NFL: Ranking The AFC Super Bowl Contenders
The 2016 NFL campaign is winding down as there are two games left in the season. Yet, there is still lots of things left to be decided in the AFC.
The New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders are the only two AFC teams to have secured their spot in the playoffs, thus far. The Patriots (12-2) have captured the East division crown and have clinched a first round bye while the Raiders (11-3) are still battling with the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) for supremacy in the West. If the Raiders and Chiefs finish with identical records, Kansas City will win the division as a result of winning both of their head-to-head matchups.
The AFC North and AFC South division titles are also up for grabs. The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) hold a one game lead over the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) in the North. The Steelers and Ravens will meet in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day. A Steelers win will give them the division title and for all intents and purposes knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. If the Ravens defeat the Steelers, they will still have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 on the road to assure themselves of a playoff berth. Baltimore beat Pittsburgh 21-14 in the team’s Week 9 meeting.
The South division is a mess as the Houston Texans (8-6) and Tennessee Titans (8-6) have identical records. The Texans have the advantage due to their 27-0 head-to-head win over the Titans in Week 4. The Indianapolis Colts (7-7) are also in the conversation after winning four of six.
The race for the wild card is just as muddled as five teams have a legitimate shot at claiming the sixth and final playoff spot. The Chiefs are currently the fifth seed and will need to win just one of their two remaining games – against the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers – to grab a playoff spot. ESPN Insider gives Kansas City a 97.7 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Miami Dolphins (9-6) are in the final playoff spot right now. The Dolphins have a game advantage over the Titans, Denver Broncos and Ravens. The Phins, who are given a 52.2 percent chance of making the playoffs by ESPN, travels to Buffalo on Dec. 24 and then host the Patriots on New Year’s Day.
The Titans and Texans playoff hopes could come down to their head-to-head matchup in Tennessee (Week 17). The Titans are at the Jacksonville Jaguars for Week 16 while the Texans host the Bengals. Denver has lost four of six and will need to defeat both the Chiefs (Week 16) and Raiders (Week 17) to remain in the playoff hunt.
The Colts and Buffalo Bills both need to win out and receive plenty of help to reach the postseason.
The following will look at the AFC’s true five Super Bowl Contenders.
The Ravens are anything but a certain playoff team, but, if they do get in, they are a very dangerous team because of their top-notch defense. The Ravens are surrendering 18.8 points a game though they have given up 20 or more points in four of their last five contests. They rank seventh in scoring defense, 10th against the pass and second against the run. They also rank 17th in sacks, second in interceptions, 12th in passes defensed and tied for third turnovers forced.
Individually, the Ravens defensive playmakers include linebackers Zach Orr, C.J. Mosley, and Terrell Suggs. Safety Eric Weddle along with cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young have been solid. However, Smith’s health has been an issue recently.
Offensively, the Ravens have had trouble scoring as they average nearly 22 points a game. The Ravens rank 14th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (56.76 percent) though they have been better lately, achieving a 70 percent rate over the last three games, per Team Rankings.
Baltimore has thrown the second-most passes in the league. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been playing better lately and is having one of his best seasons. The Ravens run the ball okay when they give their backs a chance as rookie Kenneth Dixon has emerged as a weapon over the past several weeks.
Wide receivers Steve Smith Sr and Mike Wallace along with tight end Dennis Pitta have been the Ravens main receiving weapons.
Penalties, turnovers and failure to convert on third down have been killers for the Ravens. Baltimore’s offensive line has struggled run blocking though they have done a decent job pass blocking.
The Chiefs suffered a bad loss to the Titans last as they blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead. The Chiefs have not lost consecutive games and have proven to be able to come back in games, twice winning games after trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Like the Ravens, the Chiefs are in the position they are in because of their outstanding defense. Kansas City ranks eighth in scoring defense despite ranking 28th in total defense as they are 19th against the pass and 28th against the run. The Chiefs do force a lot of turnovers, ranking first overall with 28.
Kansas City has one of the best linebacking corps in the league with Dee Ford (10 sacks), Justin Houston (4.0 sacks in five games), and Tamba Hall (3.5 sacks). It does hurt that leading tackler Derrick Johnson is out for the year with an Achilles injury. Safety Eric Berry is also a top-tier playmaker.
Quarterback Alex Smith rarely beats you with his arm though he does not turn the ball over. He is outstanding in the short passing game that the Chiefs utilize.
Running back Spencer Ware is a decent threat as a runner and can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Chiefs biggest weapons are tight end Travis Kelce and rookie wide receiver/special teams ace Tyreek Hill.
Scoring in the red zone, third down conversion and offensive line play are the Chiefs biggest weaknesses.
The Raiders are in the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. The Raiders have won seven games after trailing in the fourth quarter, outscoring their opponents 42-0 over the final three minutes of the game.
Quarterback Derek Carr is an MVP candidate, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 259.6 yards per game to go along with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Carr has many weapons as the Raiders are a high-powered offensive team. The Raiders rank third in scoring, sixth in scoring offense, sixth in passing and sixth in rushing.
Oakland uses a three-headed running attack featuring Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are also major weapons as both have over 70 receptions.
The Raiders’ offensive line is very good as they rank as the fifth best in the league by ESPN. They are first in pass blocking and 12th in run blocking according to Football Outsiders. Center Rodney Hudson, guard Kelechi Osmele, and tackle Don Penn were selected to the 2017 Pro Bowl.
The Raiders struggle on defensive side of the ball. The Raiders rank 21st in scoring defense, 30th in total defense, 25th in pass defense, and 25th in run defense. They do rank third in the league in takeaways with 26.
Linebacker Khalil Mack has been unbelievable. Mack has recorded a sack in eight of his last nine games and has 11 total sacks on the season. He also has five forced fumbles, recovered three fumbles, and picked off one pass.
Linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson also are capable playmakers. Second year defensive Mario Edwards Jr. is expected to make his debut on Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Steelers are almost a lock to make the playoffs even if they lose to the Ravens. The Steelers have the winless Cleveland Browns in Week 17.
Pittsburgh is playing their best football of the season and enter Sunday’s game having won five in a row. They have outscored their opponents 127-70 during the winning streak.
The Steelers offensive line is the second best in the league, and they’ve been rolling on offense during the winning streak, accumulating 1,913 yards of total offense or 382.6 yards per game. Pittsburgh has kept defenses off balance with a nice mixture of runs and passes, averaging 230.4 yards per game via the air and 149.6 yards on the ground.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been good, though not great, over the last five contests, completing 62.2 percent of his passes to go along with six touchdowns and four interceptions — three of which came in the blustery Buffalo weather two weeks ago. The 13-year veteran has completed 63.9 percent of his passes this season for 3,540 yards along with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Pittsburgh has rushed for 97 yards in each of the team’s last five games. The Steelers average 111.7 yards on the ground for the season.
Running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are major weapons. Bell ranks second in the league in rushing yards per game with 104.2 and has been on a tear lately, compiling 713 yards of his 1,143 yards of his season total over the last five games. He has five 100-yard rushing games this year. Bell is also an excellent pass catcher out of the backfield.
Brown is one of the best receivers in the game today. He ranks second in the league in receptions, third in yards and second in touchdowns.
Just like their offense, the Steelers defense has shown significant improvement the last five weeks. Over the last five games, the Steelers are giving up 262.4 yards and 14 points per game. They have also forced at least one turnover in each one of those contests and a total of eight throughout the win streak. In addition, the Steelers have registered 19 sacks.
Pittsburgh ranks ninth in scoring defense, eighth in total yards allowed, 14th in pass defense and fourth in rushing defense overall. The Steelers are also 12th in sacks with 32.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons leads the team in tackles and has two interceptions as well as 1.5 sacks. Fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie cornerback Artie Burns have also been playmakers.
The Patriots are 9-1 since Tom Brady has returned to field following his four-game suspension. Brady is having perhaps his best season since 2007, throwing for over 300 yards a game as he is completing 66.9 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and two interceptions.
New England is producing 25.9 points a game this year, which has increased to 28.6 points a game with Brady under center. The Patriots are fourth in total offense, fourth in passing and seventh in rushing.
Running back LaGarrette Blount is having a career season with 1,060 rushing yards on 265 carries and a league-high 15 touchdowns. He has reached the end zone in each of his last three games.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is third in the league with 85 receptions, tight end Martellus Bennett, wide receiver Chris Hogan, and running back James White are also major weapons. Recently signed wide receiver Michael Floyd could also play a major role in the playoffs.
The Patriots are the stingiest team in the league defensively, permitting 16.5 points a game. The Pats have held teams to less than 20 points in four of their past five games. They rank 10th in total defense, 17th against the pass, 12th in sacks, and fourth against the run.
Defensive lineman Trey Flowers, safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Logan Ryan, defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard, and cornerback Malcolm Butler are other playmakers on the team.
[Featured Image by Jack Dempsey/AP Images]