As the NFL season heads into the stretch run, there are still plenty of questions in the AFC.
The Denver Broncos hold the top spot in the conference with a record of 10-2 after their big win on Sunday against the Chiefs in Kansas City. The New England Patriots are not far behind for the No. 1 seed. They are just one game back and hold the tiebreaker with the Broncos thanks to Denver’s collapse a couple Sundays ago.
As much as the NFL and its fans would love a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady AFC Championship matchup, there are other teams chasing the legendary quarterbacks. The Colts, Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens and several other teams are battling for playoff position behind the Broncos and Patriots.
One thing all these teams have in common is they have flaws and worries.
1. Denver Broncos (10-2)
The Broncos have a fumbling problem. Sunday’s win was the first game since the win over the Eagles on Sept. 29 they didn’t lose a fumble. Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Manning have all had costly fumbles.
Denver is ranked 24th in the NFL in turnover ratio with a -4. Of the eight teams worse than the Broncos, only one, the Detroit Lions, would be in the playoffs if the season ended now.
A fumble will cost the Broncos in the playoffs if it happens at the wrong time. They have talked about correcting it but now it is time to completely clean it up.
2. New England Patriots (9-3)
Weakness: Depleted defense
The Patriots have fallen behind big in their last two victories. The Broncos had a 24-0 lead at halftime and the Texans were up 17-7 at home. Falling behind like that is not a positive trend for this veteran team.
But the real problem is the defense that has been hit hard by injuries. New England lost Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo. They also have problems in the secondary with injuries to Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. There are plenty of backups on the field for the Patriots.
The Patriots, much like the Broncos, have a legendary quarterback that will keep them in games. But if New England goes far in the playoffs, it will be by winning shootouts.
3. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
Weakness: Struggling offensive line
Quarterback Andrew Luck has been sacked 29 times this season. That number is not as high as a lot of teams but Luck has been hit a total of 91 times this year. That is second-highest in the NFL.
Added to the problem is their running game is struggling behind an offensive line that can not open up any holes. Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, who now looks like a total bust, each have around 300 yards on the season.
If Luck gets hurt in the next four games, the Colts are done just like a lot teams. The line has to keep him clean or the Colts will be in trouble.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Weakness: Erratic play of Andy Dalton
Quarterback Andy Dalton has hot and cold this season. It seems like you never know what player you are going to get.
Early in the season, Dalton looked great. He wasn’t throwing a lot of picks and keeping his team in the game. But things have changed the last four games.
After the Bengals dominated the Jets on Oct. 27, Dalton went out and threw seven picks in three games. Two of those games ended up being losses.
Dalton has been to the playoffs in his first two seasons but yet to record a win. It looks like the Bengals will have home games this year but, if Dalton struggles, it probably won’t matter.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)
Weakness: Disappearing defense
Remember when the vaunted Chiefs defense was dominating the early part of the season? That squad is now ranked 21st in the NFL after being ranked first going into their first matchup with the Broncos.
Two games against Manning and one against Philip Rivers have knocked the Chiefs a bit back down to Earth. There is still a lot of talent on the defense but they have strived but come up short lately.
The pass rush has to get back on track and Justin Houston has to be healthy. The Chiefs secondary can’t cover for five seconds. They have to put more hits on the quarterback or it will be one-and-done for the surprising Chiefs.
6. Baltimore Ravens (6-6)
Weakness: Absent running game
Where has Ray Rice gone? Joe Flacco did lead this team to the Super Bowl title last season and got paid for it, but Rice is no slouch and was big part of the run as well.
Rice has 482 yards on the season. That is very low for him. There have been several games this season where he has had single digit carries.
Baltimore will need better balance to pull any kind of upset in the playoffs. It will not get it done if it is only Flacco
This No. 6 seed is still really up for grabs with the Chargers, Titans, Dolphins and Steelers all still in contention.
Chris Schmaedeke is currently the Assistant Sports Editor at the Daily Camera in Boulder. He has worked in sports journalism in Colorado since 2001 when he started at the Rocky Mountain News. He has covered the Denver Broncos for several websites over the past two years.
Follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisSchmaedeke