The last two Super Bowl champions reside in this conference. I remember at one time, the AFC was the superior conference to the NFC in the 2000’s with New England winning three of four Super Bowls and the Steelers and the Colts also winning titles of their own. Just as I did with the NFC, I’m doing the same with the other conference. Let’s break it down, shall we?
How They Finish
1. Pittsburgh Steelers– They were decimated by the injury bug in 2015. Ben Roethlisberger missed several games with a knee injury and Le’Veon Bell tore his PCL which forced him to miss the rest of the year. This season, the “three b’s” will hopefully be in full effect and that’s Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and out of all three of these guys, Le’Veon will be key. He’s an excellent blocker that can chip as well as contain a linebacker or defensive lineman… and he’s a pretty valuable asset to the passing game because when defenders are all over Brown, Ben can dump the ball off in the flat to Bell. After a full year under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, I expect the Steelers defense to be a much improved unit. If everything can click and key guys remain healthy and on the field, they will have a week off in the playoffs and they are a very dangerous team.
Key Games: Week two vs Cincinnati, Week four vs Kansas City, Week 7 vs New England, Week 9 at Baltimore, Week 10 vs Dallas, Week 15 at Cincinnatti, Week 16 vs Baltimore
2. New England Patriots– At this rate, it’s simply not playoff football without them. They have been the model of consistency in the NFL for the last decade. They prepare only for the team that’s on the schedule for the week, they win the division each year and as I said in the division preview and on the radio last week, you can pencil them in for a week off in January and they’ve been to five straight AFC Championship games. It could be tough because of their schedule and no Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, but I like them to get a first-round bye in the AFC for the seventh straight season.
Key Games: Week one at Arizona, Week five at Cleveland, Week six vs Cincinnati, Week seven at Pittsburgh, Week ten vs Seattle, Week 12 at NY Jets, Week 14 vs Baltimore, and Week 16 vs NY Jets.
3. Indianapolis Colts– If I had to choose a word to describe them, it would be pretender and that’s even with Andrew Luck under center. The Colts were a game away from the Super Bowl two seasons ago and last season they didn’t even make the playoffs after entering with high expectations. Andrew Luck returns and Chuck Pagano is back after the rumors were swirling around that he and the Colts might go their separate ways. Here’s what I envision: the Colts will win their division and it’ll be because of their offense. You’d think their defense would be better considering Pagano is a defensive minded coach. The one thing the Colts need on their offense is a possession receiver, a guy that can be that red zone threat for Luck as they have way too many speed guys.
Key Games: Week two at Denver, Week six at Houston, Week nine at Green Bay, week 12 vs Pittsburgh, Week 13 at NY Jets, Week 14 vs Houston, Week 15 at Minnesota, and Week 16 at Oakland.
4. Oakland Raiders– With so many questions surrounding Denver and their quarterback issues, the Chiefs will possibly be without Justin Houston this season and with San Diego on the rebuild, this is the Oakland Raiders division for the taking. Derek Carr has improved in his first two seasons in the league, Murray is a solid back and Amari Cooper is young star in the making. On defense, Khalil Mack is making a name for himself and has become one of the very best defensive players in the league today. Along with those four guys, the Raiders also have the right guy at head coach in Jack Del Rio and the team has taken after his identity. It’s safe to say the silver and black is back and relevant once again.
Key Games: Week one at New Orleans, Week four at Baltimore, Week six vs Kansas City, Week nine vs Denver, Week 12 vs Carolina, and Week 17 at Denver.
5. Denver Broncos– At first I was on the fence about the Broncos getting to the playoffs, but the resigning of Von Miller will make their defense a scary unit once again despite losing some guys from the championship team last season. This could be the most intriguing quarterback competition as training camp approaches. I see it coming down to either Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian who knows Gary Kubiak’s offensive system. Let’s not count the champs out too soon now.
6. Baltimore Ravens– Injuries crushed them in 2015. You lose Terrell Suggs who’s become their leader on defense ever since Ray Lewis retired, Steve Smith tears his Achilles, Justin Forsett breaks his arm and Joe Flacco tears his ACL, that’s a lot for a team to go through and 2015 marked the first losing season under John Harbaugh. When the Ravens are healthy, this is a good football team and they feel they can beat anyone when January rolls around. Flacco has proven that he can step it up come playoff time, just look at the year that the Ravens recently won it all.
(6) Ravens defeat (3) Colts
(5) Broncos defeat (4) Raiders
(1) Steelers defeat (6) Ravens
(2) Patriots defeat (5) Broncos
AFC Championship: The AFC will come down to these two: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. They’ve met in the playoffs quite a few times with the Patriots winning each match-up. What more could you ask for? Two veteran quarterbacks with six Super Bowls between them. The Patriots will advance to the AFC title game for the sixth straight season and this will be the 11th appearance in a conference title game for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as a tandem. The Steelers will get back to the AFC championship for the first time since the 2010-11 season where they would make it to the Super Bowl and eventually fall to the Green Bay Packers. If the Steelers can stay healthy, this is a dangerous team. The Patriots lost a few guys but made up for it by restocking the roster as they usually do. As a majority of their match-ups have been, I expect this to be a close game and I like the Steelers to prevail, advance and represent the AFC in Houston in Super Bowl 51.