1. Indianapolis Colts (AFC South Champ)
After the Colts secured a gift win via a reprehensible call in the final two minutes against the New England Patriots, they are in the driver’s seat in the AFC. They are currently sitting at 9-0 and, looking at their remaining schedule, it is entirely possible this team could finish with 14 or more wins. Like New England, the Colts have relied heavily on the pass to set up the run this year, but the combination of Joseph Addai and rookie Donald Brown have been dynamic when called upon. It doesn’t hurt that Peyton Manning is having one of the most efficient passing years of his career (104.6 passer rating) and that the offensive line is giving him gratuitous amounts of time to find his targets (eight sacks allowed in nine games). If the defense continues to hold together without Bob Sanders, then they will be tough to bring down in the playoffs.
2. New England Patriots (AFC East Champ)
The Patriots are the beneficiaries of a surprisingly weak AFC East division this year. The Bills looked to have improved their offense with Marshawn Lynch returning from an injury and the offseason acquisition of Terrell Owens, while the Jets looked like a sleeper after they stormed out of the gates and held New England’s potent offense to just nine points in a loss. Both squads have fallen into mediocrity though along with the Miami Dolphins. New England, meanwhile, has been led by a rejuvenated Tom Brady who is on pace to record 34 touchdowns and almost 5000 yards. Add in a patchwork run game that has done just enough to keep opposing defenses honest and the offense has been spectacular. There are still a lot of questions about the defense, especially in the secondary, but they will play well enough to easily give the Patriots the division crown.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North Champ)
The Bengals have been disproving doubters and disparaging gamblers the whole season. With their second win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, it looks like they have finally earned some credibility. They are 7-2, Carson Palmer has been playing as well as he ever has, Cedric Benson has been a revelation at running back and a usually soft defense has been one of the NFL’s best this year. The Bengals’ only losses this season are courtesy of a miracle touchdown in the waning seconds by Brandon Stokley and the Denver Broncos and a boom or bust Houston Texans team that was firing on all cylinders. As long as Cedric Benson’s strained hip is not a lingering concern, then Cincinnati should be a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
4. San Diego Chargers (AFC West Champ)
The Chargers and the Broncos will both beat up on Kansas City and Oakland while they battle it out for the division title, but I see San Diego coming out on top. They have a slightly easier schedule going forward and their offense has a lot more stability, especially with LaDainian Tomlinson back. Phillip Rivers has found his definitive go-to-guy in six-foot-five wideout Vincent Jackson. Jackson, along with tight end Antonio Gates, gives them two dangerous red zone targets. After a tumultuous start to the season, San Diego has won four straight games, and they will ride that momentum to a division title.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
It looked like Pittsburgh might be in a world of trouble after Willie Parker was ineffective out of the gates, but Rashard Mendenhall has more than stabilized their running back situation. Roethlisberger has been great this year, though he could use some more protection from an offensive line that has allowed 27 sacks. The imposing defense, meanwhile, has shown weakness against the league’s best quarterbacks, which is potentially problematic when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning join them in the playoffs. Their cupcake schedule the rest of the way essentially ensures them at least a wildcard spot in the competitive AFC North. They have three “gimme” games at home against Oakland and at Kansas City and Cleveland to go with two matchups against the division rival Baltimore Ravens. Assuming a split against the Ravens that would put the Steelers at 10 wins. That should be enough for a playoff spot.
6. Denver Broncos
The Broncos, led by ex-Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels, have been surprising people all year ever since they surprised Cincinnati with their week one miracle win. The excommunication of disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler and the early season troubles of “prima donna” receiver Brandon Marshall left this team with a suspect offense. But Kyle Orton has filled in admirably for Cutler, Marshall has since gotten his head on straight and the defense has outperformed all expectations. There are signs, however, that the Broncos’ surprising season could be just an aberration. They have lost their last three games after starting out 6-0, and there defense has given up an average of 28.5 points in those losses compared to just 10.6 in their wins. Add to that uncertainty over the questionable status of Orton, after sustaining an ankle sprain in their previous game, for their matchup against the Chargers this week and they could really be in trouble. Nevertheless, I see them doing just enough to earn a playoff berth in the top-heavy AFC.