Early Thoughts On The AFC Contenders

The AFC had the best games of NFL Week 1, with the Steelers-Patriots and Ravens-Broncos on national television, along with the Colts playing at Buffalo and the Chiefs-Texans. I was able to watch the Pittsburgh-New England game on Thursday and Baltimore-Denver in the late afternoon today. Here’s some thoughts on the contenders after seeing those games and going through the boxscores of Indy-Buffalo and KC-Houston:

New England: My opinion of the Patriots is pretty much what it was when the game began. They’ve got defensive problems that have to be figured out before a Super Bowl repeat is possible. The Steelers moved the ball up and down the field, even with Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant out of the lineup. New England was able to survive through a combination of good red-zone defense and Pittsburgh missing a couple makeable field goals.

And of course having Tom Brady throw to Rob Gronkowski cures a lot of ills. After an early overthrow to a wide open Danny Amendola, Brady settled in and turned in a vintage performance, 25/32 for 288 yards and no interceptions. Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes.

But it’s important to remember that the four times New England has won Super Bowls, they played tough physical defense. Brady can drag them to another 11-12 win season, but the defense needs to get better to achieve their ultimate goal.

Denver: Amidst a media culture that has removed Peyton Manning from the list of elite quarterbacks after his slow finish to last season, I’m a strong believer that a healthy Peyton will still be on a par with Brady and Aaron Rodgers this year. My belief didn’t get much validation today, even as Denver survived a slugfest with Baltimore, 19-13.

Manning went 24/40 for 175 yards and threw a Pick-6. In fact the only touchdowns of the game on either side came by the Pick-6 and neither team ran a single play in the red zone until inside of three minutes to go. The good news is that Peyton looked fine physically—the main issue was some overthrows on spots where receivers broke free. That’s why I remain confident that he’ll sharpen back up.

Baltimore: My preseason choice to win the AFC title took a devastating blow when Terrell Suggs was lost for the year with an Achilles tear. You may recall Suggs also tore an Achilles in 2012 and was supposed to be gone for the year, along with Ray Lewis. Then Suggs and Lewis each had miracle cures. Time to get the next shipment of deer antler spray in.

The Ravens had the same problems in the passing game that Denver did. Right now, I believe these are the best two teams in the AFC, so I’m prepared to attribute it all to the quality of the defense rather than problems with the offense. What we need to see going forward is how the pass rush looks without Suggs. A lot of pressure on Elvis Dumervil on the opposite side.

Pittsburgh: I don’t see the Steelers as more than a 9-10 win wild-card team, so losing at New England is no big deal, especially without Bell and Bryant. We knew coming into the year that they had serious work ahead on the defensive end and that was evident. There were obvious problems in communication and with coverage breakdowns.

Mike Tomlin has an established track record of fixing problems, so I expect this to straighten out over the course of the year, but saying the coach will clean up some problems isn’t the same as saying the Steel Curtain is about to revive itself. Pittsburgh’s defensive deficiencies are more serious than New England’s.

Indianapolis-Buffalo: Tyrod Taylor got the start at quarterback for the Bills today. When Taylor was at Virginia Tech he led his team to the 2010 ACC title and an Orange Bowl date with Stanford…who was quarterbacked by Andrew Luck. Taylor’s team got crushed in that one. Five years later, he got his revenge on Luck in a 27-14 decision not as close as it sounds.

Taylor was 14/19 for 195 yards and no interceptions. If he can play consistently, this changes the dynamic of the AFC race. The Bills, who finished 9-7 last year, become even more dangerous as a potential wild-card team and maybe even as a challenger to New England in the AFC East. We already knew Buffalo could play defense and that Rex Ryan could coach it. If Rex gets even a little offensive punch, it’s a whole new ballgame.

As for Indy…this was supposed to be a more balanced attack with Frank Gore in the backfield. The Colts could not run the ball. The addition of Andre Johnson was supposed to give the passing game balance. Johnson caught four passes for 24 yards. This is not going to lift Indianapolis to be the Super Bowl team that everyone is anticipating.

Kansas City-Houston: The good news for Indy is that their only serious AFC South rival looked even worse. Houston saw J.J. Watt get a couple sacks, but that was about it. Otherwise, the Chiefs built up a 27-9 lead and ended up winning 27-20 in other cosmetically close score.

Kansas City looks more like the team of 2013 that won 11 games than the one of last year that slipped to 9-7, dumped a game in Oakland and just missed the playoffs. This is an ideal offense for Alex Smith to run, and tight end Travis Kelce had six catches for 106 yards. Jeremy Maclin didn’t have a huge game in his first game as a Chief but he did catch five balls for 52 yards and provides this offense a real deep threat.

Kansas City and Buffalo both get big opportunities to build on their Week 1 success. The Chiefs host the Broncos this coming Thursday night (8:25 PM ET, NFL) and the Bills host the Patriots on Sunday. The Colts will be on Monday Night Football at home against the Jets, a team that has shown some defensive prowess of its own. A couple contenders we didn’t mention here go head-to-head, when the Chargers visit the Bengals.