If you've been paying attention to the NFL offseason and how people are speculating about the league's top teams, you've probably learned by now that most think the Packers and Seahawks are the two best clubs in pro football. Sometimes the Cowboys -- depending on how you like their running back committee -- get lumped in. Or the Cardinals. But what of the AFC?
Is there really a team in that other conference that could be seen as a favorite to win the Lombardi Trophy? Does any team have the feel of the Seahawks and Packers? Don't get me wrong, I floated the Colts as the AFC's Super Bowl 50 combatants, and I'm sticking with it. But I'm not picking them to win it all.
It feels like the AFC is a mosh pit of good teams. After discussing this with my editor, I thought it would be a good idea to identify a major weakness for each squad, then arrange the conference into tiers. Below you'll find the pecking order in the AFC, with the Achilles' heel -- that flaw that keeps even the best of the AFC teams from being seen as equal to the Packers or Seahawks -- listed for each club.
These three clubs would seem to be a hair above the others, thanks largely to their quarterbacks -- but even they've got problems.
New England Patriots
Achilles' heel: Secondary. You thought I would say "reputation," right? Talent isn't totally absent in the defensive backfield; Devin McCourty is again under contract, after all. But with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington gone, is there enough in the back end to win the Super Bowl again? Malcolm Butler might turn out to be a real player, but the fact is, he's an undrafted free agent who didn't start last year -- whether or not he made the greatest individual play in Super Bowl history. At least this team will have an us-against-the-world mentality.
Achilles' heel: Front seven, specifically the run defense. Sure, Indy added Trent Cole, and Robert Mathis should be back at full health after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last September. But both those players are well over 30, and neither is expected to be a force in run support. Signees Kendall Langford and Nate Irving, meanwhile, didn't exactly generate high demand on the open market, and inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson will turn 32 in September. The Patriots ran wild on these guys last season (246 rushing yards in Week 11, 177 in the AFC title game), deflated footballs or no. It would have been nice for Indy to use the 29th overall pick on a nose tackle to rotate with Josh Chapman, rather than another receiver in Phillip Dorsett.
Achilles' heel: Offensive line. Even before Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a torn ACL, league observers were worried about Peyton Manning breaking down. Now, with Clady out, Orlando Franklin departed and Manny Ramirez dealt away, Denver has a clear lack of quality veteran starters up front. This, in theory, means more hits for Manning. More hits could lead to his body breaking down sooner, which means we could see more throws like we saw in the playoffs. Let's hope Shelley Smith and Gino Gradkowski can have the best years of their respective careers.
This next group includes a bunch of teams that all have a decent shot at surviving the AFC tournament, but when it comes to challenging for a Lombardi Trophy, they're a rung below the top-shelf teams -- and two rungs below the NFC elite.
Achilles' heel: Getting over the mental hump. OK, OK; we could easily list quarterback. But here's a news flash: Andy Dalton is not the only Bengal who has faltered in big games. The defense stunk in New England on Sunday night last year. The whole offense was missing in the playoffs. No, seriously -- top receiver A.J. Greenand tight end Jermaine Gresham both missed the loss to Indy. The bottom line is, making four straight first-round exits -- against the Texans, Texans, Chargers and Colts -- is a good indicator that a team runs up against some mental barriers when facing higher-level competition.
Achilles' heel: Secondary. Of all the second-tier teams, Pittsburgh is the most set at quarterback and with regard to the overall passing game. But can the Steelersstop the pass? The secondary was often woeful last season. Even if he wasn't wonderful in coverage the last few years, retired safety Troy Polamalu will be missed. Jason Worilds is also gone, meaning the pass rush will be hard-pressed to compensate for the DBs (this is where first-rounder Bud Dupree could come in handy). As for the draft, it's no accident Pittsburgh selected defensive backs in the second, fourth and seventh rounds.
Kansas City Chiefs
Achilles' Heel: Run defense. Kansas City finished 28th in run defense last season, which was a sizable factor in the club missing out on the playoffs after showing so much promise in Andy Reid's first campaign in charge. Chiefs fans will point to the Achilles injuries that knocked out Mike DeVito and Derrick Johnsonin Week 1. And they were missed. But how much longer can Kansas City count on them being around? Neither player is a spring chicken; the 30-year-old DeVito is entering Year 9, while the 32-year-old Johnson is entering Year 11. The team has to figure out better ways to spell nose tackle Dontari Poe, who can wear down after being on the field too long. The receiving corps might not be perfect, but with the signing of Jeremy Maclin, it is better.
San Diego Chargers
Achilles' heel: Offensive line. Line play, specifically with regard to the ground attack, was in absolute shambles last year. First and foremost, depth was a problem; every center the Bolts lined up got hurt. Even when people were healthy, matters up front where no bueno for a team that finished 30th in the NFL in rushing while picking up a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. The Chargers did snag Orlando Franklin in free agency before drafting Melvin Gordon. Those guys must play well early to take pressure off both quarterback Philip Rivers and a defense that has upside.
Achilles' heel: Passing attack.Joe Flacco is better than people realize, but I didn't include him when listing the top 10 quarterbacks for 2015, mostly due to his supporting cast. The Ravens will be starting a 36-year old wideout in Steve Smith and, potentially, two rookies in receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams. This could be problematic, given that Flacco's middle-of-the-pack passer rating (91.0) last season was the second-highest of his career. Of course, passer rating is merely one facet of the game; another is two-minute offense, where, unfortunately for the Ravens, they were terrible last season (ranking 28th in two-minute scoring). Baltimore is destined to play tight contests in the AFC North, so relying on young receivers -- who might not know what they're doing, pre-snap -- in crunch time could spell trouble.
Achilles' heel: Interior offensive line.Dolphins fans are often quick to circle the linebacking corps as a concern, but the signing of highly coveted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh could mitigate that issue. As for the O-line? Yeah, not so much. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked over 100 times during the last two seasons. Mike Pouncey will be back at center after filling in at guard last season (during which he played well below his usual standard). Daryn Colledge hung 'em up. Shelley Smith is in Denver. Some of the guards to choose from: Billy Turner (who barely played in 2014), Dallas Thomas (who did not fare well at guard), or rookie Jamil Douglas (a Day 3 pick).
THE HEADLESS HORSEMEN
There are three outfits in the AFC that could take on anybody -- provided it would involve going 21 on 21. Unfortunately, these teams scuffle when you throw in the quarterback. The Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are all capable of grabbing a wild-card berth, if not taking their divisions. But we're talking about winning the Super Bowl here, which necessitates having a franchise quarterback, save for the occasional Brad Johnson -- and I'm not sure any of these teams even have anyone on par with him.
The Texans are arguably best off in that department, with Ryan Mallett having tremendous upside and free-agent signee Brian Hoyer showing promise early last season in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Bills carry the most talented roster, but while Rex Ryan seems to think he has three quarterbacks, I'm afraid Buffalo doesn't have one capable of mounting a serious title run. The Jets are officially in hope mode with Geno Smith, although they do have a defense poised to supplant Seattle's as the best in the NFL.
A YEAR (... OR TWO ... OR THREE ...) AWAY
The Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans simply don't have the horses to compete for the Super Bowl. Of the group, Jacksonville had the best shot of getting into the postseason ... before first-round pick Dante Fowler went down. Sure would be nice to see Cleveland or Oakland playing meaningful football in January. 2002 -- the last year the Browns or Raiders made the playoffs -- sure seems like a long time ago. Because it was.