What If Every AFC Contender Could Get One Gift?
There is no such thing as a flawless team in the NFL; every team has its weaknesses. While there’s a growing belief that the Seattle Seahawks might make it to the Super Bowl again, it’s important to remember that being the clear favorite can be short-lived, as demonstrated by teams like Denver, Dallas, New England, and Green Bay in 2014. Each team could use a little sumpin sumpin this time of year to bolster their chances for the challenges that lie ahead
If each NFL playoff contender on the AFC side of the bracket were granted one wish from Santa, allowing them to receive any single improvement to enhance their playoff chances, what would they ask for? Today, we’ll look at the AFC side of the bracket…
There are various avenues to consider in this scenario. You might request a full recovery for Julian Edelman, emphasize a stronger focus on the running game, or ensure Rob Gronkowski’s sustained health throughout the playoffs. Each of these options would undoubtedly provide valuable assistance.
For me, the choice is straightforward. I don’t require the gift of Edelman’s or Gronk’s health, as there’s a reasonable chance that will happen naturally. Additionally, the enhancement of the running game is contingent on a reliable and exceptional performance from the offensive line.
The fundamental rationale behind prioritizing the gift of an improved offensive line for the Patriots is that none of the other potential gifts would make a difference if this offensive line doesn’t consistently excel. When it’s performing at its peak, it’s truly outstanding. However, the problem this season has been the inconsistency, with stretches featuring some of the most secure pockets in football and others you wouldn’t trust even your worst enemy in.
This would naturally entail having a fully recovered Dan Connolly back in the left guard position, along with the rest of the offensive line performing at their highest level. This, in turn, would involve creating formidable protection for Tom Brady, introducing effective run plays, and executing well-timed play-action passes.
You might expect me to comment on Peyton Manning’s arm strength, the condition of his “thigh,” or even request a no-interception guarantee. However, I’m not going down that path. The truth is, Peyton had a subpar performance on Monday night, and throwing four interceptions is almost a surefire way to lose in the NFL.
However, it’s reasonable to expect that he won’t replicate such a poor performance. While he may still have games with multiple interceptions, it’s unlikely that he’ll throw four interceptions again. Despite concerns about his arm strength and health, it’s important to note that all of the interceptions against Cincinnati could have been prevented with better decision-making. Every single one of them.
The major change in this year’s Broncos team was anticipated to be on the defensive side, as that’s where significant investments were made. The most crucial gift the Broncos require is an unwaveringly strong defense to compensate when Peyton Manning makes errors.
Manning will have spells of bad play. The Broncos have made significant acquisitions on the defensive side to address such situations, drawing from experiences like last year’s Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Players like DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, and their teammates must be capable of preventing opposing offenses from having big days when their own offense isn’t performing at its best. This lesson has been learned, as evidenced by the Broncos winning three times this season despite Peyton Manning throwing two interceptions in those games.
Allowing over 200 rushing yards, as they did against the Bengals, is not meeting the expectations. However, with top-notch team coordination and complementary play, this team has a significant chance to become a formidable contender in the playoffs.
Without it, playoff disappointment is a certainty.
Let’s dive right into the Cincinnati Bengals’ situation. It’s crucial that their success doesn’t solely rely on Andy Dalton, even though I have faith in him. His performance can be inconsistent. Instead, the Bengals have struck gold with a potent running game, one of the most threatening among the remaining teams, especially with the potential duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Ensuring a consistently high-level ground game is the gift that should be at the top of every Bengals fan’s Christmas wish list. Additionally, Andy Dalton’s ability to make smart decisions and run for easy yards when necessary adds another dimension, helping to sustain drives and prevent forced throws.
While AJ Green’s arm injury from the Denver game doesn’t seem to be a major concern, the subsequent ineffectiveness should temper any aspirations of relying solely on the passing game for a shot at the title in Arizona. The Bengals are demonstrating an understanding of what their ideal form should look like.
The playoff challenge lies in not forsaking the lessons learned during the regular season simply because the stage is grander. If you witness Andy Dalton attempting 35 or more passes in a game, it’s likely an indicator that things haven’t gone well for the team….
Let’s be honest: considering the recent performances of the Colts, they require more than just one gift. There are weaknesses in various areas of their game. However, if there’s one thing that could kickstart their journey in the right direction, it would be shutting down their opponent’s running game.
While the Cowboys game was undoubtedly a nightmare for the Colts, their upcoming challenges seem reminiscent of the earlier Patriots game, where New England dominated with 246 rushing yards against the Colts defense. If the likely Wild Card opponent turns out to be the Steelers, it’s almost certain to be problematic for the Colts unless they promptly develop a strategy to contain Le’Veon Bell and prevent him from replicating what Jonas Gray and his teammates accomplished so effortlessly.
Certainly, Andrew Luck should focus on minimizing errors, and it would be beneficial to see improved running output from the offense, alongside the defense generating multiple turnovers. All these factors would significantly contribute to the Colts’ resurgence and progression in the tournament. However, it’s important to emphasize that without a strong run defense against their probable opponents, the effectiveness of everything else becomes somewhat irrelevant.
The AFC teams have recognized the winning formula. The strategy employed against the Colts, particularly by teams designed for it, resembles a slow-moving train approaching on the horizon, easy to spot from afar.
Stop the run, or trot into the offseason.
Lately, the Steelers have found success by improving their defensive performance, complemented by an outstanding running game and explosive plays from Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh has demonstrated its capability to manage the game’s tempo through a strong running attack while also seizing opportunities for significant gains when the situation warrants it.
It may feel unconventional to discuss a Steelers team that relies heavily on its offense, but their successful formula involves combining the explosive contributions of Bell, Brown, and Bryant with periods of dependable (rather than porous) defensive play.
In the spirit of not being too ambitious during the holiday season, the Steelers’ desired gift would be good (not great) defensive performance. This would entail contributing positively to the turnover differential, preventing significant disparities in time of possession due to extended 10+ play drives, and capitalizing on their fair share of opportunities in crucial red zone situations.
A competent defense serves as the key ingredient for a successful Steelers playoff run. It might seem unconventional to acknowledge this, but it accurately reflects the current situation in the Steel City. With well-rounded, complementary performances, Pittsburgh emerges as a strong dark horse candidate on the AFC side of the playoff bracket.
San Diego, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City
Qualify for the playoffs. Then we can talk. Your gift stays in the sack until then..