The balance of power in the NFL has swung to the AFC. The only question is how far.
It's a quarterback-driven league, as we all know, and a slew of impactful young quarterbacks have emerged all at once in one particular conference, with the potential for at least a couple of others (Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence) joining an already robust core of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield, to say nothing of the later-career emergence of Ryan Tannehill. Even after losing Tom Brady to the NFC, and with Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end and Philip Rivers already coaching high school ball, there are just more young sure things and sure-enough things at the QB spot in the American Football Conference.
You will see it reflected in many of the power rankings going around, and, while I am not much on preseason trends, I did have one long-time person in the game, whose insight I have come to trust implicitly over the years, whisper something in my ear recently. He told me to go through the preseason boxscores and check out games between the conferences, because, duh, there aren't going to be a lot of in-conference exhibitions.
The results were decidedly one-sided. The AFC went 37-10-1. Yup.
Again, this is hardly the end-all and be-all. I'm not saying that any of these games would go the same way if played in the regular season. But this was serious one-way traffic and it's worth, at the very least, noting. It will not continue in-season to this degree, but I do believe the AFC will fair quite well across the board. Consider that including the Hall of Fame game and first two weeks of preseason games, the AFC went 28-4 (the Cowboys faced Arizona in the first full week).
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With many teams treating the third week (or fourth, for the Steelers and Cowboys, who met in Canton) as they did the fourth game in the past, resting a slew of starters, that week may have been less indicative of the real thing than the previous two. And, sure, there is a ton of variance and randomness in this with different coaches taking different approaches.
Don't get me wrong – the NFC West might go down as the best division in football when it's all said and done. And the Bucs might repeat as Lombardi champs. But the top tier and the middle tier are not quite as strong, there are more uncertain quarterback situations – short and long term – and the chasm between the conferences might expand as 2021 rolls on.
Could this be Newton's best landing spot?
Listening to Bill Belichick talk about Cam Newton, I can't help but wonder if perhaps Newton's best spot to return to the NFL is in … New England?
Clearly The Hoodie still holds a special place for the former MVP, and this league works in mysterious ways. We have seen other Patriot homecomings in the past (Kyle Van Noy being one of the more recent) and there was not an immediately hot market for Newton's services, which is not surprising considering how lukewarm things have been the last two times he has been available.
If Mac Jones were to go down, given the construct of this roster and with an offensive line that looks stout and a defense that should have more bite, why wouldn't Belichick give Cam another look? He knows the system, they know what works for him and they have never been averse to altering the scheme from week to week to do whatever it takes to win.
Safe to wonder if Brian Hoyer could navigate a long season if the rookie were to get hurt, and Jarrett Stidham, currently on the PUP list, is not the answer. There is still love between Newton and the Pats, and the way the coaches rave about his publicly is duplicated privately. All I am saying is crazier things have happened, Cam will be pretty judicious about what he does at this point, and there are still things about the composition of this roster and scheme that could make New England intriguing if a need develops.
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Don't bet on Bell making an impact with Ravens
Sure, Le'Veon Bell is a big name, and, well, about four years ago he was a dominant player in this league. But that was a long time ago, and I wouldn't get too caught up in the Ravens signing him to their practice squad.
You'll recall a year ago they took a similar no-frills flier on Dez Bryant and it basically had zero impact on their season. Worth a look-see, but never raised the offense or moved the meter. And while they run the ball a ton, and clearly needed more running backs, the reality is they are still one back short with Bell on the practice squad and whatever younger, more versatile and more well rounded (read: special teams) contributor they add to the roster in this other spot would be in a better position to produce sooner rather than later.
With no preseason, and with him doing very little last season, Bell is going to need some time and offers cheap insurance of some sort, but him being a big producer or great scheme fit seems a stretch. Justice Hill, out for the season, is more of a special teams guy than anything else, veteran Gus Edwards has earned the chance to be the lead guy with J.K. Dobbins out, and this organization really likes Ty'Son Williams, who spent most of last year on the practice squad and had a really nice summer.
Williams can excel at a lot of the outside runs and sprint plays that Dobbins excelled in (especially out of spread formations), Edwards is a bruiser on the inside and Lamar Jackson and this unique scheme give defenses fits. This team will still be very effective on the ground – especially if the offensive line is in fact upgraded – but I have a hard time seeing Bell, at this stage of the game, being a very big part of it.
More insider notes
- Have a very bad feeling about the Cowboys Thursday night. They got very little sorted out this summer, the offensive line ain't what it was (especially with Zack Martin very likely out) and they are walking into a buzzsaw. Remember all those early primetime games the Bucs suffered in a year ago while going through growing pains with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians sorting it out? Yeah, so does Brady, and they will be celebrating the Super Bowl with their fans Thursday. Good luck …
- I believe Tua is going to be a winning QB in this league, but the state of Miami's offensive line has to give anyone pause. Color me concerned …
- A little puzzled by the "either/or" chatter about the Giants vis a vis job security and hot seats for GM Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge. If the GM is gone in 2022, good luck finding someone with other options wanting to keep Judge given how things have gone there. And if ownership were to force such an arrangement, it would be a continuation of the kind of thinking that has doomed them for so long now. I don't see how the fate of these two men is not deeply intertwined. And I think it's going be a looong season for Big Blue …
- Owners won big on the language of this CBA. It's making true holdouts almost a false threat at this point, but the hold-in (at least through the preseason) is here to stay.