two teams will face each other twice in three weeks.
Five Seed- Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3): After growing pains in the first few weeks with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers have now won their last three games and picked up a huge win on the road against the Giants. Even without future Hall of Famer Safety Troy Polamalu, who has played in one quarter since week one, Pittsburgh is ranked number one in yards allowed. On offense, Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been playing exceptionally well, but a reestablished running game has this offense in rhythm. Running back Rashard Mendenhall has only played in one game, but the Steelers have a 100-yard rusher in the last three games with Jonathon Dwyer and Isaac Redman. After a Monday night matchup with Kansas City next week, Pittsburgh will play Baltimore twice in the next three weeks, and like always, those games will decide the AFC North.
Six Seed- Indianapolis Colts (5-3): The last spot available in the AFC is seemingly up for grabs. Only three other teams after the five already listed have won more games than they lost. Miami has been a surprised in the East and San Diego has talent, but can never really put it altogether. That leaves Indianapolis as the best choice for the sixth seed. Robert Griffin III may have gotten a lot of the early press, but Quarterback Andrew Luck is the one now setting rookie records with 433 passing yards against Miami. Luck may have this team playing at a playoff level, but the Colts have been inspired by their new head coach Chuck Pagano who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this season. Interim head coach Bruce Arians has done an excellent job of bringing this team together, and a playoff appearance would be a great story for Indianapolis who went 2-14 last year.