AFC Updated Standings Predictions

Posted: 11/09/2014 by levcohen in Football

Now it’s time to update the AFC standings predictions I made before the season started. The one thing that jumps out at me in the AFC is that, although the NFC was more heralded coming into the season, the AFC has been the better and more intriguing conference thus far. But while there are a lot of teams fighting for playoff spots in the AFC (11 of 16 teams above .500), there are also some really, really bad teams in the conference. The result? 11 teams above .500, four putrid teams, and just the Houston Texans in between. It’s a fun conference.

AFC East:

1. New England Patriots (12-4): Preseason prediction: 12-4. It was touch-and-go in September, as the Patriots went just 2-2 ending in a blowout loss in Kansas City (41-14) on Monday Night Football that led to news reports that Tom Brady was unhappy, on the decline, or even on his way to being benched and eventually booted out of New England. All of that, of course, was a massive overreaction, as the offensive line has improved drastically, giving Brady time to pick apart defenses and leading to five consecutive wins in which the average margin of victory has been nearly 19 points. Against supposedly tough defenses like Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Denver, the Patriots have averaged upwards of 40 points per game since October began. So after all that talk about the end of a dynasty, the Patriots are just as good (if not better) than they ever have been. Their schedule to end the season is tough, with tough road games in Indianapolis, Green Bay, and San Diego. But the Patriots are tough to beat at home, and should split their four remaining road games. I think they go 5-2 to end the season and end up at 12-4, and, depending on how Denver does, with homefield advantage in a possible AFC Championship showdown with Peyton Manning.

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6): Preseason prediction: 9-7. I believe in the Dolphins. Maybe it’s recency bias, as they are coming off a 37-0 win over a pretty good Chargers team, but I think the Dolphins will compete for and eventually win a playoff spot. Ryan Tannehill is playing very well right now, as he’s become a real threat running the ball as well as throwing it. The defense has given up as many points in their last three games (27) as they did in their unlucky week six loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That loss might come back to hurt them, as 10 wins might not be enough in the stacked AFC. But while the schedule has a few games that will probably end in losses (at New England, at Denver), the rest of the teams they play seem mediocre. The game in Detroit this week against a similar (surprisingly good, defensively scary, offensively talented) team is huge.

3. Buffalo Bills (8-8): Preseason prediction: 5-11. I was wrong about the Bills. Their defense is very good (fourth in DVOA), but we knew that would be the case. Still, the fact that they are second in the NFL in sacks with 28 is impressive, albeit not unexpected. So if I knew the defense was good, why did I predict them to go 5-11? First of all, I thought they’d be stuck with E.J. Manuel at QB all year. That hasn’t been the case, as the Bills made the early decision to bench the 2013 first round pick in favor of veteran Kyle Orton. Orton hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t needed to be, and he has led the Bills to a 3-1 record. Unfortunately, though, both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the team’s two playmaking running backs, are injured, and this offense still has problems scoring points, week eight win over the Jets aside. The Bills have been aided by a lot of good luck, as they’ve won each of their three games that have been decided by three or fewer points. Regression is coming in the second half, but I think the defense is good enough to keep this team from totally imploding. A 3-5 second half seems reasonable, which would mean an 8-8 record for a team that hasn’t ended a season .500 or better since 2004.

4. New York Jets (3-13): Preseason prediction: 4-12. I’ll give myself a pat on the back for this one, as a 4-12 prediction before the season was actually pretty bold. A lot of people had the Jets finishing around .500 or even making a playoff run, but eight losses following a week one win later and my prediction is looking pretty good. The Jets might not even get to three wins, as they have seemingly quit on their coach and are now being run by Michael Vick. The defense is still solid, but the offense is really bad and the Jets end the season with a pretty tough schedule (Miami twice, New England, Pittsburgh, Buffalo still to come). There should be a couple more wins coming, but this team is awful.

AFC North:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): Preseason prediction: 9-7. It didn’t look good after a week six blowout loss to Cleveland that made the Steelers 3-3, but I’m happy I picked the Steelers to win the division. I’m not going to claim that I saw Ben Roethlisberger throwing 12 touchdowns in a two week span or the offense looking as good as it has, but here are a few things I said before the season:

I’m picking the best quarterback in the division to win it. That’s often a safe bet, as most divisions are going to be won by the team with the best QB. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t always flashy, but I’d take him over most quarterbacks, including Brian Hoyer (and Johnny Manziel), Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton.

Roethlisberger has indeed been the best QB in the division, and he has been flashy over the past couple of games. I’d consider him the sixth best quarterback in football right now, behind Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Andrew Luck, and slightly ahead of Philip Rivers simply because he doesn’t often have the terrible games we have seen Rivers have. Oh, I also said this:

Chief among the reasons I’m picking the Steelers (besides Big Ben) is wide receiver Antonio Brown. Partly because of his build (he’s 5’10”), I think Brown is the most underrated receiver in football.

And this year, he’s also been the best receiver in football. Now, not everything I said about the Steelers was correct. I said Le’Veon Bell was “not exciting” (he’s pretty exciting) and came close to comparing him to Trent Richardson (he’s a lot better). I also overestimated the defense, which is 27th in DVOA. But the offense has been good enough that the defense almost doesn’t matter at this point.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6-1): Preseason prediction: 9-7. I know, picking the Bengals to finish second in the division and in the playoff running after the egg they laid Thursday against the Browns seems pretty stupid. But I know enough about this team not to get fooled by a bad game. Just as they perform badly when the Bengals are hyped up, they play well after people have dismissed them. And although five of their last seven games are on the road with a near-certain loss coming in New Orleans next week, games in Houston and Tampa Bay aren’t that frightening. The X-factor is the defense, which really needs to turn it around. I think they do eventually, but it’s not enough to send them to the playoffs.

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7): Preseason prediction: 7-9. The Ravens are last in the AFC North right now at 5-4, but I think they are still in the thick of the playoff race. They have by far the easiest remaining schedule in the division, with games remaining against every AFC South team except for Indianapolis and four home games in their final seven. This team is very good at home, so if they can run the table in their home stadium they can go 10-6 even if they win just one of three on the road (@NO, @MIA, @HOU). I think another slip-up, likely against San Diego, is more likely than not, though, which unfortunately means the Ravens could well be spending January golfing rather than playing football.

4. Cleveland Browns (8-8): Preseason prediction: 5-11. I might just be missing the boat with Cleveland as I did before the season when I picked they and two other teams to go under their projected win total. The Browns, after all, are 6-3 and are coming off a huge win in Cincinnati in which they totally embarrassed the home team. But I still don’t see it. I just don’t think this team is good enough to keep winning games, especially since they have a game against the Colts and games in Buffalo (where the weather will be bad) and Baltimore remaining. Then again, I also said I didn’t expect Brian Hoyer to start for long. Maybe I just don’t get it with these Browns.

AFC South:

1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5): Preseason prediction: 11-5. I could see the Colts running the table, but I think it’s more likely that they slip up once or twice. But the rest of the season will be a cakewalk for the team that has the easiest remaining schedule in football. After their week off, they play the Patriots at home and then play just two more games against winning teams (Cleveland and Dallas) the rest of the season. The might lose to the Pats, but I think they’ll be favored at home. This was another of my good calls, as Andrew Luck is leading the pack in the MVP race and the Colts have a shot at a first round BYE.

2. Houston Texans (8-8): Preseason prediction: 8-8. This is exactly the Texans team I thought I’d see, with J.J. Watt playing out of his mind and leading the defense into the top half of the league but quarterback play holding the team back. The Texans are making a QB change heading into their BYE week, but I don’t think Ryan Mallett is much better than Ryan Fitzpatrick. The schedule is easy, with two games remaining against Jacksonville, but that’s the only reason I have the Texans ending the season at .500. When Watt gets some help, though, this team could be a force to be reckoned with.

3. Tennessee Titans (3-13): Preseason prediction: 5-11. That week one win over the Chiefs sure looks weird now, doesn’t it? Every year there are a couple of week one scores that throw everyone off, and Tennessee’s 26-10 win in Kansas City was one of those games this year. Since week one, the Titans have just one win, and it was by two points at home against Jacksonville. This team is really, really bad. Bad enough that I might need to include them in what is now the Quartet of Horror (Jacksonville, Oakland, Jets, Bucs).

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14): Preseason prediction: 4-12. I think the Jaguars will beat the Titans and/or win one of the Houston games, but that’s it. The people who thought they would build on last year’s season-ending hot streak were dead wrong. Instead, they have a chance at the top pick. By the way, I totally nailed this division, or at least wasn’t totally off on a team like I have been (Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa, Cleveland, Kansas City are my biggest misses) in most divisions.

AFC West:

1. Denver Broncos (13-3): Preseason prediction: 12-4. There isn’t much left to say about the Broncos. I think their loss last week in New England was an aberration, and I think they’ll rebound to win the top seed over the Patriots by a game. The offense is of course great, but the defense has been pretty good for the most part as well.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): Preseason prediction: 7-9. I thought the Chiefs would have a big drop-off this year, but they’ve been surprisingly good. And the way they are winning is pretty sustainable. While they aren’t forcing the turnovers they were last season, they are running the ball offensively and pressuring the quarterback defensively. This is a good all-around team, one that I think will make the playoffs at 10-6.

3. San Diego Chargers (8-8): Preseason prediction: 9-7. After six weeks, the Chargers were 5-1 and looked like the best team in football. Philip Rivers was in the MVP discussion, and the defense was surprisingly allowing just 15 points per game. Since then, though, disaster has struck in the form of losses to Kansas City, Denver, and, worst of all, by 37 points to Miami. And, while I still think this is a good team, the remaining schedule is very difficult. After two likely easy wins over Oakland and St. Louis, the rest of the season consists of home games against Denver and New England and trips to Baltimore, San Francisco, and Kansas City. That’s as tough as it gets, which is why I think the Chargers end up at just 8-8 and outside the playoffs. The week 17 game against Kansas City will be a big one for one or both teams, though. I’m looking forward to it.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14): The Raiders are bad, but they aren’t winless bad, right? They have just two losses of more than 11 points, and have played good teams pretty close. They could easily have a win or two already. But they don’t, and they also have the toughest schedule in football to end the season. They still have two games against Denver, two against Kansas City, one against San Diego, and one against San Francisco. That means they must win one of those games or sweep Buffalo and St. Louis. I don’t know how they do it, but I have a feeling that the Raiders will get to two wins. It might not keep them from getting the top pick in the draft, though.

Updated playoff seeds:
1. Denver Broncos
2. New England Patriots
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Kansas City Chiefs
6. Miami Dolphins

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