Home > NFL, Steelers > And the Best Team in the AFC is?

And the Best Team in the AFC is?

I tuned in to three different radio shows today and each of them asked this question. As a result I have spent a good part of my idle time today thinking about the answer. My conclusion? It’s complicated.

Every team has played at least nine games, so for purposes of this exercise it is probably safe to assume that if a team is in the running for the title “Best Team in the AFC” they had better be at least 6-3, putting them on pace for something around an 11-5 record. In other seasons being on pace for an 11-5 record wouldn’t have put a team in the realm of “The Best Team in the AFC,” but this exercise is relative by its nature and this year’s AFC is a mishmash of terrible teams, good teams, and disappointing teams that were supposed to be great but can’t seem to get their shit together. Anyway, the 6-3 or better teams are.

1) Houston

2) Pittsburgh

3) New England

4) Baltimore

5) Cincinnati

Let’s work our way up. We’ll use record, strength of schedule (SOS), strength of victory (SOV), good teams defeated (arbitrarily decided by me), and bad teams lost to (also arbitrarily decided by me). Wheeee!

Cincinnati

  • Record: 6-3
  • SOS: .458
  • SOV: .345
  • Good teams defeated: Buffalo, I guess? Tennessee, maybe?
  • Bad teams lost to: Denver – pre-Tebow
Yeah this team hasn’t played anybody. Their other four victories have come against Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Seattle (a combined 9-28), hence their pathetic SOV number. Their loss to the Steelers yesterday was a “good” loss (as far as that goes) in that they overcame an early 14-point deficit and the loss of their most dynamic offensive weapon early in the game (A.J. Green) and had the ball late in the game with a chance to tie. They’re playing an awful lot better than anybody expected (myself included, who said at the beginning ofthe year that they might go 0-16. My bad!). Their schedule gets quite a bit tougher these last seven weeks with games @Baltimore, @Pittsburgh, vs Houston, and vs Baltimore. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Andy Dalton continue the decent back to earth he began yesterday and for the Bengals to finish 8-8 or 9-7 and miss the playoffs by a mile.
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Baltimore
  • Record: 6-3
  • SOS: .500
  • SOV: .544
  • Good teams defeated: Pittsburgh (twice), New York Jets (maybe?), Houston
  • Bad teams lost to: Jacksonville, Seattle
The Ravens. What the hell, man. You only get up and play hard against the Steelers, is that it? How do you lose to Jacksonville and Seattle? Nobody loses to these teams. It took a monumental comeback for you to defeat the Cardinals at home. Seriously, the Kevin Kolb Cardinals.
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This team is totally bewildering. Joe Flacco can look like Joe Montana one week and Akili Smith the next. Jim Harbaugh goes through apparent week-long lapses where he completely forgets that Ray Rice is on his team and is REALLY GOOD. Their strength of victory is better than any of the other five teams which tells us they have the ability to play well. Unfortunately for their old-bay-eating fans they’re susceptible to the trap/let-down game (two of their losses came the week after emotional victories against the Steelers). Is this an indictment on their character?  Does this tell us they are incapable of handling the emotions of the NFL playoffs, where each game is most important game of the year, bigger than the last? Or do they simply play to the level of their opponents and they’ll easily be able to avoid these ugly performances in the postseason? Just last week they were hailed as the clear-cut #1 team in the conference. Does one bad loss undermine that analysis? More questions with answers with these guys.
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New England
  • Record: 6-3
  • SOS: .537
  • SOV: .481
  • Good teams defeated: San Diego (I guess?), Oakland (?), New York Jets (twice, possibly no good), Dallas (totally schizophrenic)
  • Bad teams lost to: None
New Englad has played the toughest schedule of the five teams and it isn’t even close. Their victories, with the exception of week one against Miami, have come against fairly quality opponents. I have a hard time categorizing those teams as “good,” but each of them has won more games than they’ve lost and they’re all still potential playoff teams. Their losses – to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants – don’t jump out at you as being heinously bad like Baltimore’s or Cincy’s. The greatest indictment on this New England team is their inability to stop the pass. Heading into this week they were the worst team in the entire league at defending the pass. Luckily for them Mark Sanchez pretty much sucks and made them look fairly decent last night, but make no mistake. This team struggles mightily at pass defense.
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The first four weeks of the season saw the Patriots score 30 or more points in each game. Week five they managed a comeback victory against the Cowboys, but only put up 20 points and appeared fairly disjointed. After that they proceeded to lose their next two games and only managed 17 and 20 points in those games, respectively. Many of us wrote them off. And through one half last night they appeared to be withering on the vine. In the second half, though, Tom Brady came alive, and the offense put up three touchdowns and reminded us all what they are capable of.
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So are they back? Maybe. I’m still not convinced they can be truly great with no defense, no rushing attack, three legitimate receivers (two tight ends and a midget), and Tom Brady.  One thing that is clear is their schedule the rest of the way is possibly the softest of any team in the entire league: vsKC, @PHI, vsIND, @WAS, @DEN, vsMIA, vsBUF. This team will make the playoffs, and there is a fairly high probability that they’ll be the #1 or #2 seed.
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Pittsburgh
  • Record: 7-3
  • SOS: .489
  • SOV: .406
  • Good teams defeated: Tennessee (maybe), New England, Cincinnati
  • Bad teams lost to: None
If the Steelers get one more first down against Baltimore last week this post never gets written. They should have beaten the Ravens. They played a better game than Baltimore for the first three and a half quarters and lost anyway. Football.
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The defense is exceedingly stingy in allowing both yards and points, and if they can figure out a way to force more turnovers they’ll be downright frightening. Offensively they have become a true passing team. Roethlisberger is playing as well as he ever has and his receiving corps is multi-faceted and extremely dangerous. There aren’t a ton of glaring weaknesses with this team.
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The Steelers’ schedule hasn’t been particularly difficult by any means. And, like New England, they benefit from playing a fairly soft homestretch. (They’re only two quality opponents are the Bengals and 49ers). Unlike in previous seasons, the Steelers seem to be handling their business against the floormats of the NFL. Assuming they can continue that identity they should have 11 wins wrapped up fairly easily.
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Houston
  • Record: 7-3
  • SOS: .452
  • SOV: .369
  • Good teams defeated: Pittsburgh. Yep, that’s it.
  • Bad teams lost to: Oakland (maybe, but it was the day after Al Davis died and that game was super wacky).
Everybody loves Houston because they aren’t Indianapolis.
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Look, those SOS and SOV numbers are just too glaring to ignore. Their schedule is an absolute joke. I realize you can only play who is on your schedule, and they’ve done a good job of handling their business, but it’s really tough to get a read on what this team is all about when they’re spending their Sundays beating up on Indianapolis and Miami and Cleveland. And it doesn’t get much more difficult for them. The two toughest games remaining on their schedule are vsATL and @CIN.
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For their benefit, I will say this. Matt Schaub has been pretty solid [EDIT: Welp, apparently Schaub is out for the season. Didn’t know that until after I wrote all this], especially considering he hasn’t had Andre Johnson to throw to since week four. And Arian Foster might be the best player in football when he’s healthy. There isn’t a place on the field from which he is containable. If they had a healthy Mario Williams this team would be extremely dangerous.
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But here’s the thing. Aside from Williams, Johnson, Schaub, and Foster, can you name anybody else on that team? For some reason I feel like this means something. I wonder about their depth and their ability to last the season. Williams is gone, Johnson is fighting a hamstring injury, and Foster spent the first few weeks dealing with a hamstring injury of his own. They seem fragile. And what happens when they have to play Baltimore or Pittsburgh or New England in the playoffs? Their schedule provides them little opportunity to play top-level talent. Will they be able to raise their compete level to meet these battle-tested teams? Did I steal that last sentence straight out of Merril Hoge’s ESPN cliche book? Maybe. But I’m not convinced the Texans are much more than the beneficiaries of a supremely easy schedule.
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So there’s that. And then there’s this:
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Houston hasn’t really played anybody good, but they did beat Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh has beaten New England and Cincinnati, but lost twice to the Ravens and once to the Texans
New England has lost to Pittsburgh but beaten some other good teams
Baltimore has beaten Houston and Pittsburgh twice, but lost to a couple really miserable teams
Cincinnati lost to Pittsburgh, and haven’t really played anyone good other than that, and they also lost to the Broncos
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Okay so that’s like 1500 words and I still have no idea what the answer is. I think what we have right now is a clear top-tier of five in the AFC with no real way to determine who is better than who. Houston won’t really be challenged enough by good teams for us to know what they’re made of until the playoffs. The Patriots could easily catch fire against their soft schedule and convince everyone they’re great again. The Bengals very well may fade into anonymity as their schedule gets tougher. The Ravens may continue to drop winnable games to lousy opponents. The Steelers might continue to play well through the rest of this season, but after having lost both games to the Ravens can they really be viewed as the best in the conference?
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Gun to my head, my order is:
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5) Cincinnati
4) Houston
3) New England
2) Baltimore
1) Pittsburgh
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The Steelers seem to be the most complete team in all three phases. They’ve only played one bad game all year (week one) and have gone 2-1 against three teams on this list in the past three weeks. In my mind the Steelers benefit from having played the other four teams on this list and, while they’re 2-3, they easily could be 3-2. Push comes to shove, I have a hard time seeing any of these teams beating the Steelers in the playoffs. (Although I don’t like how Pittsburgh matches up against the Texans just because of Arian Foster.)
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No matter the order, I love that the AFC is this tight. I can’t recall the last time a conference race didn’t have at least one or two clear-cut favorites. It seems this season that all 16 games might count for something. What a concept.
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Categories: NFL, Steelers Tags: , , ,
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  1. November 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

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