Best in the AFC: Who Are 2011’s Top Contenders?

1. San Diego Chargers
Last year took the perfect storm of their top three targets being suspended or hurt (Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and Antonio Gates) along with historically unprecedented special teams collapses and it was the only time in five seasons as San Diego head coach that Norv Turner failed to win the AFC West. If they get Steve Smith or Steve Breaston – or if they re-sign Floyd – San Diego will have the 2nd-best RB depth (behind the Raiders), the best WR corps and the only elite QB in the division. They will have to account for the loss of DC Ron Rivera. There’s no AFC team with more of its best players in their prime and no team with a surer route to homefield. Additionally, Philip Rivers is poised for a breakout playoff run.

2. Baltimore Ravens
I may be biased because this is my team but I firmly believe there is no team more talented than the Ravens. They have a phenomenal all-purpose back, a future Hall of Famer at tight end, two 650-reception WRs, the best safety in the NFL, the best linebacker in NFL history in his twilight, a ferocious OLB with 10 sacks and a hand in 2 defensive TDs in 7 playoff games, and they added the most best defensive player in the draft, Jimmy Smith. What holds them back is Cam Cameron. Flacco and others have been voicing their displeasure but this team will need to be more diverse and aggressive on offense if they can finally get back to the Super Bowl.

3. New England Patriots
New England beat the other four teams on this list and the notable snub last season (while also losing twice to New York). They have the most feared and highest-scoring offense on this list – that will surely be improved with Wes Welker being more than a year past his ACL surgery – but easily the most suspect defense. It seems like Belichick has mostly shored up the secondary (they didn’t have Leigh Bodden or rookie Ras-I Dowling of their talented trio of corners last season), Wilfork is still anchoring the D-line and Mayo has emerged in the middle. They will certainly grow beyond their 32nd-ranked 3rd down percentage from last season.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year’s AFC Champions were the oldest defense in the NFL last year but have showed no signs of slowing down. It’s important for Troy to stay healthy this year but the Steelers can beat anyone on this list with Ben in the lineup. He’s good enough to take the team on his shoulders and to defeat anyone, anywhere. However, Ben’s inconsistent playoff play is a bit worrisome. He gets the clutch plays when he needs them but needs to make fewer mistakes in big games and needs better protection, too (the O-line and Ben combined to allow defensive touchdowns vs. BAL and vs. GB; Ben went 10-19 for 133 yds, 0 TD, 2 INT and was sacked for a safety vs. NYJ).

5. New York Jets
The Jets missed Kris Jenkins (missed 15 games) and Jim Leonhard down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. The Jets are always going to be a well-coached, physically and mentally tough squad with a commitment from the first day of the offseason onward to continually be innovative and effective running the football. The pick-up of Bilal Powell was interesting because most teams – especially one that always has at least one FB active like the Jets – don’t carry four running backs all year. They’ve run for 5130 yards in the last two seasons. Right now, I place them at #5 because I think Mark Sanchez needs to get more consistent – and they need to get at least Santonio Holmes back in free agency.

Notable Snub:
Indianapolis Colts
They’re getting too old. The one thing that works to their advantage is that they’re still appreciably better than anyone in their division – unless Wade Phillips’ playcalling has improved in on year -, so they’ll get into the dance.

Tell me who you think the contenders will be in the AFC battle for supremacy.

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8 Responses to “Best in the AFC: Who Are 2011’s Top Contenders?”

  1. Russ Loede says:

    1. Baltimore – THIS is the YEAR.
    2. New England – Tom Brady.
    3. Kansas City – Don’t sleep on ’em.
    4. Pittsburgh – Always there.
    5. Jets – Two straight AFC title trips.
    6. Titans – My sleeper pick.

    Left out: Miami, Oakland, Indy.

  2. Matt Loede says:

    Baltimore’s D is getting older and Flacco has never proven the ability to win in the playoffs when it counts. The Pats will be there for sure, but they have cracks in their game as well, as was shown by the Jets, you pressure Brady, you can beat them.

    KC isn’t going to even make the playoffs, and will be lucky to go 8-8 with a first place slate, the Steelers always have a down season the year after they go to the dance, and the Jets have a ton of free agents that could bolt.

    Bottom line – love what the Chargers have done, and they will be the forgotten team in the AFC. No one will pick them, and they will come out of nowhere to win the AFC.

    • Chris Bach says:

      I think the “Super Bowl hangover” curse will be severed this year by Mike Wallace. Last time around, they missed the playoffs but Wallace was just a rookie. He’s now a playmaker.

      I think each Cowher post-SB team was deeper in a funk than the Tomlin post-SB team was. The 2009 guys went 9-7 – missing by just a hair (tiebreakers) – and each of those seven losses were by one possession.

      This year, close games may get decided by one big play by Wallace or Polamalu. They made the right moves in the draft, getting CB depth – their Achilles heel in the Super Bowl and against the Patriots – in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

      One thing’s for sure: even if Flacco has had trouble against the Steelers when Big Ben plays (and Joe will get to open things up this year), those games are the greatest rivalry games. If people tune into Indianapolis-New England to see who gets the ball last, they tune into Pittsburgh-Baltimore to see who makes it out with the fewest injured players.

  3. ColtsFreak says:

    I can tell when someone does their homeowrk on Indy and when someone doesn’t. The Colts actually have a pretty young roster. Look it up.

    Our division is a joke. Colts will win it again. We dessimated with injuries last year and ignored by many.

  4. ColtsFreak says:

    I can tell when someone does their homework on Indy and when someone doesn’t. The Colts actually have a pretty young roster. Look it up.

    Our division is a joke. Colts will win it again. We dessimated with injuries last year and ignored by many.

    • Chris Bach says:

      Sometimes it’s not just age, but which positions you have age at.

      I look at it this way. When they retire, who will be better: Jeff Saturday or Chris Myers? For 2011, who’s better: Jeff Saturday or Chris Myers?

      Dallas Clark is likely a Hall of Famer and will have had a better career than Owen Daniels, I’m guessing. However, Daniels is now recovered from his ACL tear and is better than Clark right now.

      I still think they’ll win the division, but they will likely be no more than a 3 seed. A team like the Colts thrive off of Freeney, Mathis, Garcon and Wayne using their speed and change of direction indoors. They are not built for New England, New York or Baltimore weather. Additionally, San Diego has won 2 postseason games vs. the Colts in a row, and 5 of the last 6 against them.

  5. Russ Loede says:

    Kansas City and Tennessee will both boast records over .500 because of their ability to run the football.

    Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson cannot be contained.

    I like the Titans ability to get to the QB and believe their new coach will be one of the reasons why they impress people. Also, Locker is ready to come in and perform as a rook.

    Now, the Titans need Britt to stay healthy and the back seven to play a little better.

    For the Chiefs, Cassel doesn’t make mistakes. Baldwin is going to be a stud. The defense has playmakers in the secondary and possess the right personnel to run the 3-4. Don’t forget about their talent. Keep an eye on McCluster, too. He was hurt last year and should be involved this season.

    San Diego will have their hands full. The Raiders are going to be a threat because of their playmakers and ability to run the ball. Defensively, I still have to see if Nnamdi leaves like he’s supposed to.

    In the end, I think the Chiefs will prove to be more truth than hype and the Titans will get back to winning football. Both these teams have the pieces in place, now’s its time to watch ’em get it done.

    • Chris Bach says:

      I used to watch every Cardinals game and Todd Haley – even though Warner made many calls – is not a good play-caller.

      As for the Raiders, I think they’ll get the #1 overall pick because they have no quarterback and a first-time head coach. I think their ceiling is second place with as good as the Chargers will be.”

      As for the Titans, Chris Johnson may holdout but his yards from scrimmage dropped 700 and he will likely get off to a slow start if there’s no Kenny Britt and Jake Locker is the quarterback.