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Thursday, November 14, 2013
NFL Nation Says: AFC's best team

By Kevin Seifert

NFL Nation Says Illustration
The AFC's top teams could be in a four-way race for the conference's top seed.
Peyton Manning's weekly exploits this season have crafted a narrative that assumes the Denver Broncos are the NFL's top team.

A quick look at the standings, of course, reveals they are not even atop their own division. If the postseason began today, the Broncos would be the AFC's No. 5 seed and would be preparing for a wild-card playoff game at the Cincinnati Bengals.

The AFC playoff race could be upturned as early as Sunday night, when the Broncos (8-1) host the West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (9-0). And with seven weeks remaining this season, it's more than reasonable to project a four-team race for the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Chiefs hold a two-game lead over the New England Patriots, a three-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts, and four over the Bengals. Keep in mind, however, that the Chiefs have feasted this season on a schedule filled with average (or worse) teams. The Broncos' schedule hasn't been much different.

In fact, as John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information points out, the Chiefs and Broncos are a combined 17-0 against teams that are currently .500 or worse. On the only occasion when either team has faced an opponent with a winning record, the Broncos fell 39-33 to the Colts.

Meanwhile, four of the Bengals' six victories have come against teams that have winning records. The Colts have three such victories, including the only losses suffered by the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots have two such wins.

All of this suggests the AFC could be headed toward a more dramatic finish than it might otherwise seem. How will it turn out? Let's turn it over to ESPN's NFL Nation:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs may not be the most intimidating of teams, but they do a lot of little things that add up. They do enough of them well that it's reasonable to believe they could emerge from the AFC to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs play some good defense, which actually isn't a small thing. They allow some yards and give up some big plays, so their statistics aren't always pretty. But the Chiefs pressure the opposing quarterback (league-high 36 sacks), create turnovers (league-high 23 takeaways ) and are great playing inside their own 20 (they allow opponents a touchdown a league-best 23 percent of the time).

But the Kansas City defense doesn't settle for stopping opponents or putting them in bad situations. This D also scores. The Chiefs have five defensive touchdowns, or almost one-half of the 11 touchdowns they have allowed.

The Chiefs have been strong on special teams. They've scored two touchdowns in the kicking game, but perhaps more importantly, they're consistently winning the field-position battle. The Chiefs have started 21 possessions on their opponents' side of the field. Their opponents have started just four drives on Kansas City's side of the field.

Turnovers can explain some of that disparity. Strong kick returns and good kick coverage explains the rest.

Offensively, the Chiefs aren't scoring many points but they also aren't messing up a good thing. The Chiefs have committed just eight turnovers, fewest in the league. The offense has been at its best while protecting a lead and running out the clock in the fourth quarter.

That's another quality that isn't very impressive on the surface. But it is another little thing that makes the Chiefs tough to beat.

-- Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are plenty of coaches in the league who will say, whenever faced with a choice between one team or another, always go with the quarterback.

And among the AFC front-running teams, the quarterback who is playing the best and has done the most -- sore right ankle or not -- is Peyton Manning. So, until such time as that is not the case, the Broncos remain the best bet in the conference to make the Super Bowl.

Yes, they have lost a game, but they were a Ronnie Hillman fumble on the Colts' 2-yard line from making it a six-point game with just over three minutes to play. Yes, Manning has been hit more over the last four games, and yes, his ankle is a concern as the Broncos brace for a three-game stretch that includes the Kansas City Chiefs twice and the New England Patriots.

But as cornerback Champ Bailey has put it: With a guy like Peyton, you always feel like you have a chance in any situation, that you're always going to be in position to do great things. As a player, that's as good as it gets.''

And despite all the concerns from near and far about how much Manning's throws do or don't wobble, the Broncos are still the only team averaging more than 40 points per game (41.2) and Manning is still on pace to break every significant single-season passing record.

His 33 passing touchdowns are more than any other team has scored this season, and three Broncos receivers already have nine touchdown receptions each, which ties them all for second in the league, with Calvin Johnson.

Plus, they have blocked two punts on special teams and scored three times on special teams, so the Broncos can force the issue in other ways. And beyond their ability to keep Manning healthy, the team's defense is generally regarded as the weak link in the chain.

But the Broncos continue to believe Von Miller will round into form after missing the first six games due to suspension, that Bailey will get back in the lineup, and that they will find the same groove the unit had for much of the 2012 season when the D finished at, or near, the top of every major defensive category.

Front to back, from the quarterback through the entire depth chart, the Broncos are the most well-rounded team in the AFC.

-- Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams have traditionally become stronger in November and December, which has been a key ingredient in their decade-long success. When the weather gets colder, and the magnitude of the games become greater, they are often at their best.

On top of that, one of the main things the Patriots have going for them is they are 7-2 without having played a game in which their top three skill-position players not named Brady (tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Shane Vereen and receiver Danny Amendola) have been on the field together.

That day is coming, possibly as soon as this upcoming Monday night, which means the explosive offense many thought we would see in 2013 could become a reality. Gronkowski, it should be noted, is still working his way back and is not yet at 100 percent participation in games (he's averaged 44 snaps per game in three contests since returning).

So the potential for greater things on offense is clearly there, while the injury-ravaged defense remains a bit of a question mark. But then one remembers that cornerback Aqib Talib, who was part of ESPN's MVP Watch before injuring his hip on Oct. 13, has missed the last three-and-a-half games. The return of Talib could cure a lot of the team's recent defensive ills.

Furthermore, it always helps to play one of your top competitors at home (the Broncos on Nov. 24). The Patriots have one of the NFL's best home-field records over the last decade-plus.

Overall, while there are several new players, this Patriots team has a familiar look to past clubs that won the AFC: They fare well in the turnover differential, aren't heavily penalized, and rise up in the critical situations. Add it all up and that makes them a top AFC contender.

-- Patriots reporter Mike Reiss

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts have been at their best when they've played the best teams in the league. They've beaten San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, all likely playoff teams, proving that they know how to rise to the challenge.

Indianapolis' Super Bowl aspirations appeared to take a substantial hit when receiver Reggie Wayne went to the ground with a torn ACL in the final minutes of the Oct. 20 victory over the Broncos. Losing Wayne leaves quarterback Andrew Luck with T.Y. Hilton and a group of inexperienced and unreliable receivers to go with an offensive line that's had a difficult time blocking. You would think those issues would make it virtually impossible for the Colts to have any chance of advancing out of the AFC.

That's not the case when Luck is your quarterback. He simply knows how to win. Luck played behind an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks during his rookie season, but he still managed to set rookie records in passing yards and touchdowns while leading the Colts to 11 victories and the playoffs. Indianapolis has a favorable schedule over the final seven weeks of the season, which means Luck has an opportunity to develop the same kind of continuity with his receivers that New England's Tom Brady has with his. Only three of the Colts' final seven opponents currently have a winning record. Luck obviously isn't on the same level as Brady, but the young QB can take a page out of the future Hall of Famer's book about getting the best out of a group of inexperienced receivers.

The defense has been solid when the entire unit has been together. Starting cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis and safeties LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea feed off each other's energy and aggressiveness. Linebacker Robert Mathis, the league leader in sacks, has been on a mission all season to prove he can still produce without Dwight Freeney. The defense seems to come up with a big play when necessary. Just ask Peyton Manning.

-- Colts reporter Mike Wells

CINCINNATI -- OK, it's true. The last two weeks haven't been very kind to the Cincinnati Bengals as they have lost consecutive games to teams they probably should have beaten. But here's the reason why they have as much of a shot at winning the AFC as anyone else: Mike Zimmer.

Cincinnati's defensive coordinator has been nothing short of brilliant this season. The adjustments he's had to make because of the bevy of major injuries have kept the Bengals afloat this season and allowed the defense to maintain its spot among the league's elite. Entering Sunday's Week 11 showdown with the Browns, the Bengals' total defense ranks fifth in the league. Among the current division leaders, the Kansas City Chiefs are the only other team with a top-10 defense (at No. 10).

Doesn't that old adage about championships say something about defense winning them?

Another reason the Bengals could win the conference in the postseason has to do with the following. Quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't been as sharp in the last two games as he has been overall this season, but he has shown that he can put together a string of four straight good games. In the playoffs, that's all a quarterback has to do. It's been said all season that however Dalton goes, so go the Bengals. When he's good, they are very good because of that dominant defense. When he's bad, they aren't very good.

Dalton and his top target, receiver A.J. Green, are the type of players who perform best when they are being discounted and when they feel their proverbial backs are against the wall. For that reason, expect the quarterback to come to life in the coming weeks and to snap out his recent funk. If that happens and Zimmer continues to call strong games, the Bengals will win this conference.

-- Bengals reporter Coley Harvey