THE ROAD TO MIAMI

Battle Plans THE ROAD TO MIAMI

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Over the years, there has been a shift in power of the conferences. The NFC reigned supreme for the better part of 20 years. From the 80’s through the 90’s, only three AFC teams won the Super Bowl. The Steelers won the fourth Super Bowl of their dynasty run in 1980. The Raiders won two championships while in Oakland and Los Angeles. Denver, led by then four-time Super Bowl loser John Elway, won back-to-back championships towards the beginning of the new millennium. Aside from those five victories, every other Lombardi trophy was claimed by the 49ers or the Redskins or the Giants or the Cowboys.

However, the tide has turned since 2001, when Baltimore defeated the New York Giants in Super Bowl 35. In fact, since Denver broke through the NFC stranglehold and pulled off a major upset victory over Green Bay in Super Bowl 32, the AFC has won 7 of the last 9 NFL championships. In that span, New England became the newest dynasty franchise, winning three Super Bowls behind the precise passing of Tom Brady and the masterful coaching of Bill Belichick. Not only has the AFC proven its wear as a conference through Super Bowl victories, but through its performance in the regular season.

 
AFC teams like New England and Indianapolis have managed to capture at least 14 wins in the last three seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 15 games in 2004, one of only four teams to accomplish this feat. In addition, while two NFC teams with 8-8 records snuck into the postseason in 2004, three AFC teams with 9-7 records were not able to qualify in the AFC. The level of depth through the conference is so great that one can make a case that at least two teams from each division in the AFC has the talent to win the Super Bowl. To add, two of the divisions (the AFC North and the AFC West) feature three teams which could make a playoff push. With so many solid teams in one conference, it is hard to predict which of these teams has the best chance to play in Super Bowl XLI. After all, Pittsburgh, a team that was not even in the playoff picture as of Week 13, won the Super Bowl last year as the six-seed.
 
So will another wildcard team capture a title in 2006? Or will the top seed in the AFC fight off stiff competition and live up to its postseason expectations? Here is a ranking of what could be the top six teams in the AFC next season:
 
1). Pittsburgh: The defending champions are ranked at the top of chain. Until proven otherwise, they must be considered the team to beat. The Steelers lost three starters from last year’s championship team: Chris Hope, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Antwaan Randle- El. All three players are replaceable parts. Aside from those three, the rest of the team remains intact. The most important aspect of this team’s potential improvement could be the ascent of Ben Roethlisberger’s play at the quarterback position. Roethlisberger made key plays in the passing game that he did not make the year before, as a rookie. Although he struggled mightily in the playoffs, Roethlisberger is capable of taking over a game, and passing the ball 30 times or more if the Pittsburgh ground attack falters. And with the Bus (Jerome Bettis) parked in a long-term parking spot, there is a possibility that the Steelers may not run the ball with the same level of force as they normally do.
2). New England: Despite coming off of their worst season since the 2002 season, look for the Patriots to bounce back. First of all, with the combination of Belichick and Brady guiding the ship, New England will always be in Super Bowl contention. Those two remain the best quarterback/head coach duo in the NFL, if not among the great duos of all-time. Brady had another superb season despite not being able to depend on a consistent rushing attack. Second, with the addition of Laurence Maroney through the draft, New England now has a reliable backup to handle the workload in the event Corey Dillon is not able to stay healthy, or is simply not effective. In addition, the Patriots added much needed size and explosiveness at the receiver position when they traded up in the draft to acquire Chad Jackson. The defense should benefit from the return of Rodney Harrison, and having All-Pro veteran Ted Bruschi available for the entire season. The Patriots were a team to be feared at the end of the 2005 season, and if not for a couple of bad breaks against Denver, they could have been back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years.
 
3). Denver: Speaking of the Broncos, it is clear that they are gearing up for one more major Super Bowl run. The defense, guided by veterans Al Wilson and John Lynch, is among the most talented units in the league. With the return of talented first-year players Dominique Foxworth and Darrent Williams from injuries playing alongside Champ Bailey, Denver should be much better against the pass than they were a year ago. Clearly, the addition of Javon Walker could pay huge dividends, as Jake Plummer will have a big and reliable deep threat to go to down the field. However, Walker must prove that he is healthy. Also, the Broncos will feel the loss of Mike Anderson at the tailback position. Anderson was not flashy, but he was always able to move the pile, gain the tough yards and unlike Tatum Bell, he rarely fumbled the football.
 
4). Jacksonville: The Jaguars have a great chance to play in the big game come February, 2007. Jacksonville is a young team, but after winning 12 games last year and gaining valuable playoff experience, the Jaguars may be mature enough to handle a rigorous playoff schedule next year. Losing Jimmy Smith to retirement was a blow. Smith was Byron Leftwich’s security blanket, and go-to target in crucial conversion situations. Although Matt Jones has the physical tools to supplant Smith’s production, it is a major question as to whether Jones has enough experience or understanding of the receiver position to live up to his potential. In addition, receivers Ernest Wilford and Reggie Williams will have to develop. Williams especially must shake the bust tag. What should help Leftwich and the other receivers is the presence of Mercedes Lewis at the tight-end position. Lewis is type of pass-catching threat that Leftwich has sorely lacked since he took over as the starting quarterback two years ago. On defense, the Jaguars lost starter Akin Ayodele, but added Brian Williams, a solid cornerback who will play tough against the run. The Jacksonville front line, led by mammoth tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, is perhaps the best defensive front four in the game.
 
5). Baltimore: There is no question that no move affected the balance of power at the top of the AFC then the Ravens’ trade for quarterback Steve McNair. McNair finally provides Baltimore with a solid, reliable commander at the quarterback position. He brings credibility and leadership to a position which has plagued the Ravens since its inception as a franchise. However, even though McNair should help improve a non-existent passing attack, the running game most improve for Baltimore’s offense to realize its full potential. On defense, the Ravens added beef and needed pass-rushers to the line by drafting Haloti Ngata and signing Trevor Pryce and Justin Bannan. Pryce may not be the player he once was, but he is still an effective edge-rusher who can get to the quarterback from the inside or outside. With clear improvements made at the quarterback and defensive line positions, Baltimore should have a more complete ball-club capable of challenging the elite teams in the AFC, including two of the teams that made the playoffs from their own division (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati).
 
6t). Indianapolis: While the Colts did push for an undefeated season last year, and still have a talented roster intact, there is no doubt that Indianapolis took a step back while other teams in the conference took a step or two forward in the off-season. The Colts lost Edgerrin James, David Thornton and Larry Tripplett to free-agency. James is the biggest headline loss, but the loss of Thornton and Tripplett from an improved defense should not be overlooked. Still, the story is James. In James, the Colts had a dominant back who also contributed in the passing game as an elite pass-catcher and blocker. In fact, James is the best blocking back in the league. His ability to recognize and pick-up blitzers was one of many crucial factors for Peyton Manning’s success as a passer. James’ replacement is Joseph Addai, who has better speed, but does not bring as much versatility to the table. Still, the Colts will not have a problem scoring with or without James, as Manning can turn to the best receiver corps in the NFL, maybe of all-time, to make plays in the passing game. On defense, the Colts will move Robert Mathis in as the every down defensive end opposite of Dwight Freeney. Mathis and Freeney are the fastest duo at the position. Although the Colts have the speed to create turnovers and make big plays on defense, they will have to prove that they can play physical and tough against the run.
 
6t). Cincinnati: It is fitting that the Bengals are ranked alongside of the Colts, as both teams are almost mirror images of each other. Like Indianapolis, Cincinnati’s strength is its powerhouse offense. If the offense scores 30 points consistently, the defense just has to give up less than that inflated output to win games. However, despite the great strides the Bengals’ defense made a year ago, the unit still gave up a lot of points last season. If the Cincinnati offense was not able to win as many shootouts as it did, the Bengals would have lost more games. That said, there is a chance that the defense will improve with the addition of Dexter Jackson and Sam Adams through free-agency, and the development of younger starters like Madieu Williams, David Pollack and Odell Thurman. The biggest question surrounding the Bengals is Carson Palmer’s health. Palmer’s goal is to play in the season opener against Kansas City, but his recovery may take longer. If Palmer is sidelined for more than one or two games that could greatly affect the team’s ability to compete with the big boys of the AFC.
 
Other teams to watch: Miami, Kansas City and San Diego

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Dev Panchwagh

About Dev Panchwagh

Dev Panchwagh is a versatile analyst who breaks down the Xs and Os of the game and has been a columnist/analyst for Ravens24x7.com since the summer of 2004. In his regular season column Battle Plans, Dev highlights the Ravens' keys to success against each upcoming opponent. Dev started modestly as a sports journalist, but his contributions to sports talk radio were noticed, leading to duties as a regular columnist for the Scouts.com network before joining RSR.  It would be very difficult to find his rare combination of youthfulness, knowledge and insight in all facets of football anywhere else.  Fortunately, Dev brings it here each and every week.  More from Dev Panchwagh

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