AFC contenders are finally in focus

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AFC contenders are finally in focus

All things considered, it was a mighty successful bye week for the Patriots. First and foremost, there were no significant injuries (while the already-injured had a chance to re-charge). Second, no one got into trouble (there were no leaked photos of Gronk passed out naked at a sorority party, no controversial tweets from Brandon Spikes, no reports of Wes Welker getting drunk and taking a bat to Bill Belichicks mail box). And lastly, while they kept it cool off the field, the Pats took a stab at improving things between the lines, with the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib.

Some have argued that a fourth round pick was too much to give up for Talib whose promise and potential is only out-weighed by his horrible reputation. But I think a fourth-rounder is fine.

After all, in the 12 years since Belichick arrived in New England, hes made 16 fourth-round selections. Of the 16, only two materialized into Pro Bowlers (Asante Samuel and Stephen Gostkowski, although Aaron Hernandez should become No. 3), only four others developed into serviceable pros, even if only for a short time (Jarvis Green, James Sanders, Greg Robinson-Randall and Dan Klecko). And the other nine aka more than 50 percent of Belichicks fourth round picks, aka Rich Ohrnberger, Jonathan Wilhite, Kareem Brown, Garrett Mills, Dexter Reid, Cedric Cobbs, Kenyatta Jones, Rohan Davey and Jabari Holloway were a waste.

Considering how desperate the Pats are in the secondary, Id say a fourth-rounder is worth the risk of bringing in a controversial first-round talent. Naturally, only time will tell, but theres more reason for optimism now that Talibs around than if the Pats had sat back and done nothing at the deadline.

And thats that. The bye week is over, and today, New England gets started on the second half of their season. It hasnt been an easy road to 5-3, but expectations remain the same. Its Super Bowl or bust. Super Bowl or freak out. And while many questions still linger as to whether they'll get there, after nine weeks, the rest of the AFC is finally taking shape around them, and the path to New Orleans is far clearer than it was before the Pats left for London.

First of all, lets close the book on the Bills, Jets, Bengals, Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Chiefs theyre not making the playoffs.

Lets send some love and respect towards the Dolphins and Colts, two teams that have already reached heights that seemed impossible when the season began, but are still at least a year away from doing any post-season damage.

Lets recognize that theres a chance the Chargers sneak into the last playoff spot theyre 4-4 with an easy-ish schedule but that theres no fear of them having any success once they get there.

And finally, lets take a look at what remains. In a way, I think we all knew that this is what it would come down to, but at this point, its not a matter of thinking; its fact. After two months of parity and inconsistency, the AFC big wigs are established and quickly separating themselves from the pack. Its Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver and New England. The only five teams with a chance. Five teams that will spend the next eight weeks jostling for position, ideally avoiding injury, and setting the stage for one of the more unpredictable, up-for-grabs AFC postseasons in recent memory.

Each contender faces its own line of important questions. For the Ravens, it's their broken down defense, and whether Joe Flacco can play big in the biggest games. For Denver, it's about whether Peyton can hold up over the long haul and whether losses to Atlanta, Houston and New England are a sign that they aren't quite up to snuff. For Houston, it's the unknown; the fact that they're still a young team, with a quarterback who's yet to even start, nevermind win, a playoff game. Pittsburgh faces questions of depth and health. Can they count on Troy Polamalu? How many hits can they take in the backfield and still maintain an even remotely balanced offense?

And as for the Pats, we all know about the questions they're facing. We know that they're far from perfect. Far from the juggernauts that we watched in 2003, 2004 or 2007. But the good news is that they don't have to play those teams this year. They don't have to be the best team in Patriots history. They just have to be better than the four remaining contenders in the chase for a berth in Super Bowl XLVII. And right now, coming out fresh after a productive bye, with Talib set to join the secondary in Week 11, the Pats remain on the path to doing just that.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.