Contenders or Pretenders: AFC Edition

Now that every team has played at least 9 games and there are already some foreseeable division-clinching situations, it seems appropriate that we take the time to look over division leaders, current wildcard holders, and the teams in the hunt to determine who really is legit.

*Note* In The Hunt teams extends only to teams with a legitimate mathematical shot.

AFC:

Division Leaders: Steelers, Patriots, Texans, Chiefs.

Wildcard Spots: Chargers, Bengals.

In The Hunt: Titans, Ravens, Colts.

Pittsburg Steelers: After a slow start to the season where it looked like Pittsburg could be in danger of no longer being the perennial playoff team they’ve been for the last decade. They’ve managed to get back on track and are looking as dangerous as ever after winning their last 5 games, including 3 divisional wins and a manhandling of the Panthers in primetime. Their defense and offense are both looking like some of the best in the league right now.

Verdict: Contenders

New England Patriots: Just like they have in recent years, the Patriots once again got off to a slow start. This time, however, the vibe of the team felt different. After the loss to former DC Matt Patricia and the Lions, many people began to think the Patriots might not bounce back this time. Unsurprisingly though, they did. They were winners of 6 straight before their recent loss to the Titans and their biggest weaknesses looked like strengths in that 6-game stretch.

Verdict: Contenders

Houston Texans: After losing three straight games to open the season, it looked like the Texans were going to be one of those massively overhyped teams that just fell flat. Thankfully, they were gifted with some bad opposing play calling in the week 4 divisional matchup against the Colts, and the momentum from their first win has carried them to a 7-3 record. In the last 38 years, only 5/173 teams to start 0-3 have made it to the playoffs. The bounce back of Watson, the elite talent of Hopkins, the cohesion of the defense, and the resurgence of JJ Watt really make it hard not to think that the Texans will crush the odds and become the next 0-3 team to get to the playoffs. With all the compliments out of the way, the Texans have had some close calls with average or worse teams, and their start could be indicative of something bad.

Verdict: Pretenders

Kansas City Chiefs: In stark contrast to all the other teams on this list so far, the Chiefs started their season firing out of the gates. With one of the hottest offense in the entire NFL and an underrated defense, the Chiefs have compiled a 9-2 record and taken down two of the best teams in the AFC already. Sadly, they just became the first team in NFL history to lose a game after scoring over 50 (previously teams were 216-0) and that defense needs a spark. Regardless, that offense is too elite to consider counting them anywhere near out.

Verdict: Contenders

Los Angeles Chargers: LA has faced the injury bug once again, but this time they refused to let it stop them. The Chargers currently sit at a comfortable 7-3, with their only three losses coming against the 9-2 Chiefs, the 10-1 Rams, and the decent Broncos. Even without key pieces like TE Hunter Henry and DE Joey Bosa, the Chargers have cemented themselves as a legit team at this point in the season. The offense is a very strong unit and their defense has tightened up in recent weeks. There is no reason to discount this team.

Verdict: Contenders

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals started the season strong and shocked some people and have since decided that they don’t want to win any more games. The team has looked flat since their quick 4-1 start and their combined point differential in their last four games is -72.

Verdict: Pretenders

Tennessee Titans: This team has looked really good and really bad at different points this year. More recently, we saw the bad. Then they went out and destroyed New England and then got manhandled by the resurging Colts. The Titans have one of the best defenses in the entire NFL, and all the offense has to do is score at least 20+ per game and the Titans could easily find themselves atop their division by seasons end. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can keep up with the more balanced teams like the Steelers, Chiefs, and Chargers.

Verdict: Pretenders

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens making any noise now relies on them going on a hot streak they don’t appear to be capable of. Their best hope is that the Bengals continue to go downhill and they can sneak out around 9 wins. The Bengals helped them by losing the head to head in Week 11.

Verdict: Pretenders

Indianapolis Colts: Indianapolis is quietly on a 4-game win streak and have demonstrated the ability to beat good teams with the week 2 win against the Redskins and the Week 11 win against the Titans. If Andrew Luck can pull off some more magic and that line can continue to play at the insane level they have been, Indianapolis can make some noise. They do have to rely on some help from Houston and Tennessee for either the division or the wildcard, but this team might just have the right combo of momentum, health, and fire to shock the league.

Verdict: Surprise Contenders

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