Broncos Lead the Pack: Separating the Contenders from the Pretenders in the AFC

The NFL season has hit the half-way pole, and it's time to size up the 2013 playoff field.

Starting with the AFC this week, there are five obvious "contenders" for the postseason that are all but mortal locks to make the playoffs. Each one has its own set of strengths and hidden weaknesses.

From Denver to Tennessee, it's time to separate the wheat from the chaff in the American Football Conference.


Denver Broncos

Playoff Odds: 99.6% (45.5% for the No. 1 seed)

Best Stat in their Favor: Denver leads the world in point differential. Over the long haul, points for and against speak more strongly as to the overall strength of a team than does their actual record. Denver suffered one difficult loss on the road against another AFC contender, but their plus-125 scoring advantage screams "best team in football".

Hidden Advantage:   Oddly enough, the illness of John Fox might work to the Broncos advantage. Fox committed coaching malpractice in the playoffs in 2012, and gave away the Indianapolis game by being over-conservative on fourth down. Jack Del Rio may be one of the worst managers of a locker room in recent memory, but his final two years in Jacksonville saw him become exceedingly aggressive in terms of going for it. Additionally, with a veteran-laden club, Del Rio may not have the same discipline issues he did with the Jaguars. Finally, more control for Peyton Manning is a good thing. Everyone wishes Fox well and a speedy recovery, but there's a very good chance the Broncos won't miss him.

Reason to worry: The key to winning football games is passing the ball and stopping the pass. The Broncos do the first well and the second poorly. They are the 21st ranked pass defense by DVOA, and it'll be tough to win in January without shutting down the likes of Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. As much as people worry about Peyton Manning in a snowy game in Denver, it could serve to help the Broncos slow down opposing passers.

Verdict: Contender

The Broncos are the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl with good reason. They have the best team, and no one wants to play them in January.

It's no stretch to call the Broncos the favorite in the AFC. Yes, they are a game behind Kansas City, but let's move beyond shallow things like a one-game difference in the standings. Denver is a darling of the Vegas odds for a reason.


New England Patriots

Playoff Odds: 93.9% (25.6% for a bye)

Best Stat in their Favor: The Patriots have the second-best special teams play in the NFL by DVOA. Yes, they aren't the terrifying juggernaut they once were, but they do the little things well enough to steal games. They've lost a pair of close, hard-fought road games, but at 7-2, have a real chance of securing a bye.

Hidden Advantage:  New England is sixth in the NFL in net yards per attempt on defense. That means the average passing attempt goes for about 5.6 yards after you factor in sacks. The Pats defense has given up 27 points or more in three of the past four weeks, but if they can continue forcing opposing passers to dink and dunk, they'll win their share of games.

Reason to Worry: Their closing schedule is tough. In many ways the easiest stretch is already behind the Pats.  They face Carolina and Denver in each of their next two games. Those will tell us a lot about their ultimate chances to secure a bye.

Verdict: Contender

This is the hardest team to judge in football, in part because they have the highest variance in terms of week-to-week performance. Tom Brady may be having the worst season of his career, but as long as Bill Belichick is on the sidelines, the Pats have to be taken seriously.

The worst Patriots team in years is still a major player in the AFC. To hear Boston fans tell it, this Pats team is a disaster, but if they'd pull the silver spoon from out their own ass for moment, they'd realize their Pats still have a very real chance to make the Super Bowl.


Indianapolis Colts

Playoff Odds: 97.3% (41.3% for a first-round bye)

Best Stat in Their Favor: It may not be a stat in the classic sense, but the Colts are 3-0 against winning teams. Those three wins just so happen to have come against arguably the three best teams in football (San Francisco, Seattle and Denver). The fact is that while the Colts have weaknesses, they've already shown they can play with anyone. If you are looking for a more classic number: they have turned the ball over fewer times than any team in football.

Hidden Advantage: The Colts play the fourth easiest schedule in the NFL down the stretch. In the race for home-field advantage, the Colts could win by default. They still have just two games against winning teams the rest of the year.

Reason to Worry: Andrew Luck's sack percentage is higher now than it was last year. Despite a retooled interior line and an offense designed to protect him, the franchise quarterback is still getting pounded on a weekly basis. The Colts live and die with Luck's effectiveness, so they have to shore up the pass protection if they are going to be a factor in the post season.

Verdict: Contender

It feels wrong to call a team with so many obvious flaws a contender, but anyone who can beat the teams Indy has beaten is for real. The Colts should finish the year with at least 12 wins and that could get them a bye. No one wants to come into Indianapolis to play them, and Luck has demonstrated that no game is out of reach.

The Colts are greater than the sum of their parts. They are an easy team to pick apart, but a difficult team to beat. Would they still be underdogs against the Seahawks or Broncos if they met again? Yes, probably, but the lines would be much closer this time around. Indy has wins over three of the six best teams in football. If that doesn't make you a legitimate Super Bowl contender, then nothing possibly could.


Kansas City Chiefs

Playoff Odds: 99.7% (41.6% for a bye)

Best Stat in their Favor: They are 8-0. Like the Colts, there are lots of things you can point out wrong with Kansas City, but they are unbeaten. Moreover, they aren't a fluke. Their plus-104 point differential is third-best in the NFL. Like the Broncos, when you outscore bad teams by a lot, it says something about the strength of your club.

Hidden Advantage: The Chiefs lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-15. They've forced at least two turnovers in seven games and at least three in five games.

Reason to Worry: Kansas City has played the easiest schedule in football. Going forward, they play the fourth-toughest. Their victories are over teams that are a combined 27-49.

Verdict: Pretender

Don't misunderstand, please. The Chiefs are a good team. The problem is that they aren't likely to secure a bye or even a home game. They have the second-highest variance in football, and play one of the toughest schedules the rest of the way. That's a bad formula for a team that needs a short-cut to the playoffs.

Kansas City will get the chance to prove they can win the conference as they take on the Broncos and Colts before the season is done. If they win the West, they'll win respect. The Chiefs are for real, but that doesn't make them a Super Bowl squad yet.


Cincinnati Bengals

Playoff Odds: 94.67 (34.8% for a first-round bye)

Best Stat in Their Favor: Andy Dalton has improved his yards per attempt this season by nearly a full yard. League average is usually around 7.0. Dalton has gone from 6.9 YPA in 2012 to 7.8 in 2013. His completion percentage is only a couple of points better, but his yards per completion is also way up. If next-level play is the key component for a Super Bowl run, then Dalton could be flashing signs of capability.

Hidden Advantage: Despite allowing 30 to the formidable Packers in Week 2, the Bengals have held visitors to 10 points or fewer in their other three home games. Though they've been fairly average on the road, the Cincinnati defense has been stout at Paul Brown Stadium.

Reason to Worry: Marvin Lewis may be the next Jim Mora. At 0-4 in playoff games, he's threatening to push Mora's 0-6 mark as the worst playoff coach of all time.

Verdict: Contenderish

The Bengals need home field advantage. They face a relatively easy closing slate, so a bye and a second-round home game could go a long way for them. They play differently at home where they are undefeated than on the road where they are 2-3. If they can beat Indy at home on December 8, then you can take off the asterisk. They'll be in prime shape.


The teams vying for the sixth seed in the conference are all similar degrees of mediocre. All should be considered pretenders and it matters little which actually qualifies for the final seed.

San Diego Chargers

Playoff Odds: 15.2%

Best Stat in Their Favor: Phil Rivers is second in the NFL in DVOA and third in QBR. They'll go as far as he can take them. Yeah, exactly. That's the BEST thing they have going for them.

Why They Won't Make the Playoffs: The schedule. San Diego has played the 31st easiest schedule so far, but close with the fourth most difficult. They'll do well to finish .500.


Tennessee Titans

Playoff Odds: 22.7%

Best Stat in Their Favor: They play the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. Of course, that also contains three games against Indy and Denver, with two on the road. Every other game is winnable, however, making 9-7 a real possibility. After all, they do get Jacksonville twice, so they only need to win three of their other six games.

Why They Won't Make the Playoffs: Chris Johnson may have finally scored a touchdown, but for an offense built around the run game, he's been terrible this year. He's under 4.0 YPC on the year and has posted a negative DVOA. His always weak success rate is 25th in the league. The Titans should have parted ways with him in January, but missed their chance. Now he could drag down their entire season.


New York Jets

Playoff Odds: 36.5%

Best Stat in Their Favor: They have the fifth-best defense in football by DVOA. They are number one against the run. Rex Ryan knows how to coach a defense.

Why They Won't Make the Playoffs: They have the second-worst offense. So, you know, there's that.


Miami Dolphins

Playoff Odds: 14.9%

Best Stat in Their Favor: Show me a team with a top-five pass defense, and I'll show you someone no one wants to play come January.

Why They Won't Make the Playoffs: Ryan Tannehill is basically the same player he was last year. Almost all his numbers are exactly in line with 2012, except for sacks. He took 35 in 16 games last year, but already has 35 in 2013. His sack rate is up over 10%.


AFC Power Poll:


New England



Kansas City


San Diego

New York