NFL Midseason Outlook: AFC

Now that I have examined the NFC, let’s look at who the top five teams are in the AFC through the first half of the season.

Top five AFC teams

5. Houston Texans: No team is immune to the injury bug; at some point in the season, every team is dealing with some sort of ailment. In the previous two weeks, the Houston Texans have become a M.A.S.H unit. The Texans have seen their secondary become paper-thin, losing three starters in their last two games, and saw Lonnie Johnson and JJ Watt left last Sunday’s game against the Raiders with injuries. Houston could get their secondary back intact after their bye, but for a third time in four seasons, Houston will have to go the rest of the season without JJ Watt.

Houston has also seen their offense take a bit of a beating as well, though there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as after their tilt with the Jags in London, the Texans will have their bye week. The loss of Watt hurts, simply because his name and presence alone commands attention. Now that he is no longer there, the question becomes: How do the Texans generate a pass rush? It won’t be easy, but Whitney Mercilus is having a good season, and rookie defensive end Charles Omenihu has shown that he can be productive. Losing Watt sucks, but Houston still has plenty of talent up front to find a way to get the job done.

As a team, the Texans have been inconsistent. Worst of all, Houston has a bad habit of starting games slowly. That bad habit caught up to them in Indianapolis, and if they don’t kick that habit soon, it could cost them their season in January.

The Texans are in good shape to make a playoff push, sitting just 0.5 game back of the Colts for not only the AFC South, but also the number two seed. Houston still has a puncher’s chance at the number one seed, as they sit three games behind the Patriots; but catching New England will require the Patriots to slow down somewhat, which does not feel very likely right now. If Houston is going to make a real run, they need to not only get as healthy as possible, but also need to develop good habits and be consistent.

4. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts took a huge punch to the gut before the season started, when Andrew Luck retired. Yet thanks in large part to a breakout season from Jacoby Brissett, the Colts are atop the AFC South and currently sit as the AFC’s number two seed. Led by one of the best coaches in the game, Frank Reich, the 2019 Colts define complementary football.

This is a Colts team that acts as a unit and contributes to victories collectively. My only area of concern for the Colts would be Brissett. As good as he’s been this season, the Colts do a great job of not putting the entire game on his shoulders.

What if the opposition races out to an early lead? Say it becomes a two-score or three-score game early, which may put a lot more on Brissett’s arm. Is he the guy who can bring the Colts back? He’s never taken a game over. I am curious to see if Brissett can be more than “pretty good” in January. If so, the Colts have a great chance to go deep in the playoffs, if not then an early exit is possible.

3. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs are number three because I don’t trust their defense, and Patrick Mahomes is dealing with a knee and ankle injury. A season ago, the Chiefs were 24th in the league in scoring defense. This year, after hiring Steve Spagnuolo to be their defensive coordinator and making an effort to improve their defensive roster in the offseason, the Chiefs are 17th in scoring defense, and such a slight improvement might not enough to get them over the hump. A big reason I don’t believe in the Chiefs defense is their games against the Colts and Texans.

Both Indianapolis and Houston were able to move the ball efficiently, sustain drives consistently against Kansas City, and come away with points. Unlike the Colts, who ran the ball, played slow, and milked the clock, the Texans offense did not need to play slow because they have Deshaun Watson. Behind Deshaun Watson and Carlos Hyde, the Texans recovered from a sluggish start and out-slugged the Chiefs 28–7 after the first quarter.

The Chiefs are well-coached by Andy Reid, and once Patrick Mahomes returns to full health, their offense is capable of scoring at will. However, their defense, which cost them a trip to the Super Bowl last year, has to dramatically improve. Right now the Chiefs are 11th against the pass, dreadful against the run, 15th in 3rd-down defense, and 13th in red zone defense.

Even though the Chiefs seem fairly solid on defense statistically, you would not know it by watching them play. The bottom line for the Chiefs is that if they can step up defensively in the playoffs, and have a healthy Patrick Mahomes, they probably have the best chance to unseat the Patriots. The biggest reason is the fact the Chiefs can play in the elements. Whether they play at Arrowhead or Gillette, the Chiefs can handle the cold; whereas Houston, Indianapolis, and even the Chargers are warm weather/indoor teams who don’t play as well when the elements are less than ideal. 

2. Baltimore Ravens: Even though the Chiefs beat the Ravens in week three (and that was a great game), I have Baltimore ahead of the Chiefs because in January, I trust the Ravens’ defense over Kansas City’s.

The Ravens are just 16th in scoring defense, so while their defense hasn’t been as stingy as we are accustomed to with the Ravens, they made a move to bolster that side of the ball by acquiring Marcus Peters from the Rams and pairing him with Earl Thomas.

Their offense has led the charge, as they are second in the NFL behind the Patriots in scoring. While their offense has been great so far, if the Ravens are going to get to Miami and have a chance at a Super Bowl, they need their defense to be as stingy as they were a season ago.

1. New England Patriots: Who else would you pick to be number one in the AFC? Bill Belichick and Tom Brady once again are dominating the division. Though they have just lost their first game, they still have the best offense in the league, and their defense is out-of-this-world great.

The last time the Patriots’ defense allowed more than two touchdowns was in last year’s AFC championship game. A big reason they are elite on that side of the ball is their athleticism. They are a very active unit that covers the field, thus minimizing the threat of a big play by their opposition.

New England has the best offense, and the best defense, and the inside track to a home-field postseason. Halfway into the season my question is simple: can anyone stop the Patriots? Because right now that answer appears to be no.

Teams left off the list

Two teams who are intriguing but don’t crack the top 5 are Buffalo and Jacksonville. The Bills are stout defensively, but are offensively challenged. I like second-year quarterback Josh Allen, but unless Buffalo’s offense can be as good as their defense down the stretch, they may make the playoffs, but they aren’t a real threat.

Jacksonville, on the other hand, has a very good defense, and Leonard Fournette leads a strong Jags run game, which can help the Jaguars extend drives and control the clock. The reason I don’t believe the 4–4 Jaguars are anything more than just a possible playoff team is that they have a rookie quarterback in Gardner Minshew. Minshew has played well, but guiding a team to the Super Bowl is a lot to ask of a rookie.

Final word

While many may disagree with this list or with my NFC list, there is still a lot of football to be played; a lot can happen in eight weeks. So buckle up, folks: the weather is cooling down, and the race to Miami for the Super Bowl is set to begin.

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