Favorite NFL Picks to Win AFC ConferenceWith Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the season, the Patriots are expected to have a bumpy road if they are to make it to the AFC Championship game for a fourth straight year. The Patriots won the AFC title in the 2013 and 2014 seasons (both as the No. 1 seed in the AFC) before falling to the No. 1-seeded Broncos team in the 2015 season. Without Brady leading the Pats in the first four weeks, claiming the No. 1 seed in the conference and securing homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs won’t be easy. And with the last three winners of the conference coming from the No. 1-seed teams with homefield advantage in the AFC title game, it makes sense that many pundits are a bit wary of New England’s chances to win it all in 2016. That being said, Brady boasts of having the best all-time winning percentage in the playoffs, with a 22-9 record that is good for .710 winning percentage. In addition, the competition in the AFC East—where Brady and the Pats have won all but two titles since 2001—offers no viable challenge to New England even if Brady misses the first four games. With that, Brady and the Patriots shouldn’t be written off just yet from overcoming the obstacles ahead of them in search for another AFC Conference title. Following New England as close favorites is Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Given that Roethlisberger is the active QB with the second-most playoff wins behind Brady (11-6 record, .647 winning percentage), it makes plenty of sense that many Oddsmakers believe he and the Steelers will offer the biggest challenge to Brady and the Pats. In addition, Pittsburgh arguably has the most talented offense in the AFC and the Steelers defense has been on the up-swing, meaning great hopes for a strong conference title-run by Big Ben and Co. As a concern, though, the Steelers belong in the tough AFC North division, with teams perennial playoff contenders like Cincinnati and Baltimore to challenge Pittsburgh. But then again, with a 23rd-ranked strength of schedule (a far-much simpler schedule compared to New England’s 9th-ranked strength of schedule); the Steelers may just end up emerging victorious in the AFC North, possibly with the most AFC wins that will earn them the prestigious AFC Championship game homefield advantage to challenge the Patriots, or whoever they meet there.
Smart NFL Picks to Win AFC ConferenceOutside the Pats and Steelers, the other teams that look to be smart AFC Championship picks include Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City and Indianapolis. For the Bengals, their 27th-ranked schedule bodes well for them to repeat as AFC North Champs and even claim the top seed in the conference. The problem, though, is that Cincinnati has a poor record in the playoffs, including Andy Dalton’s league record of most playoff starts by a quarterback without a win (at 4). Trusting them to do well in the playoffs is a therefore a risky gamble. In Denver’s case, the defense will still be solid, but without a reliable offense (read that quarterback) ahead of the training camps, their ceiling for success will be limited, unless of course the defense pulls another miracle like last season. The Colts, led by Andrew Luck (3-3 in the playoffs) come with as many upsides as risk in the playoffs, given that the starting QB is coming off a season ending injury and the Indy defense still has several questions in the defense. That leaves us with the Kansas City Chiefs. On one hand, the Chiefs finished their regular season on franchise-best 10-game winning streak and then whitewashed the Texans in a 30-0 victory in the AFC wildcard playoffs, before narrowly losing to the Patriots. If the Chiefs can tap into that momentum, combine it with the AFC West struggles of Denver (in offense) and San Diego (in defense), and then merge it with their solid trades from the offseason; they should make a great pick to take over the AFC West division, if not the entire AFC conference. On the other hand, Kansas City hasn’t had much success in the playoffs and Alex Smith (2-3 in the playoffs) has not been the steadiest of players in the January games. On paper, though, the Chiefs seemingly offer the least downsides and most promise among the smart picks to win it all the AFC.
Longshot NFL Picks to Win AFC ConferenceThe story about longshot picks in the AFC Conference title race is one that brings forth several names, including the Oakland Raider, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Heck, even San Diego fans have been all-mouthy on Twitter talking the chances for their out-of-sorts Chargers. The reality, though is that the few slots in the AFC playoffs can only host a select few, meaning very few of these teams will make the final cut come January 2017. With that in mind, let’s try to sieve the legitimate contenders from the pretenders, going by the way things currently stand in the offseason. The Jaguars and Raiders will only go as far as their QBs—Blake Bortles and Derek Carr—and the top teams in their divisions allow them to go. And with Houston and Indy running things in the South while Denver and Kansas City take care of things in the West, I don’t have much hope for either of these two teams, much as I still think both of them will make the .500 mark. The AFC East trio of Jets, Bills and Dolphins will be embroiled in a bloodbath that will most likely leave all teams bleeding with too many losses to enter the playoffs as wildcard teams, considering that this division has—and will until further notice—be New England’s to lose. But if any one of these East teams somehow makes it to the playoffs, then be sure it will be losing in the AFC Wildcard games, so no need to hope to see them in the AFC Championship game. And that brings us to the Ravens and Texans, who I consider as the strongest of this longshot bunch. The Texans have been a solid team since Bill O’Brien started coaching the team, and the solid offseason investments made by the team (led by the signing of Osweiler) could easily take the team to the next level. Of course, staying healthy will be key and the Texans will need to avoid unnecessary and costly injuries, like the one reported of their defensive star J.J. Watt ahead of the training camps. Meanwhile, the Ravens—who also need to avoid the injuries that messed up their 2015 campaign—can also find their way back to the playoffs if they can get back to the basics. Joe Flacco has done it all and won all kinds of accolades in his career, with records such as the road wins in NFL playoff history (7) and the most total wins (in regular season and playoffs) by any starting QB since 2008. With such a stellar history of success, plus the enterprising offseason in Baltimore to correct the lapses from last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens back in the playoffs causing all kinds of trouble.
Predictions and My Final PicksBased on the above discussions, here are my recommended AFC Conference Championship picks
- Best Favorite Pick: New England
- Best Smart Pick: Kansas City
- Best Longshot Pick: Baltimore/Houston