Special teamers are on the field, perhaps, 10-20 snaps a game and each one of those snaps can swing a game in an instant. A big blocked kick, botched snap, 50-yard field goal, punt downed at the 2-yard line, 102-yard kickoff return, etc., these are the plays that can turn a game. People like to bust the chops of the specialists, but few players have the game-deciding impact of a specialist…right, Scott Norwood?
Likewise, a team’s coaching staff also influences games and seasons pretty heavily. I don’t think any other fan base knows this to be true more than this one…am I right, Frank Bush and Wade Phillips?
The schedule will also shape this "Who’s the favorite in the American Football Conference?" question being thrown about. A favorite will have a manageable road to the postseason and shot at home-field advantage. It’s not a guarantee, by any means, but you can’t be a favorite if you don’t have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
Yes, we are talking special teams, coaches, and schedules here as we wrap up this pre-preseason talk about AFC favorites. It isn’t the sexiest part of talking about football, but these variables really can separate a good team and a great team. This also can really make a difference in how you view the favorites, given how close Houston, New England, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh are.
Special Teams – Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman are okay as returners, but Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko give the Patriots their special team edge. They have two unique names and the two best legs out of the contending teams.
In Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown brings the speed as a returner and showed improvement from year one to year two. Shaun Suisham and Jeremy Kapinos aren’t good legs though, which is why they’ve bounced around the league.
Houston’s got a new, potentially rookie kicker, a suspended punter, a battle for both of the returner spots (but no returner can't be worse than the old guy, eh?), and the Joe Marciano effect. The situation is as incredibly unknown as a mystery box. I mean, it's a mystery box, but inside could be anything....maybe even a boat! The unknowns would be the weakest among this group but…
...Baltimore lost the AFC Championship because of Billy Cundiff’s foot, which only has one career season with over 80% of field goals made, AND Jacoby Jones will now return kicks for them. Those are known negative situations. Seriously, they signed Jacoby Freakin' Jones.
Coaching – Bill Belichick, despite the fact that he has sent more people packing than handing out contracts, is the best strategist in the NFL. I have a lot of respect for Mike Tomlin, who would probably be my pick for head coach if I were starting a franchise today, and think Gary Kubiak is an offensive mastermind, but Belichick is beyond them as a coach. John Harbaugh’s nice, but he’s not even the best head coach in his own family (hi, Jim…thanks for saving Stanford and San Francisco), plus Baltimore hasn’t gotten over the hump, so to speak, in his four years there.
The Texans get a bump from having Mr. Wade Phillips and Dick LeBeau is a certified defensive savant. Both Baltimore (defense) and Pittsburgh (offense) lost coordinators to the Indianapolis Colts, so those squads aren’t as stable, although Baltimore's shown the ability to change defensive coordinators with ease during their franchise's tenure. In fact, Pittsburgh signed MDC's favorite coach, Todd Haley. You know, the guy so smart that he didn’t give the ball to Jamaal Charles more often when he was in Kansas City.
Schedule – On paper, the Patriots have the path of least resistance to a playoff berth. They’ll play the NFC West, AFC South, and the division games against Miami and Mark Sanchez. How good the Buffalo Bills are will determine if they can win the division and home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs, which would increase their odds at being the favorite. Buffalo’s cakewalk of a schedule should be a concern to New England fans because the Bills could sneak up and take the division.
Houston’s schedule is no cakewalk with the NFC North on deck, but the AFC South isn’t a particularly strong division. They’re also helped by starting the season against two teams with quarterback questions and ending it with three games against rebuilding teams. Of all four of these teams, the Texans have the best odds to win their division, which would put them in the home-field advantage discussion.
The Steelers don’t have a division champion’s schedule, which gives them New York and Tennessee as opposed to New England and Houston like the Ravens will have. The AFC North and NFC East will provide tough match-ups, while both Baltimore and Pittsburgh should navigate the AFC West just fine.
Final Thoughts - On paper, with all things considered, you have to say it’s Houston over New England as the favorite.
Even if Matt Schaub is more of a question mark than Tom Brady, the Texans have better offensive balance and a much better defense. The team should reap the benefits of a full offseason program as well, as opposed to winging it on the fly like they did last season. New England has a better special teams unit, but their schedule is tougher and they've got a direct challenger, with an easy schedule, within the AFC East. The Texans don’t have a division opponent that’s as threatening.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore’s road to the top is, as always, filled with speed bumps about injuries (Roethlisberger, Reed, Suggs, and Polamalu), age, each other, and, now, the Pride of Katy-led Cincinnati Bengals. It’s completely plausible that one of these teams could miss the playoffs. Heck, if the Bengals win the division and teams like Buffalo, Denver, and Kansas City bounce back, as some are speculating, both of these squads could plausibly miss the playoffs. Of course, an injury here or there to Houston or New England could do the same; that's how the NFL goes.
Fortunately, the question of "AFC Favorite" will actually be answered on the field. The Ravens face the Patriots in Week Three, the Texans in Week Seven, and have the Steelers in Weeks 11 and 13. Houston and New England meet on Monday night in Week 13. If these teams are who we think they are, these match-ups will determine where the AFC Championship Game will be played (and Week 13 is going to feature two incredible match-ups). As for right now, I can almost hear Reliant Stadium in late January...and, for the first time ever, it is completely fair to say that.
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