I expected a lot of things out of the 2012 season. A bad AFC was not one of them.
Even though the Steelers have started the season with a 3-3 record, they are not only battling for a playoff spot but also a division title! Is it absurd to be somewhat overzealous by that previous statement? After all, the NFL is only seven weeks into the season.
Well, no it's not absurd.
Not when there are only three teams in the whole conference that possess a winning record. This is especially worth noting when two of those teams (Ravens and Patriots) are far from the elite standard they use to hold themselves to. It use to take a 5-1 start to stay on pace for a division title.
The Baltimore Ravens lost Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb for the season during last week's win against the Dallas Cowboys. While Ray Lewis is far from the player he use to be, he is still the heart and soul of the defense. That could not have been more clear after seeing the Texans put up 40+ points against Baltimore yesterday. They may have gotten back Terrell Suggs but overall, the defense is too old to dominate. That puts the onus back on Joe Flacco and the offense. While Joe has certainly improved his play over the years, Cam Cameron is still the offensive coordinator and Cam is about as aggressive as…well something that's not very aggressive. They may have the talent to put up big points, but they don't have the scheme to win a lot of shootouts.
The New England Patriots have had the same problem since Spygate: no defense. Tom Brady will get his numbers and the team will continue to rack up points. But the defense will not be able to stop a good offense. They are currently ranked 29th in pass defense.
From there, it's just a slew of teams that are 3-3 and 3-4. The race is certainly wide open and it seems highly doubtful that 11 wins will be the pre-requisite to make the playoffs like it was in 2008-2009.
Why? Well it comes down to two factors: defenses and quarterbacks.
Only six AFC teams represent the top half of the league in yards allowed and only the Texans and Steelers rank in the top ten. When you look at how the Steelers did against the likes of Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer, it's hard to argue that they are still a top ten defense. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are ranked 23rd and 26th, respectively.
When looking at the elite quarterbacks in the league, Tom Brady is certainly still one of them. You could argue Ben Roethlisberger has been the second best quarterback in the AFC this season or third behind Peyton Manning. After that, there's a lot of question marks. Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Carson Palmer, Tim Hasselbeck, Brandon Weeden, and Mark Sanchez are all pretty brutal, yet they start for AFC teams. Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco are game managers for rushing offenses. Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck are still learning how to play in the NFL so their inconsistencies are at least excusable. That leaves Philip Rivers, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Cassel. Yikes.
Compare those names to the NFC quarterbacks and it hardly seems fair. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees are clearly in the elite class. When you look at RG3 and Cam Newton, you see double threat players who have the overall talent to either make plays in the air or on the ground. Throw in Eli Manning who has won two Super Bowls in the last 4 years, Matthew Stafford who had 40 touchdowns last year, and Alex Smith who has a 93.6 passer rating, and you can see which conference has more explosive offenses.
The good news is, the Steelers play in the AFC during an era where the great teams of a few years ago are getting old and the young talented teams are far and few between. Or, as some would call it, "the 1980's." Is this a Super Bowl year of the Steelers? Highly doubtful. But they can make the playoffs, even with eight or nine wins by the end of the season.