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Green Zone League Articles

Contenders or Pretenders - AFC Edition
By Garth Pearce
Special to gzl-football.com

TENNESSEE TITANS

The only undefeated team after 8 weeks of the season, the Titans are sitting pretty atop the AFC at 7-0, 2 games clear of their nearest competition in the Conference and their division (Chiefs and Texans). Looking at their opponents so far you'd have to say their toughest assignments so far were in week 1 and 2 against the Texans and Raiders, although the Raiders outing was not up to it's usual standard. The quality of opposition hasn't been the highest, however the rather emphatic scoring of the Titans suggest that they are firing on all cylinders. The biggest boon to the Titans this year is the health of quarterback Christopher Henderson, who by this point in the past two seasons had seen some significant time on the sidelines. The team as a whole is second best in the league for total offense, best in scoring, but more importantly they boast the best defensive unit in the league, giving up the least amount of yardage for the least points.

Verdict:
As long as Henderson stays healthy they are a sure fire contender with this outfit. Even with injuries they have never been counted out of contention in previous years, but with the way they're going at the moment they are setting themselves up to be the #1 seed in the league for the title. Their up coming schedule doesn't suggest a lot of challenges if they continue with the same form, with games against the Texans, Cowboys and Dolphins being the true measure of the team.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

It's a rare day in GZL when you see the Chiefs sitting top of the AFC West, especially considering their woes with keeping quarterbacks healthy. With a 5-2 record they are setting themselves up with their best chance at post-season glory in the history of GZL. They are only 1 game clear of the Broncos at this stage and can't afford any slip ups. Once again the starting QB in KC has gone done for significant time, however this time GM Miller has brought in a starting calibre replacement in Chad Henne. I wouldn't like to be in Henne's shoes as the life expectancy of a Chiefs quarterback isn't good but he'll at least have the chance to keep the team on the rails. With the main offensive weapon being the ground game (6th best in the league) it's unsure how Henne will be utilised as they need to put pints on the board to win games (as their past record indicates). They have a decent run defense but are showing that they aren't too hard to score against which could become a greater impact as the season wears on and players start to tire.

Verdict:

Recent history tells us that the Chiefs aren't known for standing out against their divisional foes and they still have 5 games in these match ups left. I'm labelling them pretenders at this point as I don't think they can continue their current form against the Chargers and Broncos, which would put them back neck-and-neck with the rest of the division and a real fight to return to the playoffs. The AFC West is a tough division and divisional games are where it's won at.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers are only a game clear of two teams in the AFC North with a 5-3 record and both those trailing teams have beaten them already. The beating they took at hands of the Browns on their own turf in week one had to be a wake up call that if they didn't want to finish last in the division again then they'd have to turn things around. They've also lost to the Buccaneers and their only notable win has been against the Chiefs. They're scoring is consistent and it seems that if their defense can stop the opposition from posting too many points then they can win. Considering they have the 5th best pass defense, 4th best in yards allowed and 7th for points allowed it all sounds quite achievable. They are averaging more points scored than allowed per game and squeeze into the top 10 for passing offense. They've had numerous injuries to date that have probably slowed their overall performance and the return of players like Mike Wallace, Samuel price and Martin Butler in coming weeks will bolster their stocks.

Verdict:
Having already been challenged by the Browns and Ravens I'd say they are a strong chance of being pretenders in this year as they are likely to drop the return bouts and put them in a struggle for outright wins over these other teams. They don't have a particularly strong schedule, although they'll need to solidify their playoff berth before week 16 when they take on the Titans followed by the Texans to finish the year.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

The Dolphins looked to be rolling after 6 weeks and sitting pretty at 5-1, however they battled it out with AFC West teams the past 2 weeks and came up short in both encounters. This may have had something to do with the absence of HB Le'Veon Bell and the all-out pass offense they tried to employ, but does it spell trouble for the AFC East leaders? Currently they are not troubled for the division lead by the losses and they are a likely lock to return to the playoffs, but they are hardly registering in the top of the league stats. They have the 7th best pass offense for yardage and have posted some big scoring games, but when they lose it's the lack of offensive output that is to blame (9, 13 and 14 points in each game lost).

Verdict:
With their best and their worst so far apart I'd class this Miami outfit as only a pretender for the 2017 crown. They'll need to balance their offense a bit when Bell returns and hope to get more consistency on the score board to put up a fight against the bigger name teams they are going to face in coming weeks (Chargers, Titans, Chiefs and Packers) to solidify their playoff hopes.

HOUSTON TEXANS

It's a tough gig going up against the Titans every year but the Texans are up for the challenge this year. With possibly the second best record in the conference at 5-2 they are proving to be a powerful force this year. They lost a tough opening game against the rampant Titans and they fell short in a massive shoot out with the Ravens, but they've been putting together some impressive offensive numbers to land some big scores. They are second behind the Titans on points scored and 6th in the league for total offensive yardage, most on the back of Trent Richardson and the running game. They are another well rounded team with a strong defensive focus, forcing the pressure with the best pass defense (by over 30 yards on their closest competition the Titans), which makes them the second best team for yardage allowed. They've been missing their star quarterback in Kendall Irving since week 2, however Terence Bennett has been doing a much more solid job in his absence.

Verdict:

With the offense firing like it is and the redundancy available at quarterback who'd have to consider these guys a top contender this year. After at least one super bad year that netted them the #1 overall pick the franchise has bounced back with a solid rebuild and look set to challenge for the division year in, year out. They have a mixed schedule coming up which includes a rematch this week against the Titans, plus outings against the Cowboys, broncos and Steelers

DENVER BRONCOS

The Broncos have struggled against the division do far, losing to the Chargers and Raiders already, but have done well against their other opponents. They also lost to the powerful Rams outfit and sit at 5-3 and second place in the division behind Kansas City. They are yet to play the Chiefs and those matches could be the telling tale as to who takes the divisional crown this year, but will their current injury list hurt them? Missing Devin McCourty for most of the season to date hasn't been an easy pill to swallow and with strong safety Phillip Thomas out for the rest of the year they are getting a bit thin in the secondary. They do have the leagues 10th best run defense and allow only 18.5 points per game (4th best) but their offense isn't registering anywhere at the top of the league.

Verdict:
They may have beat the Chargers and the Cardinals, but I can only see these guys as pretenders this year unless they truly step up their game. The schedule ahead gives them a double shot at the Chiefs, hosting the Texans and a game against each of last years Super Bowl teams. They have their destiny in their own hands if they want to prove themselves this year as there are many make-or-break games to be played.
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