There's a hidden reason for my great confidence heading into the 2010 season:
I think the AFC is heading for a down cycle.
Let me begin by saying: my evidence for this is thin. I recognize that the AFC won the inter-conference matchup last year. I'm not so weaselly as to say something stupid like "the NFC won two of the last three Super Bowls" as evidence. The last three Super Bowls were all basically coin flip affairs that each could easily have gone the other way.
Still, for the better part of the decade the AFC has been the dominant conference. This is a fact people forget when they talk about the 'playoff failures' of the Colts. Remember how John Elway took the Broncos to five Super Bowls? Part of that was due to the fact that he played in a cheese easy paper thin conference for most of his career. Actually, it was the Broncos back to back titles that started the shift of power away from the NFC and back to the AFC. For most of the '00s, the AFC has been a gauntlet of great teams. Navigating the Pats/Steelers/Colts triangle sank franchises like Denver, San Diego, and Baltimore who often had good teams but couldn't break through.
Everyone wants to think the Colts made Super Bowl XLIV because they were good, but I think it had as much to do with getting one of the easiest playoff routes of all time. The Ravens and Jets simply weren't championship caliber teams last year (especially with Flacco hurt). The Colts SHOULD have crushed those teams, and did.
I started working on our predicted standings piece for this year, and I was shocked at how little faith I have in most of the AFC 'powers'. I want to put the Pats down for a 7-9 season. You know I do. However, when I look around the conference, I realize someone has to be good. Outside of the Colts, who are stacked, I look at the conference and this is what I see:
Patriots-Their D was suspect last year and they've already lost Warren. More importantly, check out Tom Brady's 2009 season. Statistically, it was the second best year of his career, but Pats fans know he wasn't sharp. How did that happen? Check his splits:
Against Jags/Titans: 52/60, 647 yards, 10 TDs, 0 INT, 151.2 Rating (10.8 YPA, 87% comp)
Against other 11 teams: 319/596, 3751 yards 18 TDs, 13 INT, 73.9 Rating (6.3 YPA, 53.6% comp)
That doesn't count the playoffs. Yeah, I'm not so worried about the Pats. Still, I think they win 10 games by default. Some one HAS to win.
NY Jets-I'm not buying it. They have serious QB issues, and teams with QB issues don't win Super Bowls. Mark Sanchez had nice flashes in the playoffs last year, but I'm not sold. They were not worthy of a conference finalist spot last year, so I don't think they are taking the leap.
Baltimore-They are the trendy pick for the Super Bowl, but I don't see it. They have serious problems in their secondary and adding a 30 year old oft injured slot receiver (Boldin) doesn't make them an instant juggernaut. So much of the hype around the Ravens centers on Joe Flacco because he's "won three playoff games already!".
I've mentioned it before, but that's terrible logic. The most passes he's ever completed in a playoff win? 11 (for 161 yards). He "won" a playoff game in which he went 4/10 for 34 yards and a pick. His rating in JUST HIS WINS is 61.9. Come on. I'm not seeing it. Flacco had a nice season last year, but he has never played well in a playoff game.
Pittsburgh-I typically have great respect for the Steelers, but with Roethlisberger out for a month at least, I have a hard time seeing them at 12+ wins this year even if everything else breaks right for them.
Bengals-T.O. Moving along...
Texans-Beat the Colts more than once a decade, and we'll talk.
San Diego-They are dealing with massive internal strife and holdouts. Rivers basically covered up a deeply flawed team last year. Oh yeah, and Norv...
I'm not trying to be dismissive, but the AFC "contenders" don't read like a murder's row of great teams. Three of the Fantastic Four (Indy, SD, Pitt, NE) look old and deeply flawed. While on the NFC side, New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Dallas all look superior to most of the AFC contenders. We haven't even started talking about Atlanta or the Giants yet.
I think the NFC is better at the top than the AFC. That's great news for the Colts. Indy is still going strong and ought to be able to capitalize with another trip to the Super Bowl.
As the last three years have shown, once you get there, anything can happen.