Last night's Steelers/Broncos game provided some modicum of clarity at the half way point of the race. Here's how I size up the contenders:
1. Indianapolis-The Colts remind me a lot of last year's Steelers. No run game, suspect line, great QB and defense. The Colts defense passes my 'eyeball test'. The offense does not. This team needs get Gonzo and Brown healthy. Assuming that happens, I think they represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. They are two games clear of the rest of the conference, so you have to like their chances at a bye or #1 seed. All other top contenders have two conference losses except Pittsburgh which lost a tough game with the Bears. They have allowed the fewest points in football. They have scored the 5th most. That's a great team. The future schedule is doable: NE, @Baltimore, @Hou, Denver. If the Colts can split those four games, they'll go no worse than 13-3 on the season.
2. Pittsburgh-They lost a fluky game to the Bears and at the gun to the Bengals. They may be better than they were last year, as now they can almost sort of run the ball. Anyone who watched them last night knows they are 100% legit. Polamalu is a force on defense. I'm not a little sad they aren't on our schedule this year. They beat the Vikings (fluky, I know, but that evens up that Bears loss), and have the third best point differential in the AFC. They have a very manageable schedule and stand to win 13 games, if they can go 2-1 verses Cincy and Baltimore (with two games at home). With one non-conference loss, they would force Indy to win 14 games to get the #1 overall seed.
3. New England-I'm still not sure what to make of this team. They've spent the better part of a month beating up the dregs of the NFL which masks some of the lackluster performances they've had. There's not much need to dwell on it though, we'll find out soon enough what they are. I don't think they are anything more than the third best team in the conference. They do have the second best point differential (which tells us who a team really is) in football, but that 59-0 win over the Titans sort of tilts the table. They are number one in DVOA as well, so I'm forced to conclude they are good. My eyes have told me otherwise, but I haven't watched them closely in a few weeks. They still play @Indy, @NO, @Mia, @Hou. I can't see them finishing better than 12-4.
4. Cincinnati-Don't sleep on the Bengals. They can run, pass and play good defense. They've gutted out some tough wins (and had a heart-breaker with Denver). They've actually allowed fewer points this season than Pittsburgh. It would tempt me to rank them higher, but they still play 5 of their last 8 on the road including @Pitt, @SD, @Minn, @NYJ. I can't see them doing any better than a 12-4 finish at BEST. DVOA doesn't think much of them right now, and they'll have to win some more of those close games to hang in the playoff fight.
5. San Diego-Yes, I have them ahead of Denver. It's the typical Chargers. They start bad, then they get a bunch of winnable division games, and make a hard push for the playoffs. I hate this team. I don't want to play them. I know that their point differential is one less than the Broncos though, and that they are moving in the right direction for the first time this season. They have a brutal slate in front of them, though. They have Philly at home, Denver on the road, and then @Dallas and Cincinnati. 11-5 would be a great record for them. 10-6 will win the division, if they can beat Denver.
6. Denver-Not buying it. Orton is an utter fraud. They put up 3 points on offense last night (could have been zero, but the Steelers dropped a pick on the first drive). They have to play San Diego, NYG, @Indy, @Philly. They'll probably drop another game to a sub par team because they'll have a game where they can't score 10 points. The Chargers game is key. If they can beat San Diego, they'll win the division. If they don't, they'll be forced to battle out the Texans for the final wild card spot. I think they've been exposed the last two weeks, and won't be surprised at all to see them go into a tail spin.
Lurking: Houston. I don't think the schedule works out for them to win more than 10 games.
By the way, the top 6 teams in the AFC are a combined 11-1 verses the NFC (the top 6 in the NFC are 10-5 verses the AFC).