We love the NFL because at the beginning of every season we feel like our team might have a shot. There is more parity than in any other professional sport . . . except in the AFC. Here are the Super Bowl representatives over the last decade from both conferences:
New England Patriots New York Giants
Pittsburgh Steelers Green Bay Packers
Indianapolis Colts New Orleans Saints
Pittsburgh Steelers Arizona Cardinals
New England Patriots New York Giants
Indianapolis Colts Chicago Bears
Pittsburgh Steelers Seattle Seahawks
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles
New England Patriots Carolina Panthers
The AFC has sent THREE TEAMS to the Super Bowl since 2003. Three. For how many more years are the Patriots, Steelers and Colts going to have the monopoly on AFC championships? Zero. That's right, I'm calling it right now. Here are my wayyyyyy to early playoff predictions for 2012.
AFC East: New England Patriots - The Jets may rebound from last season, the Bills should improve. The Dolphins are interesting with a new coach and Matt Flynn possibly following from Green Bay. Over the years the hot backups like Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel and Kevin Kolb have produced mixed results. Like Cassel and Kolb, Flynn had the benefit of studying behind a pro bowl QB before stepping in and producing in a passer friendly offense when the starter went down for a game or two. Will his success translate better to a new team? I hope it does, but it's all speculation right now anyway. Pats still take the division regardless.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens - Joe Flacco has proven to be an adequate quarterback, much like Philip Rivers was early in his career. Would a new offensive scheme benefit him? Maybe, but even if he doesn't improve much, this is a tough team that has already won one Super Bowl without an elite QB. The Bengals seem likely to improve with another year of experience, and I don't think you can count out the Steelers yet. This division could send three teams to the playoffs again. Cleveland still lacks elite talent at EVERY offensive skill position, they're a few years away from any sort of contention.
AFC South: Houston Texans - The Colts have basically owned this division since Peyton came to town. No more. Houston ran away with their first ever playoff birth without the services of their best offensive (Andre Johnson) and defensive (Mario Williams) players. They rolled with a 3rd string QB after Matt Schaub went down and Matt Leinart promptly got injured as soon as possible, because hey, being a back-up playboy quarterback who gets sideline tickets and never has to get hit is a pretty good gig. I think Tennessee will be in the mix longer than people expect, but Indy is in full-on rebuild mode and Jacksonville is one Maurice Jones-Drew away from challenging Cleveland as the team with the least amount of elite play makers. The should have the chance to snag a few more early in the draft over the next few years.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders - This is my least confident pick, any team in this division could finish with 10 wins or 4. That being said I'd like to see what Oakland's young receivers can do after having an off-season. They need to cut down on penalties, but IF Darren McFadden doesn't miss more than a game or two, I think the Silver and Black get back in the playoffs.
Wildcard: Pittsburgh Steelers - The Defense is aging. They still have a good coach, a clutch quarterback, speedy receivers and solid running backs. They'll win 10 games, and it will be enough to get in.
Wildcard: Tennessee Titans - I wanted to pick the Bengals here, but it seems every year there are at least two teams in the playoffs for each conference who weren't there the year before. Titans get the nod over the Chargers after nearly making it last year with a new coach and new quarterback and a terrible season from Chris Johnson.
AFC Champion: Baltimore Ravens - The Houston Texans are going to be the sexy pick for Sports Illustrated, ESPN and mostly everyone who gets paid to do this. . . . which is the only reason I can come up with to pick against them. I can see the Ravens drafting Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who under the tutelage of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs hits his stride in the playoffs and comes up with some big plays to keep Houston out of the Super Bowl if these two teams meet.
Coming Up Next: NFC Playoff Predictions