warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

AFC Pretenders And Contenders

Jeffrey Dubrof |
December 2, 2014 | 11:41 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

As December rolls around and the leaves begin to fall, so do teams of the NFL from playoff contention. While the NFC is practically a jumble of 8-4 teams with the 5-7 Atlanta Falcons somehow thrown into that playoff mix, the AFC playoff picture remains an absolute mystery with a total of eleven teams that either have the record of 8-4 or 7-5. This begs NFL fanatics like myself to ask themselves, who are the contenders and who are the pretenders in the AFC?

Beginning with the contenders, Denver, New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are all obviously locks into the playoffs due to their divisional dominance and outstanding quarterback play. The rest of the contenders remain a mystery and clarity is something we all need.


San Diego Chargers

Phillip Rivers has been a household name for years associated with outstanding passing numbers with no postseason reward to follow. However this year is different. Rivers and a Chargers pass defense that is ranked seventh in the NFL, holding opposing quarterbacks to a mere 221.6 passing yards per game, have to be considered a contender for this season.

Chargers running back Ryan Matthews is finally returning from injury and is putting up the stats that people are used to seeing. Running for 105 yards and a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams a couple of weeks ago, a consistent running game will open up more opportunities for Rivers to air it out to players like Keenan Allen and the always reliable Antonio Gates. If the Chargers can come out of their next four games, which consist of two back-to-back home games against the 9-3 Broncos and the 9-3 Patriots followed by back-to-back road tests against a streaky 49ers squad and the division rival Chiefs, with a winning record, look for the Chargers to be playing into January this year.

Miami Dolphins

This was a pick that could be disputed. It is hard to tell what type of playoff team this could be with an inexperienced quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. However, Tannehill is a much improved quarterback from his previous two years. With a passer rating of 92.1, that is 11.6 points higher than it was in his second season. He has thrown for 2,817 yards and 20 touchdowns through 12 games and is a threat as well in the run game with 289 yards rushing, which is 5th in the NFL right now. Aiding Tannehill in the backfield is running back Lamar Miller. A lighting quick running back who has run for 729 yards so far this season, Miller is a threat to break off a huge run every time he touches the ball. Along with a potent offensive attack by the dynamic Duo of Tannehill and Miller, Miami boasts the NFL’s 2nd best passing defense. Holding opposing quarterbacks to only 198.2 yards a game, the Miami pass defense is a huge asset.

The Fins' remaining strength of schedule doesn’t hurt them either.  Three of their remaining games are at home and two against below .500 team. Miami starts at home against a struggling Baltimore Ravens team, followed by a trip against a good, yet beatable New England team and end it out with two straight games at home against the 5-7 Minnesota Vikings and the 2-10 New York Jets, who basically have had more quarterbacks than wins. Look for the Dolphins to ride Tannehill and their easy remaining schedule right into a Wild Card spot.

SEE ALSO: NFL Won't Fine Rams Players For Supporting Ferguson

Cleveland Browns

That’s right, I’m hopping on the Johnny Manziel bandwagon, because if I have learned anything over my life from watching him in high school and seeing him dominate teams in the SEC it is this… 


There are some people who are natural born winners. Guys like Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy are the example of this. Some quarterbacks may be unorthodox but it doesn’t matter because they manage the game and get the job done. If Manziel does indeed get the call to start against the Colts this Sunday, it is officially Johnny Football time in Cleveland. Manziel entered the game for Brian Hoyer against Buffalo last week and immediately led the Browns on a 80-yard touch down drive.  If he can find a way to utilize Josh Gordon, who recently returned from suspension, and run the ball well with a surprising asset in Isaiah Crowell, look for Manziel to carve his way through the rest of his schedule and land a playoff spot.

Let’s take a second to realize who the clear-cut pretenders are in the AFC. There are your 2-10 teams in Jacksonville, Tennessee and New York. There are the lowly, worst record in the league Oakland Raiders and finally a 6-6 Houston Texan team. Those are the clear teams that seem to be out of playoff contention pending some sort of miracle. However there are still some teams that are trying to sneak by and hope to manage to somehow land a playoff spot, these are your AFC pretenders.


Kansas City Chiefs

Hands down the most disappointing team to me this season. Coming off one of their better years in 2013, the Chiefs and quarterback Alex Smith have done nothing but disappoint me this season. Boasting the second worst passing attack in the NFL, the Chiefs have not been able to help open their running game more. Jamaal Charles has managed to scrape together an astounding 807 yards which has been the only upside to the Chiefs offense this year. They also sport the third worst rush defense in the NFL which is shocking because they also sport the best pass defense in the NFL.

Kansas City has not been consistent this year whatsoever. Consistency is the key for a team reaching the playoffs and this team is far from consistent. Their remaining schedule is tough aside from playing the  Raiders at home which we can chalk up as an easy win, but crazier things have happened - they lost to the Raiders two weeks ago. You can’t win football games with a poor passing offense. The ability to pass the ball well puts a defense on their heels and opens the offense up for more explosive plays off the run and eventually the play action pass. Andy Reid will be sitting on his couch eating some leftover Thanksgiving turkey this postseason because the Chiefs are an absolute pretender. 

Buffalo Bills

Someone outside the state of New York name a player on the Bills besides Sammy Watkins, fellow Trojan Robert Woods and benched quarterback EJ Manuel. I’ll wait… Not to say that name recognition is a tell tale sign of what makes a contender or a pretender, but the failure to identify talent on a team is.

The Bills have one of the worst offensive attacks in the NFL. With the 21st ranked passing attack and 24th ranked running attack, the Bills offense is absolutely horrendous. Already having to make the switch at quarterback from Manuel to Kyle Orton, the Bills are having trouble finding any consistency in roster talent this year. The only thing keeping them the playoff hunt is their outstanding defense, which boasts the fifth best pass defense and the seventh best run defense.

However, this is soon to change when you take a look at the remainder of their schedule. Three of their next four games are on the road and three of the next four are against playoff locks in the Packers, Patriots and Broncos. I know I will be seeing the Bills limp their way out of the season losing four straight, they will to lose to Oakland and will finish 7-9, on the outside looking in.

SEE ALSO: Turkeys In Sports: The Worst Of 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers

This one a tough choice for me but it ultimately comes down to a matter of quality leadership. While the Steelers have one of the better ranked offenses in the NFL, I truly believe that Ben Rothlisberger has lost his ability to lead the Steelers. This is a team that has tremendous talent and a coach that many consider to be the best coach in the NFL. Yet this Steelers football team finds themselves in the tenth place spot of the AFC.

The only way I see the Steelers managing to make it to the playoffs is to see a significant change in Rothlisberger and his leadership. I think he has great talent but he must rally the team behind him in order to make it to the playoffs.

Their remaining schedule doesn’t help as well. With four games remaining, two of those are against bitter division rival and the AFC North division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. You can never predict a rivalry game but it wouldn’t shock me to see that sneaky Andy Dalton come and take both of those games against the steelers. This one was a toss up for me but until I am proven otherwise, the Steelers are a pretender.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have always been a confusing football team to me. Never dominant, but they always find ways to win football games and even pull off a Super Bowl victory.

I have to say however, 2014 is not the year for this. Similar to the Steelers, they lack a certain leader that can push them to the top. Their Super Bowl run back in 2012 was sparked by future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and this 2014 team just does not have that kind of leader anymore. Their team stats don’t help their case either; with the second worst passing defense in the NFL, teams have been able to throw all over this Ravens secondary and that won't stop when they face Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins this upcoming week.

The only thing keeping the Ravens' playoff hopes alive is their easy remaining schedule. With a game against Jacksonville and Houston, the Ravens should be able to pull out victories in both of those. They end the season against the Browns at home which I think will be close but I think the Browns have something special this year and will win that game. Look for the Ravens to finish the season at 8-8 or 9-7 and fall just shy of a playoff spot.

Reach Staff Reporter Jeffrey Dubrof here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.