Watching the Steelers and Bengals buttfumble their way through four quarters of football on Monday highlighted one rather important thing to me: the AFC isn't very good right now. The Patriots - the previous gold standard of the conference - have had their entire receiving corps land on other teams, the injury list, or in one case in jail. The Steelers, a once perpetually competitive team, are just a hot mess. And the reigning Super Bowl champions just allocated a very large portion of their annual cap space to a quarterback who might be Kenny Stabler.
The more newly relevant "good teams" in the AFC meanwhile, are still very much in question. The Texans, Broncos, Chiefs (the Chiefs!) and Colts (the Colts!) will need to prove they're more than just good regular season teams if they want to unseat the previous reign of the old guard. The rest of the AFC consists of teams like the Raiders, Titans and the Jaguars.
For the Packers, all this is probably a good thing because not only is the NFC a markedly better conference (or so it appears thus far), but the division they play in might be the best in football. Again.
Surprisingly, it's a division that among the NFC gets relatively little attention. The 49ers and Seahawks might be the only two teams in the NFC West worth a damn, but because of their success and domineering style of play, the division still gets much of the spotlight. The NFC East is a competitive division, but also gets more attention than they should because of the Tony Romo/RGIII/Chip Kelly/Manningface circus. The NFC South is also a two-team division.
The NFC North? All they've been known for is winning.
Looking at last year's standings, the NFC North was the only division in football that featured three teams with double-digit wins. Only three other divisions even had two. Even the goat of the division last year (the LOLions) despite a 4-12 record was a team whose record didn't really reflect its capabilities. As Bill Barnwell pointed out in his season preview for Grantland, the Lions had a point differential that historically resembled a 6.5 win team, and in one-touchdown games the Lions were a putrid 3-8. If you recall, the last time the Packers had such crappy luck was 2008 when they lost a ridiculous SEVEN games by five points or less. They followed that season by making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl the season after.
While it's premature to say the Lions will have a similar turnaround and the Vikings appear to be coming back to reality, I don't think it's a stretch to say the NFC North is once again at least the deepest division in football. Top to bottom, there isn't a single team you'd call an "easy out."
For the Packers, that makes games outside their division even more critical. They've already split two of their NFC games and their remaining four are against the Cowboys on the speed-friendly turf of Dallas stadium, a struggling (for now) Giants team, the Eagles, and the Falcons at - and I think I speak for most when I say it's about damn time - Lambeau Field. Based on the way the Packers looked in shredding apart the Redskins last Sunday, they should be in position to at least split those remaining four as well.
That leaves four games against the AFC. As previously mentioned, the AFC features few truly good teams, let alone entire good divisions; this Sunday, the Packers kickoff their stretch of inter-conference games against perhaps the biggest garbage fire division of them all - the AFC North. Despite having the best divisional record in the AFC last year, it's not hard to make an argument that the caliber of that division has dropped off precipitously in a single offseason.
I know ‘Any Given Sunday' and all that, but these are four games the Packers should absolutely win. More importantly, they're four games that they might need to win if the NFC North is indeed as deep as it looks.
Granted, the Packers went 5-1 in the division last year, but even considering how ridiculously good the offense looked last week, it's unreasonable to expect they'll repeat that success. The Packers might be better than they were in 2012, but so are the other teams within the division. Even the Vikings, who look like they could be the bottom dwellers of the division, still feature the league's best running back, a good front line and a quarterback who, while wildly inconsistent, has at least shown flashes of competency. Oh, they also added some receiver named Greg Jenkins, who still has a little left in the tank despite losing a few marbles.
Assuming the Packers' record evens out a bit within the division and assuming they don't go undefeated in the rest of their NFC games, that might make these four AFC games the most vital of all.
Oddly enough, the toughest challenge among those four may very well come this Sunday against the Bengals. It's a bit of a paradigm shift when you consider that as recently as two years ago the Ravens and Steelers weren't just among the AFC's elite, but the NFL's as well. Now the Ravens are just a shell of last year's team and the Steelers are one more 3-yard pass play from going into a full-on mutiny against their offensive coordinator. There's also the Browns but because God hates Cleveland, they've never been much of a threat anyway. Oh, and they just traded away their most talented offensive skill position player.
The Bengals meanwhile are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and feature a number of stud draft picks including Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Andre Smith, and A.J. Green, who might be the best receiver in the game not named Calvin.
But still...it's the Bengals. While they're by no means a "gimme," the Packers should be the better team. They play in maybe the toughest division in football and were this close to knocking off the 49ers - a team universally regarded as one of the top 5 times in the entire league. The Bengals aren't the 49ers. Hell, judging by Monday's performance, I'm not even sure the Bengals are much more than the Buffalo Bills.
Obviously, lots can change in the next 15 weeks. Some teams will get better, some will get worse. But this Sunday's game is the first step toward securing a 4-0 mark versus the AFC. And if the Packers want a chance to play the AFC again in February, they better take care of business in the months prior.
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