The Season That Was 2019 - AFC Edition
As the 2020 season comes to a close, it's time to have a look at the ups and downs of the AFC. What follows is an armchair critic's analysis of the divisions in the AFC.
Well, let's start off with a division that held a remarkable story. It took 10 seasons, but the Cleveland Browns are finally the AFC North divisional champions, nudging the Cincinnatti Bengals by a single game thanks in a large part to their five game win streak to finish the regular season and their 9-3 record after the bye week. This from a team that finished the 2018 season with a 4-12 record, their 7th losing season in the GZL. At the other end of the scale, we have the Pittsburgh Steelers who missed the playoffs for only the second time in GZL history. Don't let that last statistic fool you tough as the Steelers still finished the season with a 7-9 record, meaning that this division was one tough cookie to crack in the 2019 season. This alone makes the breakthrough of the Browns even more impressive.
But to add banners to glory in this division, it also generated the AFC Champion. No, the Browns didn't turn their division win into glory. Instead, the 10-6 Cincinnatti Bengals beat an on-the-road path to the Super Bowl, defeating the Patriots, Raiders and Titans on their home turfs. That's an impressive list of opponents to face and succeed in successive road trip weeks. The Bengals did unfortunately fall agonisingly short of ultimate glory, going down to the eventual champions by only 3 points.
While the AFC North produced a season of titanic successes, the AFC East delivered a Week 17 nailbiter that ended in one of the most closely contested tie breaker scenarios the GZL has seen. Heading into the final week, both the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills were tied for the division with a 9-6 record. Trailing them on an 8-7 record was the Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately, the New York Jets were languishing on a 3-12 record and staring the #1 overall pick square in the eyes.
The scenario was set. While the Patriots and Bills were one game ahead of the Dolphins, a loss to both would see the Dolphins slide past with a superior divisional record in the first tie breaker. First the Patriots lost. This meant a victory to the Bills would seal the franchise only their second AFC East title. But the St. Louis Rams would not be denied at home, defeating Buffalo and their divisional aspirations (due to the common games tie breaker). This left the Patriots watching uncomfortably as the Dolphins tried to secure victory in Cincinnatti and the division but despite some last quarter heroics, the Bengals kept the ball, and the division, out the Dolphins hands to leave the AFC East with a 0-4 Week 17 record and the Patriots their fourth AFC East title.
Unfortunately, the Patriots were bundled out of the 2019 playoffs at home in the Wildcard week by the eventual AFC Champion Bengals, a team they had defeated only two weeks earlier.
While glory and drama eminated from the AFC North and East, the AFC South rang with a very familiar chorus. While the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts absorbed the defeats other divisions did not want to give up, the Tennessee Titans did what they always do since GM Tim Nissen took over the franchise: win seasons and make the playoffs. The season records are truely astonishing for the Titans. In the last eight seasons, the Titans have not posted a losing record nor missed a playoffs. They have only posted less than 10 wins in a single season across that period and even then that was enough to secure them the AFC South title. They have won the division an amazing 6 times across those eight seasons and have been to the AFC Conference Championship four times.
The one statistic that has eluded the Titans, their fans and their ever dedicated GM is that elusive AFC Conference Championship victory and a trip to the Super Bowl. And this season was another home heartbreaker as the Titans went down to the Bengals by less than a touchdown 27-21. In fact, the Titans have scored exactly 21 points in every one of their home AFC Championship games. We all want to see them finally break through to the Super Bowl...unless of course they happen to be hosting our own franchise in the AFC Championship.
After the Chiefs and Broncos took turns winning the AFC West in 2017 and 2018 respectively, many an Oakland fan will feel their return to the top of the division is an expected return to the natural order of the world. The Chiefs improved by two games over their 2018 campaign, but still have a long way to climb to return to their prominence of 2017. The San Diego Chargers posted their first winning season since 2015 to take a Wildcard spot in the playoffs and the Broncos struggled against multiple season ending injuries to their starters to record a final .500 W/L ratio.
But while the AFC was represented with two multi-digit win teams in the playoffs, any impact the Raiders and Chargers might have had were thwarted by the AFC North representatives. The Chargers lost two a fourth quarter field goal to the Browns and the Raiders played in a highly defensive loss against the eventual AFC Champion Bengals where across four quarters of football, not a single touchdown was scored. When a half-back rushing for 41 yards at 1.95 yards-per-carry is considered the best offensive player for both teams on the day, you know that defense is the name of the game. The more amazing thing about this game is that despite the low scores and obvious defensive dominance, neither team actually turned over the ball. That's right...no touchdowns, stupidly low yard-per-play and zero turnovers. There's always something new to experience.
So there you have it...a basic highlights package of the AFC Season 2019. We had firsts; we had more ink in already bulging record books; and Keith Payne of the Broncos moved to 4th Overall in career rushers.