What Each AFC Playoff Contender Needs to do in Order to Make a Deep Playoff Run
12 teams at .500 or above
With so many teams in the AFC at or above .500, it is hard to tell which teams are actually playoff contenders, and which are not. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the teams that are above .500 through 10 or 11 games of play heading into week 12 of the NFL season. Every team in the AFC playoff picture right now has two or more losses, so without one dominant team in the conference, each and every team in the playoff picture has a shot to make a deep run in the playoffs. For most of the AFC teams that are currently above .500, they have gotten good enough quarterback play to get where they are at this point. This allows these teams to have confidence going into the playoffs, but with flaws in nearly every team, they all have something that they need to improve in order to make a run.
New England Patriots
With the best record in the conference, the Patriots went from having the most concerns after a week four loss to Kansas City, to currently having the least concerns of any AFC playoff contender. The Patriots currently rank 15th in sack totals in the NFL this season, with 23 sacks as a team this season. Pass rushing specialists Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones lead the Patriots with five sacks and 4.5 sacks each. These numbers will have to improve though for the Patriots to make a deep run in the playoffs. The Patriots do have a great secondary, but this only means that they should be collecting more coverage sacks. When Chandler Jones is back healthy and the pass rush improves, the Patriots will be primed for a Super Bowl run.
The Denver Broncos have played good football again in 2014, but they have been unable to employ a sound red zone defensive strategy. Sustained possessions against the Denver defense this season have resulted in points far too often. Despite allowing the 5th fewest yardage total against per game, the Denver Broncos defense is still allowing well above 20 points per game. The Broncos continue to show that they can play offense at an elite level, but if they hope to return to the Super Bowl this coming postseason, they will need to tighten things up defensively in the red zone.
The Indianapolis Colts have played good defense for most of the season, and they among the league leaders in points scored as well as yardage gained. Andrew Luck is asked to shoulder too much of the offensive load though, with the Colts not having a feature back to turn to in the running game. With Trent Richardson underperforming, the Colts need to turn to Ahmad Bradshaw to find out if he can be the man for them in the ground game. If Ahmad Bradshaw can find a way to deliver for the Colts, then they could make a deep run in the postseason this time around.
The Bengals have played good enough football this season to lead their division through 10 games of play. Their problem unlike any of the other teams listed here, is significant struggles at the quarterback position. Andy Dalton's struggles have held back a very talented Bengals roster, and if the Bengals hope to make a deep run in the postseason they will need Dalton to play better football. Since it is hard to replace a starting quarterback midseason successfully, the Bengals could have the most lingering issue of any team on this list. However, if Andy Dalton finds a way to get confident at the right time, the Bengals have the talent to make a deep run in the postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs recently won five in a row, while looking like one of the best teams in the AFC. Their limited downfield passing attack is what hurts their chances in the playoffs though. Before the playoffs roll around, the Chiefs need to pinpoint who their go to target is in the downfield passing game. The Patriots have proved that a great tight end can be a go to target downfield, and the Chiefs have an opportunity to further prove the same. One of Travis Kelce or Dwayne Bowe will need to emerge as an very reliable target on downfield passes if the Chiefs want to meet their goals for the 2014 season and beyond.
The Steelers have had their struggles in the red zone this season, despite their two week stretch of scoring touchdowns on every red zone possession. This is not the primary issue that they need to fix though, as their biggest problem lingers from the offseason as well as last season. The Steelers secondary has been a sore spot for the team for quite some time. Things could get better when Ike Taylor returns from injury, but relying on aging players to take care of the issue is not exactly ideal. Overall, the members of the Steelers secondary will need to put more sound technique into practice if they hope to help their team make a deep run in the postseason.
The Baltimore Ravens have shown a downfield passing game, a great pass rush and a power running game this season, but they are still lacking in one area. The Ravens will need to find their go to feature running back in order to go on the road and grind out wins in the playoffs. Justin Forsett as the Ravens leading rusher may just be the answer for Baltimore if they are willing to give him the bulk of the carries. If Justin Forsett is able to carry the Ravens running game during the winter months, expect to see Baltimore making another deep run into the postseason.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have a variety of offensive weapons to go to in the passing game, along with a feature back in Ryan Matthews. When healthy they are a phenomenal offensive team, but the same can't be said for their defense. The Chargers still rank 9th in the NFL in total defense after a good start to the season, but during their recent stretch with three losses in four games, they have not played well. The Chargers can turn this around by being more gap sound against the opponents running game, while containing the edges with better technique. When the Chargers are able to force their opponent into passing situations, that is when they are able to execute their game plan most effectively. The Chargers hopes of making a deep postseason run this year will depend on their ability to stop the run on the road in cold weather conditions.
The Miami Dolphins are a team that has done many things well recently, but they need to find a way to generate a solid running game without their quarterback being involved as a ball carrier. The Miami Dolphins are a team that remain unlikely to earn a home playoff game this season, so while winning on the road in the playoffs is tough, they have the defensive unit to accomplish that task. If the Dolphins can complement their strong defense with a strong running game, the fans could see Miami make a deep postseason run when the playoffs roll around.
The Browns have a strong running game and a strong downfield passing attack, which allows them to compete with every team on their schedule. Cleveland also plays good defense against both the run and the pass, but there is one area of their team that is lacking. Despite having a strong running game, the Browns have had some trouble sustaining extended scoring possessions due to their inefficiency in the area of third down passing. The Browns have established to the rest of the NFL that they can grind it out, along with hitting big plays downfield. If the Browns hope to make a deep postseason run this year though, they will need some receivers to emerge on third downs as possession players. This along with greater efficiency from the quarterback position in situation football, could allow the Browns to make a deep run this coming postseason.
With the amount of teams still involved in the playoff race at this point in the season, so much is yet to be decided. Each one of these ten AFC playoff contenders controls their own destiny in the coming weeks as they look to make their move for the best playoff position. Since four of these ten teams that currently have earned winning records, will not qualify for the postseason, the six teams that earn playoff berths will have one the first huge battle. With each key area of need for improvement highlighted, the rest of the season will be interesting to watch with the focus on finding out which team did the best job in the area that they needed to improve.