Archive for Thursday, November 6, 2008

Commentary: AFC powers aren’t who we thought

November 6, 2008

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— A few days before the season, at an ESPN writers' roundtable, five of us were asked several burning NFL questions. All five of us had the same answer for only one of the 11 questions: Will preseason injuries to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning change the face of the AFC? We - the NFL "experts" - scoffed at the question.

New England and Indianapolis, along with San Diego, were the teams to beat in the AFC, we answered. No question.

Now, here we are halfway through the season, and New England, Indianapolis and San Diego are no longer the AFC favorites.

Who would have thought, before the season, that Tennessee, with Kerry Collins as its quarterback, would be the NFL's last unbeaten? Or that Buffalo, with second-year starter Trent Edwards at quarterback, would be in the discussion?

But the biggest surprise in the AFC race is the teams that aren't the favorites anymore. The face of the AFC indeed has changed.

The Patriots lost Tom Brady in Week 1, and even though they've hung around with Matt Cassel at quarterback, no one - not even Patriots fans - truly can believe this is a Super Bowl championship team. Heck, New England couldn't win the Super Bowl last season after going 16-0 in the regular season and with Brady at quarterback.

Bill Belichick might be coach of the year for having his team tied for first despite losing its leaders.

The Colts played five games without safety Bob Sanders, the defensive player of the year last season. They played two games without running back Joseph Addai. They have had a patchwork offensive line.

The Colts might have survived all that fine if Manning wasn't playing like he's coming off two off-season knee surgeries, which he is. Manning insists he isn't hurt, which means, then, that he just stinks. I am not buying that.

The Chargers lost Shawne Merriman for the season in Week 1; LaDainian Tomlinson has played like he's 29 going on 30, which he is; and Norv Turner is proving right his critics who said he is a good offensive coordinator - one of the best - but he is not a good head coach.

So that leaves us with the Steelers and the Titans as favorites, and both teams are flawed. The Titans have Collins at quarterback. He is 7-0 this season despite throwing for no more than 199 yards in any of those games, with three TDs, three interceptions and a 72.9 passer rating.

The Steelers can't keep Ben Roethlisberger standing. He is hitting the deck at a record pace, and he left Monday night's game against the Redskins with a shoulder injury.

Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times in '06, 47 times in '07, and he went into Monday night's game on pace to be sacked 53 times this season. That would tie Cliff Stoudt's team record set in 1983.

Sometimes Big Ben has held the ball too long, and sometimes Pittsburgh's offensive line has been overpowered.

All of this begs a bigger question: Has the NFC regained supremacy?

The AFC has won eight of the past 11 Super Bowls. The NFC has not won more interconference games than the AFC since 1995.

The AFC is without Brady and has a struggling Manning, leaving the NFC with the better QBs right now, and thus the best chance to win the Super Bowl.

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