This has truly been a strange year in the NFL. Granted, every year is strange in the world of professional football. We have teams that start out smoking hot and finish the season 6-10. We have others that start out 1-4 and scratch and claw their way into the playoffs. This season, however, seems to be more of a mystery than ever — particularly in the AFC. The Packers are the clear-cut favorite to win the NFC and the Super Bowl at this point, but what about the rest? With the AFC up for grabs, here’s a look at the teams that are in the hunt. We start with the least likely to play in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 and end with the most.
8. San Diego Chargers (4-6)
The Chargers are as close to cooked as you can get. The only thing keeping them somewhat alive is the fact that the AFC West is so weak. A 9-7 record could win the division and 8-8 isn’t totally out of the question. We know San Diego’s offense is more than capable of exploding, but can they limit their mistakes enough to make a run down the stretch?
7. Houston Texans (7-3)
In a particularly weak AFC class, the Texans had a shot. Their offense was scoring points in bunches and they were blowing out lesser competition. At 7-3 they are one of four teams tied with the best record in the AFC. Too bad Matt Schaub went down. Schaub is likely going to need foot surgery that will end his season. With Andre Johnson coming back and the Texans having played well in his absence, the injury is particularly deflating. You really think Matt Leinart will win a playoff game if Houston makes it?
6. New York Jets (5-5)
If the playoffs started today, the Jets would not be involved. Good thing there are six games remaining. The Jets have hit an untimely funk, but there is still time to recover. Mark Sanchez has not played well, but New York’s remaining six opponents are Buffalo, Washington, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the Giants, and Miami. Their defense can certainly carry them to five out of six wins through that stretch, with Sanchez and company having an opportunity to gain confidence against weak teams. Let’s not forget the Jets have appeared in the last two AFC Championship games. They have a difficult road ahead to earn a Wild Card spot, but experience and defense — which is more important than anything in November and December — are on their side.
5. Oakland Raiders (6-4)
With games remaining against the Bears, Packers, and Lions, the Raiders have an extremely tough road ahead. That being said, their offense has looked solid in the two games that Carson Palmer has started. Michael Bush has made the Darren McFadden injury a non-factor and, with the Chargers struggling mightily, there’s no reason Oakland shouldn’t win the AFC West. Tim Tebow will make it interesting, but how many fourth-quarter comebacks do the Broncos have in them? Oakland is in the driver’s seat in a weak division.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
We’ve all been waiting for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to stumble, but for the most part it hasn’t happened. His play has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season, and the Bengals are in the playoff race as a result. Losing back-to-back games to AFC North opponents hurt, but they only lost by a touchdown to two of the better teams in the conference (Ravens and Steelers). Cincy’s defense has been surprisingly solid and all four of their losses could have gone either way. A.J. Green’s injury will determine if their offense can continue to be successful, but as of now the Bengals have done nothing to show that they aren’t a contender in the AFC.
3. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
The Ravens have probably been the biggest Jekyll and Hyde team in the AFC this year. How do you explain beating the Steelers twice and Bengals once but losing to the Seahawks, Jaguars and Titans? Those aren’t exactly powerhouse teams. The answer is offensive inconsistency. At times Joe Flacco looks like the best two-minute, no-huddle quarterback in football. Other times he looks like he has no idea how to manage a game. Ray Rice has to be the best running back in the NFL for the Ravens offense to be successful down the stretch. Their aging defense has played at a high level all season, but getting Ray Lewis back quickly from a toe injury is obviously a must.
2. New England Patriots (7-3)
If not for an incredibly weak remaining schedule, the Patriots would be behind the Ravens. Over the next six games, New England has the easiest schedule in the NFL, giving them an excellent shot at the No. 1 overall seed which makes the playoff path easier. It also gives them time to get guys like Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes back and healthy. The question is whether or not playing weak teams will help or hinder their struggling defense. The Pats have had one of the worst defenses in football this season, and playing teams like the Colts and Redskins will either give them a false sense of hope or inject some confidence into their secondary and pass rush. After two straight seasons of one-and-done playoff failure, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have to be hungrier than ever.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3)
Experience, experience, experience. For those of you who have forgotten, the Steelers are the reigning AFC champions. Being swept by the Ravens in the regular season could cost them the division, but this isn’t a team that needs a top seed to be successful in the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger is at his best down the stretch and in cold weather, as are Dick LeBeau’s defenses. We see it year in and year out: the Steelers are built for cold-weather football. In a wide-open conference and with their experience on both sides of the ball, there’s no reason to believe the Steelers aren’t the favorites to return to the Super Bowl.Google+