Two criteria to consider regarding playoff teams, since I'm not going to "worry" about teams prior to that. (Although, agree with Preach that the Steelers are the team I worry about most -- I think we beat ourselves way too often.) First, which teams have the best defenses? Great offense and no defense is not a playoff recipe for success. Second, which teams have the best veteran presence (players and coaching staff)? Think of Ben's rookie season, or Tomlin's, as case in point. (I would say the Falcons are looking kind of heady right now, but they face a post-season wall.)
1. Steelers. Fair amount of injuries, OL is a concern, and the O needs to start clicking. Writing up something now that posits: it's easier to get your O in order (if the talent is there) than to suddenly get your D to be stout. Seems to me, consistent defenses are good right out of the gate, or have the talent to be good and maybe underperform (2007 Giants, early on). Only recent exception might be the middlin' Colts D that turned it on late. Rams of the GSOT era were actually decent, as were Pats D units that were statistically ranked in the middle of the pack if you go by yardage allowed only.
Anyway, Steelers D is IMO one of the three best in the NFL right now (Steelers, Ravens, Titans). DL depth a pleasant surprise (with Snacks and Diesel out, still stout). Secondary issues relate more to scheme than talent, again IMO.
Tomlin clearly needed a year, and Arians is still working out "finding his muse." But we saw this same thing with Whiz (criticized him hard until the late 2005 run), Mularkey, etc., and Arians' O has been very productive, albeit in spurts. With better playcalling from the OC, a game we lose 15-6 against a heavy blitzing Eagles squad is one we win outright, and go undefeated. I'm a little less concerned with early season miscues than late-season, and despite some hiccoughs, compare to issues with, say, teams like the Cowboys, or even the Chargers. Maddening, and for fans, of concern.
2. Ravens. I know, the suddenly animated Colts just walloped them, but they still have a top D, despite my hopes to the contrary. And consider that if they pull a WC spot, we always find ourselves in a slobberknocker divisional fight regardless of apparent talent mismatches. Ceiling: rookie QB and HC don't bode well for a deep playoff run, but could they draw the Steelers and upset us in a WC matchup?
3. Titans. A real surprise team, they're allowing fewer points than us or the Ravens per matchup. Again, I'm more concerned with tough defenses: teams like the Broncos or Chargers or Patriots are not the same tough defenses we faced even last year. A team that can keep us under 20 scare me more than a team that wants to get into a shootout, because I trust our D to fuck them up. Now, I think we would beat the Titans in a playoff game, because Kerry Collins has exhibit A (2000 season SB versus a nasty Ravens D) in his resume. And if Vince Young comes back I don't know that they're any better. But a tough D is a concern.
4. Jacksonville. They've been wrecked by injuries, but seem to be playing better of late, and if they in any way round back to form, they always match up well against us. We thoroughly outplayed them, and still it was a close match. I think they miss Marcus Stroud in that DL, and their IOL is going to be a mess all year, but I would never count out the Jags in a playoff game against us.
5a., 5b, 5c. San Diego, Indianapolis. Something is off with the Chargers D' that cannot be explained by the absence of Shawn Merriman. Putting aside the drubbing they doled the Pats, they have given up yards and points like a crack whore gives up the punami for coin. Two weeks ago, they looked like they were going to lose to the Oakland Raiders, as the score of 15-0 bubbled along for quite some time. Miami beat them. They've given up an average of over 23 PPG, and over the 1-2 opening record they allowed 26, 39, and 29. For all their vaunted offensive firepower, who are their downfield threats? You shut down Gates and LT and they are done. Guys like Vincent Jackson have good games against us, which says something.
Indy is about at SD's level based on their annihilation of the Ravens D, but they've sleepwalked through the season thus far. Houston was on the verge of breaking into the win column, convincingly, until Sage fucking Rosenfels handed the game to them on a silver platter. They did not look particularly elite losing to Chicago, or winning against Minnesota (they should have lost), or losing to a banged up Jacksonville team. They just don't have it this year, and again, if the Steelers D does what it does best, they don't get on track. And their defense doesn't scare rabbits.
Broncos look like they might wire-to-wire the AFCW, and promptly fold in the playoffs. Their offense is showing signs of slowing, and the D is nowhere in sight. Very similar team to the Chargers, with perhaps less talent and a better record? Certainly nowhere near as strong a team as the one we beat in the 2005 AFCC. Still, a weak division could give them a record good enough for a bye or homefield.
6. Buffalo Bills. Bills are tied for the second-best AFC record, with Pittsburgh, at 4-1, behind the 5-0 Titans. Still, they look like a house of cards. Yes, they are balanced: a good defense, a good offense, and very good special teams. But in no facet do they scream greatness. Last year, they were under-valued because the Patriots flat-out dominated the division, and the Bills were decimated by injuries, possibly one of the worst injury seasons of recent memory. Dick Jauron has the team on track this year, but they strike me as very green. Trent Edwards is maturing, but once he was knocked out of the Cardinals game the team came unglued. I think the Bills win the division and lose early in the playoffs, and we match up extremely well.
7. New York Jets. Could Favre get better in Mangini's system and be a real late-season threat? Yeah, maybe. I don't see his receivers as being on par with Green Bay's, and certainly not among the best in the AFC (Harrison/Wayne, Ward/Holmes, etc.). But I note them, because basically this same team (switch out Pennington for Favre) still beat us in an embarassment last year. There was no reason for that then, and none for them to beat us now, but we've fucked up inexplicably before.
8a., 8b. Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots. This is really pushing it. I think both teams miss the playoffs, actually, even with the Patriots' at 3-2 and record since 2001. The Patriots have a hack running the QB position, despite the occasional highlight throw deep to Moss, which ironically underscores Cassell's inability to do anything consistent in heaving the rock 5+ yards. Their D is also weak, and you can run all day at those old fucks up the middle. They also lost their secondary, which means you can throw on them. I still think Belichick is finding some way to cheat, because he's a nasty fuck that way. But we can and will beat the motherloving bejesus out of the Patriots when we play them this year.
The Dolphins, a joke a year ago, have beaten the Chargers and the Patriots. Mull that one around in your brains a bit if your think either of those teams are serious concerns to us, or if you think this Miami team is to be completely written off. They're playing heady ball, if inconsistently (think: Atlanta), which could be scary in the playoffs if they get there. But, rookie HC, and too much AFC competition make me think that's awfully unlikely. Still, not a bad comeback (again, like Atlanta) from the depths of 2007.
Cleveland. Expected some dropoff from last year, not a drive off the cliff. Good God. Go ahead and put in Brady Quinn, it won't matter. The Browns suck in all aspects save perhaps special teams.
Cincinnati. OK, admit it: you thought I was being too hard on the poor Pussies of Cinci when I predicted they'd go 3-13, right? Even if Palmer played every week, they would still be 0-fer. Their offensive line is a sieve, their offense is out of synch, their defense blows. They best they can say is they played a couple of games close. Their schedule doesn't suddenly cupcake, so 3 of the final 10 is a real possibility.
Houston. Should be 2-3 rather than 1-4, but either way they're done for this year. I hear that Gary Kubiak is some kind of offensive genius, but are these Texans really any better than the old Carr/Capers teams? Before you launch into any lengthy analyses or discourses of the differences of Texans, then and now, let me save you the effort: no, they're not really any better. And the ways that they might be don't mean much right now, OK?
Kansas City. I mean, they've won their Super Bowl, the "upset" against Denver, and they may not wi a single game from here on. They are part of an abysmal sediment of the NFL that runs deeper than any I can remember for ages. I mean, the Lions, Rams, Chiefs, Texans, Bengals, Seahawks, Raiders, and possibly 49ers, are about 25% of the NFL that might have a hard time beating Michigan. Or Toledo for that matter. My God, since when has parity meant so many teams have to be so fucking bad?
Oakland. The whole Davis-Kiffin fiasco aside, the Raiders have some defensive stuff, and some playmakers at the O skill positions, but they're going to need time. At 1-4, they're not making the playoffs, and are guaranteed a top 10 draft spot, yet again. I fear the Raiders much the way I fear some freak accident involving slipping on warm dogshit on the lawn and cracking my head on the cement of the sidewalk: not effin' likely, but it would be insanely embarassing if it ever happened.
In all this, I still think the NFC is, on whole, more worrisome than the AFC. In other words, we have a solid crack in the playoffs, which, at 4-1 with the Ravens second-best at 2-3, looks pretty damned likely. But even if we won a Super Bowl berth, I think the NFC playoff roster would be more worrisome than the AFC. The real impact of parity has been to swing the pendululum from the AFC to the NFC. The NFCE is in a full-scale existential crisis mode right now, with the Cowboys losing Romo and dropping some games, the Eagles way too inconsistent and losing Westbrook, and the resurgent Redskins losing to the abysmal Rams. Still, I see the four NFCE teams as still better top to bottom than most AFC potential playoff teams. Arizona, Carolina, and TB are 4-2 teams that have some juice. Atlanta is 4-2 but may be too green. The Packers, Bears, and Vikings are all underperforming, IMO, but would be tough playoff draws if they got their shit together. So the NFC may be a more contentious playoff bracket, and therefore be better prep for the NFC winner. My surmise is that the NFC playoff teams, on whole, may comprise more of the top defenses than the AFC, although to the AFC's credit, and for the Steelers optimists, I still believe that the top 3 of the prospective 12 playoff teams' defenses belong to the AFC (Steelers, Ravens, Titans).
If the Steelers can get to the AFCC, I think they have a great shot at the whole works this year.