BY NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: AFC logo. NFL.com image
The National Football League is experiencing a unique phenomenon this season. Nine weeks into the season, there are 20 teams with between three and five wins. There are six teams above five wins, and six teams below three wins. Most teams are near the middle of the pack, with few being excellent and few playing very poorly.
In the American Football Conference, there are many teams competing for a spot in the postseason. However, only six teams can make it. These are the six teams that have the strongest chance to claim a playoff spot this season.
No. 1 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs (8-1, 3-0 DIV)
The Kansas City Chiefs are one of the few dominant teams in the NFL this season. With no shortage of weapons on offense and the next great gunslinger in Patrick Mahomes, their offense has shown no signs of stopping to this point as the top-scoring offense in the league.
However, the Chiefs have a glaring weakness: their defense. Between several injuries and an overall lack of talent and depth, the Chiefs have had their fair share of struggles on the defensive side of the ball.
Ranking as the 13th worst scoring defense in the NFL, Kansas City surrenders the second-most yards per game to its opponents. Getting safety Eric Berry and linebacker Justin Houston back for the second half of the season would help this porous defense tremendously.
With matchups against the Rams, Ravens and Chargers coming in the second half of the year, the Chiefs will have the chance to break their recent pattern of struggling in the second half of the season. The Patriots will have a chance to catch up, but it is unlikely that anyone matches the current trajectory of this dominant Chiefs offense.
No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots (7-2, 2-0 DIV)
After two tough losses to Jacksonville and Detroit early in the season, the Patriots have found their rhythm. They have claimed victories in their last five contests, one of the most important being a 43-40 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots also have a two-game lead in their division. With quarterback Brock Osweiler leading the 4-4 Dolphins, it appears they will win the AFC East once again.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots have not been as dominant as they have been in years past. They are at their best with a balance between their rushing attack and a West Coast style of offense.
For this reason, the injury to running back Sony Michel made things more difficult on offense. Quarterback Tom Brady has quietly turned the ball over more often this season than he has in almost a decade, with seven interceptions thus far. He only had eight interceptions throughout all of last season.
On the defensive side, the Patriots have a “bend, don’t break” mentality that has served them well this season. They have allowed the ninth-most yards in the NFL, but have the 11th-best scoring defense to go along with that.
Looking forward, the Patriots will have difficult matchups against the Vikings and Steelers. Having the tiebreaker over the Chiefs might prove to be crucial for New England. Overall, the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady makes the Patriots Super Bowl contenders every season, and this year is no different.
No. 3 Seed: Houston Texans (6-3, 2-1 DIV)
After a jarring 0-3 start, the Houston Texans have found their groove, winning their last six contests. They currently boast the top record in the competitive AFC South and have shown no signs of stopping.
Despite finding themselves in the middle of the league in most offensive categories, the dynamic ability of Deshaun Watson as a dual-threat quarterback has propelled the Texans forward offensively. While speed demon Will Fuller was lost due to injury, the acquisition of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will help to keep the production steady.
The Texans’ defense, on the other hand, boasts the ninth-least yards allowed in the NFL at the halfway point. With weapons such as JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Zack Cunningham, the Texans should be able to lean on this talented core for the remainder of the season.
Houston is also aided greatly by a relatively easy second half of their schedule. With their toughest remaining game coming on the road against Washington and games against each AFC South opponent, the Texans have a real chance to win the AFC South and make some noise in the playoffs.
No. 4 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1, 3-1-1 DIV)
As usual for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the focus has been on off-the-field distractions. They also struggled early in the season, but have since churned out some gritty victories and look to take the AFC North once again.
There were large amounts of speculation surrounding Le’Veon Bell’s absence and when he would return to the team. Despite this, James Conner has had an excellent start to the season, ranking third in the NFL in rushing yards behind Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott.
Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster has also emerged as a solid No. 2 option across from Antonio Brown. The Steelers’ offense always ranks among the best in the NFL and it has again this season, coming in fourth in the league in total yards and ninth in points per game.
The defense of Pittsburgh, while being notoriously poor over the last few seasons, is starting to improve. Standout players such as TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward and Sean Davis have led this defense to improve from the bottom of the league to around the middle of the pack.
The second half of Pittsburgh’s schedule comprises of tough matchups against the Panthers, Chargers, Patriots and Saints. For this reason, the Steelers will have a lower record than the Texans at the end of the season, giving them the third seed.
However, the Ravens and Bengals also have tough schedules to round off the year, and the Steelers have more weapons and the experience of success to win the division this year.
Wild Card No. 1: Los Angeles Chargers (6-2, 1-1 DIV)
The Chargers are quietly having an excellent season. They have the unfortunate blight of sharing their division with the high-flying Chiefs. However, they have all the pieces of a successful team and have shown their mettle as one of the best teams in the AFC.
Melvin Gordon has developed into a great lead running back in the NFL and has proven his worth as both a pure runner and a receiving back as well, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and ranking second on the team in receptions. Along with this, quarterback Phillip Rivers has spread the ball well to his other offensive weapons, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler.
On the defensive side, the Chargers have a ton of upside. Defensive end Nick Bosa leads their stout defensive line, and Derwin James headlines a secondary with lots of upside and young talent. The linebacking corps has been one weak spot for the Chargers, as Denzel Perryman has been the main source of stability at middle linebacker.
If they were in any other division, the Chargers would have a strong chance to take one of the top four seeds. However, the Chiefs have a stranglehold on first place in the division, so the Chargers will have to settle for a wild card berth.
Wild Card No. 2: Baltimore Ravens (4-5, 1-3 DIV)
The Ravens have a simple formula that they have followed for many years: establish the running game and have a great defense. When they execute both of these things, they become very difficult to defeat.
Running back Alex Collins has made himself a solid reputation as the lead running back for the Ravens, and they will need to find more creative ways to get him in open space. John Brown has also emerged as a premier deep threat for the Ravens, providing some consistent production at wide receiver.
The defense, though, is the heart and soul of this Ravens team. It claims the second-best scoring defense in the league along with allowing just 305.0 yards per game, almost 10 yards less than the second-best team in that category, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The combination of a strong defense and a successful running game can lead this Ravens team to the postseason once again. The Ravens have sneaked into the playoffs before and caught fire. They will look to end their playoff drought this season.