This N’ That With Tony Mack: AFC Report Cards

By Tony McClean
Updated: November 9, 2004

NEW HAVEN, CT. — Looking at the view from the AFC at the midway point of the season, we see status quo in New England, surprises in Pittsburgh and San Diego, and an emerging power in Jacksonville.

The Steelers, fresh off defeats of the league’s last two unbeatens, are currently the NFL’s hottest team sitting atop the AFC North. While its no surprise that the Pats are atop the East, the other two races in the AFC are still anyone’s ball game.
The Colts and Jags are battling for supremacy in the South, while the Broncos and Chargers (yeah, that’s right) are in a dogfight for the the top spot in the West. Still lurking for a possible wild card berth are the Jets, Ravens, Chiefs, and Texans.
Let’s take a look at the first-half.
New England has almost been better than advertised for most of the season. The acquisition of Corey Dillon (749 rushing yards) has made a decent offense even more explosive. Not to mention a defense that’s probably the most underrated in the league. Bouncing back from their loss at Pittsburgh shows that the road to Jacksonville still has to go through Foxboro.
The loss at Buffalo last week brought Gang Green’s grade down at bit. But Reverend Herm’s team has definitely been a bit of a surprise this season. Losing Chad Pennington will hurt a bit, but getting a quality backup like Quincy Carter will definitly pay off for them. He’s already got something in New York that he didn’t have in Dallas — a running game. Now if they could just get Paul Hackett to open up the offense a little.
After an 0-4 start, Buffalo has taken advantage of a slightly soft schedule to win three of their last four. It appears that Willis McGahee has replaced Travis Henry as the new feature back. If they can keep Drew Bledsoe in an upright position and the defense gets healthy, the Bills could possibly make a late run at the wild card. If not, they may have to settle for being spoilers in the East.
The season went up in smoke (sorry, I had to say it) a long time ago. You almost feel sorry for Dave Wannstedt now that he’s been put out of his misery. Even their once proud defense has turned tail this season. These fish stink, literally. The best they can hope for is bottoming out so they can get the first pick in the draft. They may have one upset left in them, but in the long run, it’s rebuilding time in Miami.
We thought Ben Roethlisberger was the best QB in the draft, but even he’s exceeded expectations. So much so that the Black and Gold are serious Super Bowl contenders. It’s a Steeler team that’s reminds you of their days of yore — a solid mix on offense with a rock ‘em, sock ‘em defense. They still have the Ravens in their rearview mirror, but for now they’re sitting in the drivers seat in the North.
The names have changed a little, but the execution remains the same. A little bit of the Lewis boys (Jamal and Ray) on both sides of the line, and just finding a way to win each week. A remaining schedule that includes the Jets, Patriots, Colts, and a rematch with the Steelers will have a lot to say about their playoff chances. Even if they don’t make it to the playoffs, you get the feeling they’ll have a say as to who will.
Despite their 3-5 mark, the Browns have been a little better than I thought they’d be. The offense was going to be centered around Kellen Winslow Jr., but his season-ending injury scrapped that idea. While Jeff Garcia has done a decent job, their are still some holes. Defensively, Cleveland appears to be turning the corner a bit. This team still isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but they’re working on it.
The learning curve for Carson Palmer has had it’s predictable ups and downs this season. It’s the main reason why the Bengals have taken a serious step back this year. Not mention a defense that still is painful to watch at times. The Lewis gang has looked great at times and awful at others. The 2003 resurgence seems like such a long time ago now. At this point, barring a long winning streak, Cincy is relegated to just spoilers at best.
The chances of the Jags being the first team to ever host a Super Bowl are hinging on the health of Byron Leftwich’s knee. The defense has been good as advertised, but the offehse has had its ups and downs. While they’ve been able to win the close ones, without Leftwich, there may not be many close ones down the road. Especially with a schedule that includes Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Green Bay down the road.
I know you’re saying isn’t that a low grade for a team that’s tied for the lead in its division? Yes, but it’s because of their lousy defense. Indy can and will put up points with the best of them, but until they can take it to another level defensively, they won’t reach a Super Bowl. The real questions about this team may be answered in the off-season. Especially with Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James about to become free agents.
When handing out midterms last year, I felt that the Texans were a year away from becoming a contender. It’s safe to say that Houston is definitely a player in the South Division race. Despite a bad loss in Denver, the offense appears to be ready to break out of their doldrums. For the Texans to really make some noise, the defense has to come through big time. The still have two meeting with Indy that will tell the tail.
Meet the NFL’s new Jekyll and Hyde team. The only thing that’s been consistent is their inconsistency. While Chris Brown has proven to be a fine replacement for Eddie George, the rest of the offense has been up and down. Same goes for a defense that appears to have lost its swagger. They’ve made late season runs before, but with this division getting stronger, it may not be enough this time.
When you consider the embarrassing off-season involving this franchise and the Manning family, the Phillip Rivers negotiations, and other things, it’s truly amazing that the players have stayed focused and they deserve this grade. Can they keep it up? I don’t think they’ll score over 40 points every week, but they won’t have to contend. Adding Keenan McCardell shows that the front office may have it on the ball. Now the big question — Will they keep Drew Brees?? Stay tuned.
This is still a very hard team to figure out. They’ve look awesome at times in wins over K.C. and Oakland, but they’ve also looked awful in losses to Cincy and Atlanta. With the Chargers being contenders and Chiefs sitting as spoilers, Denver needs to find some consistency and soon. A season-ending contest against the Colts could be a game that will have major playoff implications for the entire AFC.
Even if Rich Gannon was healthy this year, you get the feeling that this team would still be real bad. The Black Hole used to define the eager fans at the Coliseum, now it appears to be the place where this team is headed. For the fans’ sake, hopefully the draft picks obtained to let John Gruden go will begin to kick in sometime soon. It could be worse, Norv. You could still be in Miami.
Next: NFC Report Cards