No Holds Barred: AFC Power Rankings
Here’s a no-holds barred look at the AFC power rankings through four weeks:
1. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)
The Ravens' defense is so scary, Wes Craven threw down two mill for the movie rights. Still, I don't think it's time to start pouring the bubbly just yet in Baltimore. Upgrade Joe Flacco to Drew Brees (or any other top-tier quarterback) and the Ravens are a surefire Super Bowl team. Their running game is that good. Their receiving corps (with speedster Torrey Smith in the fold) is that improved. Unfortunately, Flacco has not only not improved this season, he's regressing – Exhibit A: his sub-50 percent completion percentage.
When it comes to dream killers, there are far worse quarterbacks than Flacco. He’s not Alex Smith or Matt Moore. But he’s also not going to win you a tight game by himself, as Brees or Tom Brady would. With its plus-7 turnover ratio, Baltimore’s defense causes more sleepless nights than a failed marriage. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the Ravens are in for a rude awakening when they fall behind to a team like the Packers (eventually) and have to put points on the board late in the game. With that said, this is clearly the most balanced team in the AFC. If you’re questioning why they’re ranked No. 1, look no further than the beatdown they gave the Jets on Sunday night – or the manhandling they gave the Steelers in Week 1.
2. New England Patriots (3-1)
It’s cool, Boston. The Red Sox staged a meltdown so tremendous it made the plot of Dr. Strangelove look like an episode of Dora the Explorer, but at least you still have the Patriots. Those loveable, terrific Pats. Tom Brady. Wes Welker. Stevan Ridley. Wait, Stevan who? Just wait, fantasy owners. You’ll be singing his praises by the Week 7 bye.
The Patriots’ offense is an unstoppable juggernaut on par with the Yankees offense, which means, of course, nothing – defense wins championships. But at least they’ll be fun to watch as the fan base ramps expectations to disproportionate levels and waits with baited breath to see if Welker can break Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards. Handicap alert: He has a damn good chance. The Patriots’ chances of winning a Super Bowl aren’t nearly as good, though. Not with a defense that allows 478 yards per game. For now I’m ranking them behind the Ravens.
3. Houston Texans (3-1)
In a meteoric rise bound to make even Nicki Minaj jealous, the Texans’ defense has gone from NFL doormat to legitimate contender. Under Wade Phillips (yes, that Wade Phillips), Houston has shaved 10 points allowed and almost 50 yards from its per game averages from last year. It’s the NFL version of Weight Watchers for Men, which, by the way, should quit while it’s ahead. Mario Williams is beasting in the 3-4 and J.J. Watt is a strong early contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Suddenly we’re not talking about the Charmin Texans anymore. These guys are for real.
Losing Andre Johnson for three weeks won’t help the cause, but this team is as balanced as it’s ever been. Matt Schaub is on a career-best pace. Owen Daniels has come into his own with three touchdown catches. And Arian Foster is back on course after being hampered by a hamstring injury. If everything goes well with A.J.’s hamstring, the Texans are on a collision course with the Pats or Ravens in the AFC title game. They’re playing so well I don’t even have a Gary Kubiak joke to make. This is crazy.
4. Tennessee Titans (3-1)
The Titans are the Lions of the AFC, just with less hype and fewer Megatrons. They’re one Mike Thomas catch away from being 4-0, and they’ve already beaten the Ravens, the best team in the conference. Yes, they’ve benefited from an easy schedule, but they’ve also proven to be surprisingly resilient. Take for instance, the three touchdowns they hung on the Browns in the first half last weekend despite the loss of top receiver Kenny Britt. Or the fact that they won two games with practically no production from Chris Johnson, their go-to guy.
The Titans have suffered setbacks, and Matt Hasselbeck hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, he’s having the best season of his career. At age 36. Call it the Brett Favre Effect. Call it what you will. Hasselbeck has this team firing on all cylinders. As long as he’s on point and the defense is holding up its end of the bargain, the Titans are in serious contention for the AFC South title, not to mention a playoff bid.
5. Buffalo Bills (3-1)
Yeah, those thrilling comeback wins over the Raiders and Patriots were nice, but there’s real cause for concern in Buffalo. The Bills unraveled faster on Sunday than Chris Christie’s presidential bid. Their offense imploded against the Bengals and their D made Andy Dalton look like Steve freaking Young. It was enough to make Buffalonians cry into their beef on weck. Or at least consider taking down that FitzMagic poster in the den.
Undefeated hype is nice, but it doesn’t get you into the playoffs (remember 2008?). The Bills need to take a deep breath and get their Clay Davis together. The Eagles are coming to town in Week 5, and they’re plenty pissed off. Chan Gailey has done a good job so far disguising the Bills’ weaknesses, but nothing brings defensive faults to light faster than a Mike Vick bootleg. Shawne Merriman and Co. better bring their best this weekend.
6. Oakland Raiders (2-2)
The 2011 Raiders! Finally, a team the Black Hole can get excited about! Don’t let the .500 record fool you, the Raiders have played one of the sneaky hardest schedules in the league, including three games in a row against the cream of the AFC East: Buffalo, New York and New England. They’ve acquitted themselves well, though, and should have a better record than 3-1. If Denarius Moore comes down with Jason Campbell’s bomb at the end of the Bills game, suddenly they’re tied at the top of the AFC West. Based on the talent-level of this team, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where they end up.
Darren McFadden has easily been the best back in the league this season. He’s seeing the field well and using his exceptional speed to terrorize defenders once he gets to the second level. Moore and Jacoby Ford are up-and-coming playmakers – they’re constant threats to break a big play. And Campbell is on pace for 3,500 yards passing for just the second time in his career. Throw some Hue Jackson-inspired swagger into the mix and this is a team on the rise. The Raiders, not the Chargers, are the team to beat in the AFC West. Don’t forget where you heard it first.
7. San Diego Chargers (3-1)
Speaking of the Chargers, Philip Rivers has had this coming for a while. All those pouty faces and jeers at the crowd have finally caught up to him. Five touchdown passes, six interceptions. A terrible showing against New England’s “here, please score against us” defense. Costly turnovers in the red zone. It’s all part of the karma police assault on Rivers.
Fortunately for fans in San Diego, it hasn’t mattered much. Outside of the Pats, their Super Chargers have played the Vikings, Chiefs and Dolphins – an NFL cream puff platter. It doesn’t get any tougher in Week 5 either. The Chargers play the Broncos, the NFL’s reigning champion of finding ways to beat themselves. The scheduling committee may as well have just handed them 4-1. The AFC West is crappier than the plot of Jack and Jill, which all but ensures the Chargers will make the playoffs. Sooner or later their shaky play will catch up with them though. Karma always comes around eventually. At least that’s what Radiohead says.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2)
Whew, what a decline. Even Carrot Top has aged more gracefully than the Steelers. Did you see that Houston game? What a mess. The offensive line is crumbling like coffee cake, and Ben Roethlisberger isn’t handling it well. For some reason, he steadfastly refuses to throw the ball away under pressure, even when a sack is inevitable. As entertaining as it is to see him scrambling around like a 16-year-old at a house party when the cops show up, it’s clear this isn’t going to end well. He’s taking hits like his name is Jay Cutler. And we all know how that turned out.
Other proverbial turds in the Steelers’ punch bowl: the defense is slow, Hines Ward looks older than Matthew Broderick in the Tower Heist trailer and Rashard Mendenhall is limping around like Shaun Alexander in his anti-prime. The result? Losses to the Ravens and Texans and a .500 record. Still, it’s not time to panic yet. Both of the Steelers’ losses were to good teams, and Mike Tomlin is a terrific coach. He’ll have this team scrapping to the end, regardless of age and injury concerns. The playoffs are, obviously, still within reach for these guys.
9. New York Jets (3-1)
The Jets are more waterlogged than Rex Ryan’s waistline, but they’re still at .500 thanks to an incredible stroke of Tony Romo in the season opener. Had Romo not thrown the ball directly to New York’s one-man island with under a minute left in that game, the Jets would be a deserved 1-3. Instead, they’re 2-2, and Mark Sanchez still has job security. Ryan’s standing by his man. For now anyway. Regardless of preference, the Jets need to get their offense up to speed with their top 10 defense. Otherwise they can kiss a third straight playoff appearance goodbye like Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, Sanchise.
The Bengals are 2-2 on the strength of their running game and the mistakes of their opponents. When Cedric Benson serves his suspension (currently under appeal), the offense will fall into the hands of rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. They’re both better than average, but c’mon, Cincy fans, that has to scare the crap out of you, right?
With that said, the Bengals have an upcoming schedule that’s easier than a girl with daddy issues. Jacksonville. Indy. Seattle. That’s a set ‘em up, knock ‘em down proposition if I’ve ever seen one. They may as well just put a lower back tattoo on that three-week spread and give it its own YouTube channel – username: “Down4Whatever.” Don’t forget to hit up the free clinic, Mr. Dalton. Oh, and don’t get used to that winning thing too much either. The Steelers and Ravens come calling in weeks 10 and 11.
11. Cleveland Browns (2-2)
There isn’t much to say about the Browns. They’re more vanilla than one of those movies where Matthew McConaughey seduces a bunch of girls before settling down with whichever Hollywood actress is most popular with 35-year-old SWFs (sorry, ladies). If they had a better offensive line and a few top-notch receivers, the Browns would probably sneak into the playoffs. As it is, they’ll just have to settle for the Least Talked About Team in the League award. Compared to seasons past, I’m guessing fans in Cleveland will take it.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3)
Luke McCown was a goner from Day 1. Blaine Gabbert is a dead ringer for Brad Pitt in Troy and he throws a better deep ball. McCown’s four-interception game against the Jets just sped up the inevitable. The moment the Jags released David Garrard, it was obvious this was Gabbert’s throne to sit on. Even if it is a throne made of porcelain that reeks of fecal matter. Was that you, Jack Del Rio? Geez. Would it kill you to flush next time?
13. Denver Broncos (1-3)
I realize there’s not much else to talk about in Denver, but the Tim Tebow fan club really needs to give it a rest. Kyle Orton certainly not a Grade-A quarterback, but neither is Tebow. In fact, it’s been much publicized that he’s the third-best QB on the roster. No amount of billboarding will change that. Besides, there are bigger here. The offensive line has more holes than Connect Four and the defense has piled up more penalty yards than everyone other than the Ravens. Also, Knowshon Moreno looks pretty busty – how can the team expect him to stay on the field when he can’t even stay on an exercise bike? Other than breakouts Von Miller and Eric Decker, the Broncos are an absolute mess. It’s going to take far more than a QB change to turn this team around.
14. Miami Dolphins (0-4)
This is my boss’ team, so I have to be careful. Job security and all that. The Dolphins have had some bad breaks this season. Chad Henne was on the verge of greatness before his injury. Brandon Marshall gets a bad rap as a head case. Reggie Bush just needs time to adjust. Steve Slaton…ah, screw it. The Dolphins suck. Their defense couldn’t stop a celibate from scoring. Fire Tony Sparano, trade Marshall while he still has value and press restart on this franchise before it’s too late.
15. Kansas City Chiefs (1-3)
Oh, what’s the use? This team doesn’t care so why should I? Matt Cassel and Todd Haley are feuding while a broken Jamaal Charles sits at home and the defense watches touchdowns whiz by like bystanders at the Autobahn. It’s a certified train wreck, folks. The kind you find in movies like Super 8. And it’s not going away. No matter how many breakout games we get from Dwayne Bowe – has any receiver had more disappearances and reappearances in a career than Bowe? – the Chiefs aren’t winning more than four games this season. I’ll be shocked if Haley has his job past Week 8.
16. Indianapolis Colts (0-4)
How unbearable are the Colts to watch without Peyton Manning? Somewhere between Bad Girls Club and Basketball Wives, right? Sure Pierre Garcon added some fireworks on Monday night, but calling this an entertaining team to watch is like calling Foster the People a good live band. Yeah, they’re trying hard, but let’s face it, they just don't have "it."
Manning’s influence on this team is unrivaled. He is, without question, the most irreplaceable player in the NFL – both from a wins added standpoint and an entertainment standpoint. The Colts without Manning is like Mad Men without Don Draper. It's just not the same. On a positive note, Indy is on track to win the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes, giving them potentially not one but two Hall of Fame quarterbacks within the span of 20 years. Sucks for the Dolphins, Vikings and Broncos. But, hey, who said life is fair?
I'll be back next with the NFC.
S/o to pop culture advisor @madison_beee.
Best way to find more great content from Neon Tommy?
Or join our email list below to enjoy the weekly Neon Tommy News Highlights.