Since 2000, only four different AFC teams have represented the conference in the Super Bowl: The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens have been the only teams in the decade plus of the new millennium to win an AFC Championship. Each team has consistently contended year in an year out by having a strong core of players on whom they've depended.
Earlier this week, we discussed why Sunday's game is urgent for both the Ravens and the Patriots, aging teams who are on the back end of a decade of great success. On their heels are a new bunch of teams who are taking the same blueprint and are poised to be the "new order" of the AFC for at least the next five years.
Of the four teams mentioned above, only Indianapolis failed to qualify for the playoffs this season. After nine consecutive years in the playoffs and two Super Bowl appearances, the Colts age finally caught up to its core. We all know about Peyton Manning's absence, but also out for significant time this season were TE Dallas Clark, OL Ryan Diem, LB Gary Brackett and S Melvin Bullitt. Now the Colts have brought in a new front office, will be hiring a new coaching staff and moving on to a "new era" that will most likely involve a rebuilding process.
Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are soon to be in those shoes. Baltimore has a slew of 30 somethings on defense and the offensive line, including the heart of their defense, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Pittsburgh has gotten younger on offense, but hasn't upgraded its offensive line and lost their best back (Rashard Mendenhall) to an ACL injury at the end of the season. On defense, except for Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers unit is over 30. We saw the wear and tear finally catch up to them in Denver when they lost Brett Keisel and and Casey Hampton during the playoff game.
So if these teams spend time rebuilding in the near future, who is in a position to take their places? Four teams have the pieces in place right now to make serious championship runs over the next five years. We'll limit our discussion to that much because of what can happen contractually during that period.
1. New England Patriots: We put the Patriots back in this mix for two reasons: no team has been better at retooling while staying competitive than the New England Patriots. They've overhauled their defense and gotten a lot younger and have been unafraid to change the supporting cast around quarterback Tom Brady. Of course, Brady is the common factor there. He'll be 35 this year. Brett Favre played competitively up to age 40 as did Warren Moon. Will Brady have the continued health and drive to do so? If he does, then the Pats will be there. New England is also helped by playing in the AFC East. No team has the pieces right now to challenge them. The Jets have issues at quarterback and have their own age issues on defense. The Bills won't get there with Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins are a quarterback away and could get that in this year's draft. If Miami finally finds Dan Marino's replacement, they are the most likely team to knock New England out of this position.
2. Houston Texans: If Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson had stayed healthy this season, the Texans most likely would have had home field advantage and would be playing for the chance to go to Indianapolis this weekend. As it was, they made a pretty good run with a third string quarterback in TJ Yates. Schaub and Johnson may be the most talented QB/WR combination in the league. Arian Foster is a beast at running back and his backup, Ben Tate, could start for any other NFL team. They have a young, dominant offensive line and a defense that finished second in the NFL overall despite being without Mario Williams. Antonio Smith is their oldest starter at age 30. They need a solid number two receiver opposite Johnson, but the Texans are going to be good for awhile.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals are the Houston Texans, only a little younger and needing a couple more pieces. Andy Dalton and AJ Green will battle Schaub and Johnson for preeminence among quarterbacks and wide receivers. The Bengals have long term commitments to C Kyle Cook and T Andrew Whitworth. Andre Smith finally played like a first rounder this year. If the Bengals sign him and fix the holes at guard, the offense is set. On defense, they have a young, aggressive core as well. They'll need to replace their safeties this year and add some depth at cornerback, but the Bengals' front seven is as good as it gets. No team boasts the rotation of quality, young defensive linemen that Cincinnati does. The Bengals are also well below the cap and stockpiled with draft choices thanks to the Carson Palmer deal. If they can make the right moves there, they'll be atop the AFC North for the foreseeable future.
4. Denver Broncos: Yes, Tim Tebow has some growing to do at quarterback, but he'd be the last person I'd bet against getting there. He has a drive that's second to none and has proven himself a leader who can get the respect of the locker room. The Broncos also boast a young and powerful offensive line and a stable of running backs. Tebow has discovered he has some weapons too with Demaryius Thomas and Eddie Royal. Assuming Eric Decker returns healthy, they have more depth at WR than any of these four teams. The Broncos defense can play too as they showed against Pittsburgh. Von Miller anchors a lean and mean front seven that can get after opposing quarterbacks. Denver will have to replace aging cornerbacks, Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman, but they definitely have the core to contend. Their divisional rivals have weaknesses as well. San Diego has been the dominant team but has always come up short. They're on a downturn don't seem to have very solid leadership. Oakland has a sprinkling of explosive young players on both sides of the ball, but are now almost devoid of draft picks because of trades. Reggie McKenzie may have to blow that up and start all over. Kansas City has some promise as well, but Matt Cassell's ability to get them to the next level is questionable as is their long term situation at running back with the Jamaal Charles injury.
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