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by Bryan Leonard - 06/18/2006
The AFC has won 7 of the last 9 Super Bowls and four of the last five. If you're looking for any powerhouse teams to win in the NFL, we need to start with the AFC. Like last season, the NFC appears to be a wide open race, while the AFC is littered with several dominant teams. That's what oddsmakers think, too, as three of the top four favorites are in the AFC. Those teams are also projected as at the top in win totals, with the Steelers, Patriots and Colts all projected over 10 wins. Seattle is the only NFC representative with double digit projected wins (10.5). Here's a look at the top AFC teams in that group and what has happened in the offseason.
Steelers: The defending champs got all kinds of accolades this offseason for pretty much keeping the same group together. They lost slot WR/kick returner Antawn Randle-El to free agency, but replaced him with Ohio State speedy WR San Antonio Holmes. They lost RB Jerome Bettis to retirement, but he only had 368 yards. They still have a power offensive line and RB depth, led by speedy RB Willie Parker (1,202 yards, 4.7 ypc).
Everything was rosy, until Big Ben got on his motorcycle. And then off again, with a thump. While there is no timetable for his recovery, Steelers officials remain hopeful that their starting quarterback will be able to play in the team's season opener Sept. 7 against the Miami Dolphins. Still, it was quite a shock seeing a 24-year old budding star quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger suffer such a dangerous injury.
Coach Bill Cowher has always got the Steelers to play tough football, but they flopped in several AFC championship games largely because he was stuck with QBs like Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox. In a sense, Big Ben was the missing piece. He's smart, accurate and a quick decision maker. Folks may point out he was awful in the Super Bowl, but don't forget he was brilliant in playoff wins over Cincy, Indy and Denver, all on the road. They never would have got there without him.
If he comes back healthy, the Steelers should be a force again. The defense allowed just 87 rush yards per game, 3.6 ypc, third in the NFL, and only 13 ppg on the road! The offense is not fancy, leaning on a powerful offensive line (5th in rushing) but the coaching staff had the imagination to open things up in the playoffs, which was a key to their success. Pittsburgh is an incredible 16-3 SU, 14-5 ATS on the road the last two years! The key to repeating as champion appears to rest on Big Ben's recovery from that motorcycle accident.
Colts: Indy had an interesting offseason after another gut-wrenching playoff flop. They lost RB Edgerrin James and hope to replace him with first-round pick LSU RB Joseph Addai. The offensive line had problems in the playoff loss to the Steelers, so if the running game fails to provide balance, that could mean QB Peyton Manning could enjoy another record-setting season like 2004 (49 TDs, 10 INTs). They still have WR Marvin Harrison (82 catches, 1,146 yards, 12 TDs) and WR Reggie Wayne (83 receptions, 1,055 yards, 5 TDs). They also nabbed clutch kicker Adam Vinateri (Patriots), a great move and a player they never thought would be available.
The key will be the defense. The defense is predicated on speed, rather than power, behind DE Robert Mathis and pass rushing specialist Dwight Freeney. This offseason, Raheem Brock moves to tackle to make room for Mathis in the starting lineup, so the unit as a whole has gotten lighter. â€œWe want to be faster," HC Tony Dungy said, which was what he had in Tampa Bay. However, they lack run stuffers and could be susceptible to power running teams. Power running teams like the Patriots and Steelers knocked them out of the playoffs the last two years.
Patriots: The downside of the curve? Or just reloading? It's tough to tell. Folks in New England had a hard time swallowing the self-destructive playoff loss to Denver, because as things turned out, they would have hosted the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh. They would have been favorites to win 3 straight Super Bowls, something that has never been done. On the other hand, the Pats were just 11-7 overall, clearly not the record of a contender, and ranked second to last in pass defense. They also let Vinatieri and DE Willie McGinest walk.
So where are they? The run defense looks awesome behind the first-round trio of Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Willie McGinest. The LB corps is thinning but still talented with Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel. The secondary expects S Rodney Harrison back sometime in September and bulked up on depth with CB Eric Warfield and Chad Scott. They have been making a run at reacquiring CB Ty Law, too.
The offense is much improved, as injuries decimated the offensive line and running game in 2005. Rookie WR Chad Jackson (Florida) has impressed, and they added WR Reche Caldwell joining young talents WR Deion Branch and TE Ben Watson. Rookie RB Laurence Maroney teams with veteran Corey Dillon and reports are that Dillon has endured a rigorous offseason workout campaign to overcome his 2005 injuries. And of course, they still have QB Tom Brady and HC Bill Belichick. Overall, the offense looks potent, but there are still questions with the secondary and the kicking game. The schedule is easier than 2005, so they will want to try for home field advantage for the postseason: The Pats are 25-3 SU and 19-8 ATS their last 28 home games.