For most of the 2015 season, the race to be the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl 50 appeared to be a three-team battle between the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, and Cincinnati Bengals. That all changed over the last three weeks, however. After a combined 26-4 start the season, the Patriots, Broncos, and Bengals have looked far less invincible, combining to go just 5-4 since the beginning of Week 12.
Going forward, the Patriots are still in good shape to land the AFC’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs. However, as we saw in Week 13, they are a beatable team when they are not at full strength. The Broncos may have the best defense in the league, but their offense is in shambles and they will have a quarterback controversy on their hands when Peyton Manning returns to the field after missing the last month with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
The Bengals’ roster remains one of the top in the league from top to bottom, but there is chance that they will be without quarterback Andy Dalton for an extended stretch of time after the 28-year-old Pro Bowler injured his thumb while trying to make a tackle after he threw an early interception in the team’s Week 14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Speaking of the Steelers, it may take a miracle for them to bring home the AFC North crown, but we are still here to tell you that Pittsburgh may actually be the best team in the AFC.
When breaking down the Steelers’ roster, one can’t help but be drawn to their firepower on the offensive side of the ball. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is a future Hall of Famer and may be the best big-game quarterback in the league not named Tom Brady. At running back, veteran DeAngelo Williams has proven to be a more-than-capable replacement for All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in early November.
Longtime Steeler Heath Miller is still the team’s tight end, and the 33-year-old remains as steady and consistent as ever. Their offensive line, despite a rash of injuries this year, has wildly exceeded expectations. The Steelers’ biggest strength, though, is at the wide receiver position. Headlining the group is Antonio Brown, arguably the best all-around wide receiver in the game. He is joined by two fast-rising, explosive playmakers in 6-foot-5, 201-pound Martavis Bryant and 5-foot-11, 189-pound Markus Wheaton. All three players have the ability to score every time they touch the ball, and are nearly impossible for opposing secondaries to slow down.
Defensively, the Steelers are young, but are just starting to come into their own. They still rank just 25th in the Pro Football Focus team defense rankings, but are a far better team defensively right now than they were at the start of the season. As they continue to gain valuable experience, this group could develop into a strong-enough unit to make some noise in the playoffs.
Chances are slim that the Steelers will win their division and land a first-round playoff bye. But as we seem to learn every year, all they need is a place at the table, when the postseason rolls around, to make a run at winning the seventh Super Bowl title in franchise history. They are hands down the hottest team in the AFC, and have an offense that will be extremely difficult for any of their potential playoff opponents to slow down, and they know it.
As Brown told ESPN following the team’s Week 14 win over the Bengals: “We can be as dangerous as can be, especially the offense and the way the defense is coming along strong. We can be the team to reckon with.” Don’t be surprised if the Steelers land a wild card spot in the upcoming AFC Playoffs and end up being the AFC representative in Super Bowl 50.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.