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AFC Contenders

   by Scott Spreitzer - 09/15/2008

I can't recall ever seeing anything like this in recent memory.

Many of the best teams in the AFC took a step backward from last season because of injuries. Many of the "next rung" of AFC teams took a step forward because of personnel changes, getting healthy, or just developing a new attitude about the game. It's created a logjam of teams who are very hard for the oddsmakers to separate.

Let's run through the teams in the discussion quickly:

*NEW ENGLAND lost quarterback Tom Brady for the season, and despite the win over the Jets (thanks to the defense) won't likely be anything like they were last season.

*INDIANAPOLIS is out of synch because quarterback Peyton Manning missed the preseason with an injury, and center Jeff Saturday has been injured. Saturday calls the assignments for the offensive line, and will be greatly missed for up to half the season.

*SAN DIEGO lost star defender Shawne Merriman. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson isn't at 100% to start the season.

*JACKSONVILLE hasn't had the kind of high profile injuries that the others have, but they're starting the season a bit shorthanded as well...and can't stay out of trouble off the field.

That's the final four from last year. They've started the season 3-5!

Moving on

*PITTSBURGH made the playoffs last year, and is arguably the team best suited to lead the pack early in 2008.

*TENNESSEE made the playoffs last year, and is still has a combination of defense and a running game that makes them a real threat. The injury to Vince Young may have actually helped the team because he wasn't adjusting well to the new offensive schematics.

*DENVER has the talent to compete every year. They're a bit overdue to get back in the thick of things in this conference.

*NEW YORK acquired Brett Favre in the offseason. That is a significant upgrade at the most important position on the field. Who's to say the Jets can't be in the mix this year as well now that they have a proven winner calling signals.

*BUFFALO is an up-and-coming team that has been developing nicely in recent seasons. They remind me a lot of Tennessee in terms of how they play.

*CLEVELAND made a run at the Wildcard last year. I'm not high on them this season. But a healthy Derek Anderson will give them a shot to be competitive against most opponents they face.

That's 10 of 16 teams in the AFC. Personally, I'm leaving out Cleveland right now and looking to differentiate amongst the first nine. What will our perceptions and power ratings look like a month from now? Two months from now? During the playoff stretch?

Here are the key stats I'm going to be studying to figure out on the fly how these AFC teams really stack up against each other.

*DEFENSE: Longtime readers know I place a high priority on defense in every sport I handicap. The public pays too much attention to offense, and not enough to the element that actually wins championships! I'll be studying yards-per-play, yards-per-point, third down conversions allowed, total yardage allowed, and red zone performances to get the best read possible on how the contenders stack up on this side of the ball. If you want to stay ahead of the curve as these teams settle out their spots, you'll do the same.

*QUARTERBACK PLAY: More of a key now in separating the contenders from the pretenders. There just aren't 64 NFL caliber quarterbacks in the country right now, but everyone has to have a starter and a backup. One reason the public has done fairly well the past few seasons is that their tendency to bet on good quarterbacks and against bad ones has been working! Oddsmakers were slow to account for this evolution in the game. Defenses got so good that only a handful of stars can move the ball and score. That handful has a clear edge over the field.

When evaluating quarterback play in the coming weeks, I'll be looking at passer rating, TD/Interception ratio, third down conversion percentage, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, and perhaps most importantly, sacks. Some QB's have real trouble with sacks and fumbles. It's a "tie breaker" amongst quarterbacks that should get more play in the media than it does.

*TEAM RESULTS ADJUSTED FOR STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: It's very easy to focus on wins and losses without adjusting for the caliber of opponent. Cleveland created the illusion of strong play last year because they were playing the 30th ranked schedule in the NFL. There will be a few AFC teams this year who create similar illusions in the first month or so. There will be a few others who are better than they seem, but they've been dragged down by a killer early schedule. It's our job to know where teams really stand. Don't just read the newspaper and figure the standings are telling the whole story.

Those are three key areas, but I listed about a dozen stats to follow. Based on my read of the first two weeks of the season, picking winners in September and October in the NFL will very likely have a direct connection to your ability to figure out how the upper two thirds of the AFC really stacks up. How far did New England and Indianapolis drop off? Are Buffalo and the Jets really to be taken seriously?

Answer those questions, and the winners will literally pick themselves!

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