Can the Chiefs or Ravens break the run on Super Bowl Appearances in the AFC by the Steelers, Colts, and Patriots?
Training camps are open across the NFL, and today we go inside the AFC to look at two teams that have the best chance of breaking a ten year streak.
The AFC has only been represented by three different teams in each of the last nine super bowls. The Patriots have gone four times, the Steelers have gone three times, and the Colts have gone twice. Thanks to the dominance of these three franchises, the 2002 Oakland Raiders still qualify as a “recent” super bowl representative in the AFC. Since the Colts last SB appearance in 2009, both the Steelers and the Patriots have been to the big game once each, the Colts have completely torn down, and under Chuck Pagano, are in a decent position as a still-far-off but up-and-coming role in the AFC. Peyton Manning is a Bronco, and he’s got a very young team to work with. Both Manning’s current and former teams are playoff longshots.
Meanwhile, the window for the San Diego Chargers has gotten smaller and smaller every year. Philip Rivers is going to be as good as every this year, but Antonio Gates can no longer be considered in his prime, Vincent Jackson is a Buccaneer, Ryan Mathews is the team’s best pass catching weapon, and though Norv Turner’s offense is still fairly modern and innovative, the Chargers still have to drag their defense ahead kicking and screaming.
The two teams that are the greatest threats to the Steelers and the Patriots atop the conference are the Baltimore Ravens — who have been close forever — and the Kansas City Chiefs, who are too talented to ignore this season.
Analyzing the biggest concerns for the Steelers and the Patriots offers up the age of the Patriots offense and the age of the Steelers defense as the biggest concerns for each franchise. We know that both teams will be very good in 2012, but the NFL playoffs last year gave us a microcosm of the concerns that will doom the Patriots and Steelers going forward.
The Steelers haven’t been a complete team in 2-4 years, but for the Patriots, it’s actually been a lot longer than that. When Tom Brady overshot Wes Welker in the super bowl, we saw a small example of what the cumulative effect of pressure has done to Brady throughout his career. And we also know that the Patriots have failed miserably to put youth on the outside, instead opting to pluck Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth (both former Patriots) from the Redskins to make another run in 2012. Rob Gronkowski is a top talent, but his 2011 production wasn’t sustainable, and there are no young receivers to benefit from his presence. The real kicker with the Patriots is that they haven’t done a good job building on the defensive side, meaning that the standards for the offense are as high as they have ever been.
The Steelers’ age issue on defense was evident in the playoffs against Denver. While it is easy to say that the historically low turnover year for the Pittsburgh defense is guaranteed to regress (it will), what’s less clear is whether we were looking at one way the Steelers had to overcompensate for their age instead of just a fluke of luck. If the Steelers have to give up a lot more yards and touchdowns this year in order to stay in position to turn even an average amount of opponent mistakes into turnovers, the Steelers may fail to win 10 games this season.
The Steelers’ have an offensive unit in their primes though, and Ben Roethlisberger could be primed for the best season of his career in 2012. That should take a ton of pressure off of the defense. Surely, a lot depends on getting Mike Wallace’s contract situation sorted out, but as of right now, the Steelers would be considered favorites in the AFC, at least until their defense proves otherwise.
A lot of teams sit in between average and contender in the AFC, but it’s the Ravens and Chiefs who deserve focus as potential super bowl contenders.
The Ravens are ready to move their offense to the next level behind Joe Flacco. It’s going to take some additional offensive creativity from Cam Cameron, but Flacco throws the ball really well, and the Ravens do a very good job of keeping him clean. It’s on Flacco now to take the next step. But in analyzing the Ravens defense, I believe that even without Terrelle Suggs for most of the season, they’ll be okay. Probably not a great match for the Steelers, but they have won the last two head to head games, and the Ravens probably do sport the better of the two defenses (even without Suggs).
The Ravens will be better on special teams than a year ago, and have all the pieces in place on offense (save the tight end).
The Chiefs are a more interesting projection, because we know about how skilled they are on defense, and how they can now get after the passer with regularity. Losing Brandon Carr will hurt more in the long term than the short term, because Stanford Routt can play the second corner position at a high level. Eric Winston is a huge upgrade at RT, the team’s most problematic position.
The Chiefs have to overcome Matt Cassel at quarterback, but there is at least some evidence he can deliver a season in between his performances in 2010 and 2011. He will have better players to throw to and is very comfortable in the offense. It’s the combination of Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles at running back that should make the Chiefs the favorites in the AFC West. The Chiefs have a lot of talent coming off of injury and as that talent gets healthier and healthier as the year goes on (provided it does get healthier), the Chiefs are going to be a tough out in the AFC playoffs capable of beating the NE Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers.
Romeo Crennel might not get a better shot to win as an NFL head coach than he will this year. And with only the Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots truly “up” right now in the AFC, the opportunity is clearly there for the taking.