While the sun hasn’t yet set on the Patriot empire, the hours of the clock are teetering towards dusk. The Patriots, who somehow managed to salvage a first-round bye, aren’t the same team we remember of years past.
Tom Brady was one of the three most inaccurate passers this season. Rob Gronkowski is no longer the superhuman tight end we’ve become accustomed to. New England’s defense isn’t a top-tier unit anymore, with some of the talent on that side of the ball aging.
New England’s still a good team, don’t get me wrong, but when the two-time defending AFC champions have roster holes large enough to fly a jet through, it’s normally a good sign for the NFC.
Another good sign for the NFC is when the AFC’s number one seed only plays one side of the football. Kansas City’s defense is absolutely abysmal. It’s a miracle that Kansas City is even in this situation right now, and a huge testament to Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the offensive side of the ball.
Opposing offensive lines may have their hands full with Chris Jones and Dee Ford, their two really good players, but outside of them, Kansas City is playing Big 12 football. If you put Kansas City up against a really good defense, like the Chargers, they aren’t going to be able to will themselves to victory.
Speaking of the Chargers, they are, overall, the most talented team in the AFC. However, due to a tiebreaker, they will (more than likely) have to play three road games to get to Atlanta. If any team is equipped to do so, it is the team that has no fans in their home stadium to begin with, but the travel is still crazy.
Los Angeles is the only team in the AFC later than Central Time, meaning every game for the Chargers, including the Super Bowl, will be either two or three hours earlier than they are used to. That’s a daunting task for even superteams, and the Chargers are far from a superteam.
Those are the AFC’s best three teams. An aging one riding by on pedigree, a team with a high-school caliber defense, and a team that will need to play three consecutive road games. If you, for some reason, are a fan of the AFC as a whole, that’s not a good sign at all.
The NFC has the NFL’s three best teams, starting with the Saints at number one. There isn’t one AFC team who I can logically say right now has even close to a 50% chance of knocking off New Orleans. Should New Orleans make it to the big game, which is looking more and more likely, they should be heavy favorites.
The Bears and Rams are numbers 2 and 3, and the order is interchangeable. The Bears did beat the Rams earlier in the season, but the Rams would be at home for a theoretical divisional round match-up. That game at Soldier Field wasn’t a comfortable win for Chicago, so the Rams could very easily knock the Bears off at the Colliseum.
The Bears went 2-2 against the AFC, one of those losses coming to New England, in large part due to a Special Teams failure. The Rams defeated the Chargers earlier in the year, and then knocked off Kansas City in one of football’s best ever games on Monday Night.
If either of these teams were to get to Atlanta, they should be favored regardless the opponent. The Rams will score at will against the Chiefs, the Bears will stop them from scoring. The Bears would have beat the Patriots earlier in the year had they not beaten themselves, and the Rams should be able to hit Tom Brady enough to discombobulate him. The Bears are just a better version of the Chargers, and the Rams already beat them rather convincingly earlier in the year.
The hopes of the AFC may be riding on a Wild Card team pulling a miracle and making it to Atlanta, but that team could still be the one who beat the Patriots last year. And I can’t picture a team, bar maybe Chicago, winning three straight games against the tough NFC field.
The Lombardi trophy is the NFC’s to win, and should they not, they very likely beat themselves.