AFC: The best conference in the NFL?

AFC: The best conference in the NFL?

The American Football Conference, the AFC for short, is made up of historical franchises like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. These two franchises are tied with 6 Super Bowl wins each, yet only one team is in the playoff picture. The Patriots’ success has been more recent, but with future Hall of Fame Quarterback Tom Brady departing for Tampa Bay, they have been on a decline this year. The replacement for Tom Brady has been former MVP Quarterback Cam Newton. Newton has struggled at times this season; however, the Patriots still have a record of 5-6. In the AFC, this has them out of the playoff picture as they are the team with the 10th best record out of 16. On the other hand, if the Patriots played in the NFC, they would be 1 game away from being in the playoffs, as the final team has a record of 6-5. That team is the Arizona Cardinals whom the Patriots just beat.

How can a team be close to elimination in one conference yet be just out in the other? Well, in my opinion, I believe the AFC is a deeper conference, has teams with brighter futures, and is a more competitive conference, therefore, making it a better overall conference.

When I say the AFC is a deeper conference, that phrase has two meanings. The first meaning is that overall, the AFC has more teams that could be in the playoffs and actually compete and move ahead while the NFC does not. Like my example above with the Patriots, many different teams are still in the hunt and truthfully deserve playoff spots. Two teams who are just out of the playoff picture are the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders. Both teams share records of 6-5 which ties the NFC’s 7th seed Arizona Cardinals. Baltimore fell to 6-5 after losing possibly the most atrocious football game of the year in a Wednesday afternoon matchup with the now 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers. This game was moved three different times before teams were allowed to play because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the Ravens organization which took away what could have been a possible game of the year as these teams were set to play on Thanksgiving night. Due to Covid, the game had to be moved, and these teams were not allowed to practice so the two teams went into the game missing practice and several starters. Starters like former MVP Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, and Matthew Judon could not participate in the game as they all tested positive for Covid-19. This game definitely would have been different if the Ravens had these players, and I believe the Ravens could have won the game which would have hoisted them up into a playoff spot, and this is coming from a Steeler’s fan.

In the case of the Oakland Raiders, they have shot themselves in the foot the last two weeks. After going on a three-game win streak, the Raiders lost a close one in a Sunday night meeting with the 2nd seeded Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders were down late until Quarterback Derek Carr led an almost game-winning drive that ended in a touchdown throw of 1 yard to veteran Tight End Jason Witten. Of course, the last year’s Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes had a counter-punch to the left hook the Raiders just threw at him. It took just 1 minute and 15 seconds for Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to go 75 yards in 7 plays ending in a 22-yard touchdown to All-Pro Tight End Travis Kelce. The game ended in a 35-31 loss for the Raiders but hopes were high as the next week the Raiders would travel to Atlanta to play the mediocre Atlanta Falcons. Well, this one wasn’t even close. In Fact, Derek Carr would end up being benched for back-up and NFL meme Nathan Peterman. The final score would be 43-6 ending in an absolute slaughter for the Raiders which gave them their 5th loss.

The thing that separates the Raiders and Ravens though is the fact that the Ravens won the AFC North last year while the Raiders did not even make the playoffs. Yet, the Ravens have found themselves in a tricky spot as a lot has to happen to the teams in front of them so that they can make it back into the picture. So what has separated the teams in front of them from the Ravens?

This brings us to the second meaning of why the AFC is a deeper conference. The AFC has teamed with fewer holes in its roster and when people become injured, they can replace these players without really hurting them in production.

Look at the top of the standings and you’ll see the two best teams in football this year: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Cheifs. The Steelers defense has started taking a toll over the year. In week 5, star second-year linebacker Devin Bush suffered a torn ACL which ended his season. The question would be who can replace the role of a player who had one of the brightest futures in football. Well, look at the production of Robert Spillane. Appearing in just 2 games before being added to the starting roster, he has 35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovered, and a pick-six that came against the Ravens and Lamar Jackson in a mar-key matchup in week 8. That was not the only big play that Spillane made though this season. On the goal line during crunch time, the Tennessee Titans who are tied for first in the AFC South were knocking on the door and ready to hand the first loss of the season to the Steelers. The plan was to hand the ball off to monster running back Derrick Henry. At 6’3″ and 238 pounds, Henry is arguably the hardest man to bring down in the league, and it’s 3rd down on the 1, you get the stop and the Titans are in a difficult situation. Spillane meets Henry at the goal-line and stopped him from getting into the end zone. From a guy off the bench to meeting last year’s rushing champion and stopping him at the goal-line, this is unheard of. The Steelers have one of the deepest linebacker cores in the NFL and continues to get better as the season goes on. At the trade deadline, the Steelers basically robbed the Jets of veteran Avery Williamson as all they had to give up was a 5th round pick in the 2022 draft.

The Chiefs have thankfully not had to deal with injuries like the Steelers and many other teams have. This team has the best offense in the league and has depth throughout the roster. At running back, this is one of the most underrated backfields in the NFL. If you have read any of my fantasy football articles, you know I was not high on Clyde Edwards-Heliare as I thought he was a waste of a 1st round pick and there was no real good reason to move on from Damien Willams. Willams had run for 104 yards on 17 carries and 1 touchdown. His production came late in the game and really put the dagger in the back of the San Francisco 49ers as the Chiefs would go on to win the game. On the other hand, Edwards-Heliare has become one of the best runners this year and has taken the pressure off Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the offense. As a rookie, he has run for 692 yards on 151 carries adding 4 touchdowns. With this production, there is really no need to bring in a back-up. Well, I guess the Chiefs thought otherwise. The Chiefs had a chance to snag a former top-3 running back in the league in Le’veon Bell which has looked like a low-risk, high-reward type of deal. That is definitely true as the Chiefs now have one of the best back-up running backs in the league and one of the best backfields in the league.

On the other hand, the bottom of the AFC looks very rough and rigid. The 0-11 New York Jets look like a dumpster fire as they have traded away and cut most of their star players over the past two seasons. The best way to fix the Jets would be to get rid of Adam Gase. He has not been able to make talent like Sam Darnold, Quinnen Willams, and Denzel Mims into the bright stars like they were predicted to be. Get rid of Gase and find the right guy, these guys become superstars. Time is still there for these three but Sam Darnold’s clock is ticking much faster as the Jets are in line for the number 1 pick and would be unwise to pass on Clemson product Trevor Lawrence.

Like the Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals are a team in a very tough place. However, the future is already looking much brighter. With the 1st pick in this year’s draft, the Bengals snagged Joe Burrow who just came off arguably one of the best collegiate seasons of all time. Burrow threw for 60 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in his final year at LSU while also totaling 5,671 yards. Burrow was able to take LSU to a National Championship knocking off Clemson in a historical matchup that ended 42-25 in the favor of the Geaux Tigers. Unfortunately for the Bengals, in week 11, Burrow suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and other structural issues in his knee which will keep him out for longer than a year. I really do hope the Bengals do not rush Burrow back on to the field as that has been very costly for the careers of many other lottery draft picks. When Robert Griffin III was still in Washington, he suffered knee injuries that should have kept him on the sidelines. Unwisely, the Redskins continued to play him through his injuries causing his career to go down the gutter as Griffin’s knee would continue to get hurt. Griffin would never be the same player as he was when he started his career. Just like Burrow, Griffin won a Heisman award in his final college year. I would hate to see both these guys’ careers end the same way.

Finally, we can talk about the competitive side of the AFC. Let’s start with arguably the most competitive division in the AFC, the AFC North. The four teams that make up the AFC North are the Steelers, the Ravens, the Cleveland Browns, and the Bengals. We have talked already about the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals so let’s take some time to discuss the Browns.

The Cleveland Browns have been known as one of the worst NFL franchises since they rejoined the NFL in 1999. The Browns have been labeled as a city to avoid if your a projected lottery pick. Picks like Johnny Manziel, Corey Coleman, and Trent Richardson were all highly praised players coming out of college yet all three of them have found themselves out of the league within their first 3 years of playing. Not to mention, the Browns in 2017 went 0-16.

Yet somehow we find the Browns having a better record than all but three teams in the NFC. The 8-3 Cleveland Browns are the top wild card team in the AFC and are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. This team is lead by a strong defense with young playmakers like Myles Garret, Denzel Ward, and Mack Wilson. Furthermore, the offense has taken a toll this season as several of its key players have bounced in and out of line-up due to injuries. Notably, Running Back Nick Chubb has had to sit a large amount of time this season due to a knee injury that occurred early on in the year. Thankfully, he has made a return to the field this season and continues to produce like a top 5 RB in the NFL like he was last season. Odell Beckham Jr has not been as lucky. Odell has suffered many injuries in his 7 year career and in week 7 he tore his ACL ending his year. But the Browns remain 8-3 and the AFC North has the highest winning percentage among all divisions with .625.

The AFC East and AFC South are the only other divisions with two teams in the playoffs this year. The leaders of these divisions are the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills who both sit at 8-3. Right behind both of these teams are the 7-4 Miami Dolphins and the 7-4 Indianapolis Colts. The four of these teams have changed spots many times throughout the season and all have chances to split their season series at 1-1. The final matchup between the Dolphins and the Bills will be in week 17 and will likely have the winning team end up getting crowned the AFC East champion.

I could go on and on about how the AFC is better than the NFC, but I feel like I have definitely gotten the point across.

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