With the nation locked in a heated presidential election, we offer up our 2008 predictions through the prism of pigskin politics.
And looking at the league through this prism, it's obvious that the AFC lost its stranglehold on the NFL's politcal power structure in 2007.
After years of dominating the inter-conference battlefield, the AFC and NFC split their 64 meetings last year. But the NFC wrested bragging rights in the Super Bowl, when the Giants, a team that went 10-6 in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs, shocked the mighty Patriots, a team that went 16-0 in a division in which every other team sucked royally.
So it's no longer a given that the AFC will be better than the NFC, as it had been for most of the past decade. But, within the AFC itself, it's hard to see major changes among the ruling elite. We expect, with one notable exception, the AFC power players of 2008 to look a lot like the AFC power players of 2007.
AFC East – The Prussians of Pigskin
The AFC East is like a good old-fashioned European military dictatorship (you know, like the those that ran the continent for 2,000 years until those awful Americans came and cleaned it all up and brought peace, stability and prosperity ... but we digress).
The Patriots rule the division with the iron fist of Otto Von Bismarck, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This is the one division in football that remains an absolute no-brainer.
The Patriots could be four games worse in 2008 than they were in 2007, and the second-place Bills could be four games better in 2008 than they were in 2007 – and the Patriots would still win the division.
Coupled with the fact that New England faces the easiest schedule in football this year (at least based upon 2007 records), and there's little doubt they'll rule the division once again.
Yet there's a lot of concern circulating around the Patriots: the offensive line was humiliated in Super Bowl XLII and did little to redeem itself in the exhibition season, giving the appearances of a downward trend. Tom Brady's foot injury is a question mark, too, leading to rumors that he might even miss the first month of the season.
But even if it's a down year, New England is at least two steps ahead of every other team in the AFC East.
But at least the division should be more exciting than it was last year: Brett Favre's leading the Jets. Bill Parcells and Chad Pennington are leading the Dolphins. And the potential playoff caliber tandem of Trent Edwards and Marshawn Lynch might give the Bills offense a fighting chance after an ineffective 2007.
Let's put it this way: there won't be a 15-game difference this year between the best team in the division and the worst team in the division. But it's hard to see anybody threatening the preeminence of the Patriots.
Division champ: New England
Wildcard: None
AFC North – Change We Can Believe In! (We Think)
The AFC North, not to mention its AFC Central predecessor, has been the undisputed domain of the Steelers since, oh, about 1972. And we never like to go against big, historic trends – at least, we don't spit in the face of these trends hastily (unlike the "pundits," who leap over the edge for one team the second a good storyline hits the airwaves).
But there is a team that can overcome the Steelers here in 2008, and it's their longtime whipping boys from Cleveland.
It would be quite a turn of events. After all, the Browns have been punished mercilessly by Pittsburgh since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Pittsburgh is 16-3 (including playoffs) against Cleveland over this period, including nine straight victories and 15 wins in the last 16 meetings. This is not a rivalry between these two neighbors, folks. It's a one-sided bloodbath along the lines of the U.S. Marine Corps vs. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
But that dynamic should change here in 2008. The Steelers fell apart at the end of the 2007 season, losing four of their last five games, after jumping out to a 9-3 start. They barely hung on for the division title. Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland went 10-6, but the Steelers got the division title nod by virtue of their two head-to-head wins. But even there, the Steelers held on for dear life.
Pittsburgh crushed Cleveland 34-7 in their Week 1 battle, but squeaked out a 31-28 victory in the November rematch. As we noted in our Fillability Index look at the AFC North, if Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson had converted a 53-yarder at the end of regulation in that game, the Browns, and not the Steelers, might have captured the division crown and the Steelers would have spent January on the couch (instead of getting their ass kicked at home by the Jaguars).
But it's the off-season that leads us to believe the Browns are poised to strike. The Browns stockpiled beefy defensive hogs and should be much tougher defensively in 2008 than they were last year. The Steelers, meanwhile, did little to shore up its defensive issues. And, offensively, Pittsburgh lost its best player (Alan Faneca) from an offensive line that was very un-Steelers like in its mediocrity last year.
Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson suffered a concussion in the off-season, and we're certainly not sold on him after one surprising season. We are, of course, highly sold on Pittsburgh's historically productive quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. So if it were only up to those two guys, we'd roll the dice with the Steelers.
But there are too many other factors pointing Cleveland's way. It's finally the year they gain a modicum of revenge after years of schoolyard humiliation at the hands of the bullies of the AFC North.
Division champ: Cleveland
Wildcard: Pittsburgh
AFC South – The Ancien Regime
The AFC South is the Paris of pigskin – the most beautiful division in all of football, but with turmoil simmering beneath the surface.
In fact, it reminds us of France on the eve of the Revolution: the ruling Manning Monarchy is still entrenched in power. But the bourgeoisie from Jacksonville, Nashville and Houston is gaining in strength and looking to topple the Ancien Regime.
With any luck for us football fans, the battle for power will – like Paris in 1789 – descend into chaos: proverbial heads will roll and blood will run through the streets of the AFC South.
So how will it all play out?
Well, it's easy to look at the Colts-Jaguars dynamic in the AFC South and see a lot that's similar to the Steelers-Browns dynamic in the AFC North described above.
The Colts, like the Steelers, have dominated the division for years. The Colts have also dominated their rivalry with the Jaguars much like the Steelers have dominated their rivalry with the Browns. Indy, for example, is 11-3 all time vs. Jacksonville and 5-1 in their last six meetings.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, like the Browns, seem poised to take over the division. The Jaguars, like the Browns, barely missed out on making the leap last year. The Jaguars, like the Browns, were smoked in their first meeting of 2007 against their division superiors. The Jaguars, like the Browns, were edged out by a mere three points (28-25) in their 2007 rematch. The Jaguars, like the Browns, might have captured the division title if they could have overcome that 3-point margin.
But there is one major difference between the Browns, who should make the leap this year, and Jaguars, who most likely will not: the Browns clearly had a superior off-season to the Steelers. The Jaguars did not have a noticeably superior off-season to the Colts.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons for concern in Indy. Marvin Harrison may be on his last legs, injuries have plagued several key players, and even ironman Peyton Manning himself recently underwent surgery.
But nobody in the NFL reloads each year like Indy GM Bill Polian. And the Jaguars have yet to prove they're ready for prime time. Until we see some more evidence from the team that constantly seems to be waiting in the wings, we're going to stick with the ruling monarchy.
Division champ: Indianapolis
Wildcard: Jacksonville
AFC West – Third-Party Politics
The AFC West has been on the outside looking in at the AFC power struggle for the past decade, or ever since the retirement of the John Elway following the 1998 season and Denver's back-to-back Super Bowl championships. It's like the third party trying to break into the political monopoly held by two ruling parties.
The Broncos continued to be a player in the division for several years after their Super Bowl victories – hell, they hosted the AFC title game as recently as 2006.
But power within the division was usurped by the Chargers with their 14-2 season and division title in 2006. They maintained their hold on the division last year – somewhat surprisingly – under head coach Norv Turner. In fact, the Chargers reached heights they hadn't scaled in over a decade, with their first appearance in a conference title game since 1994.
There's no reason to believe their status as the best of the west will change anytime soon. The Chiefs may go down as the worst team in football this year. The Raiders have hope for the future – but also a lot of internal discontent. They're still a long way from challenging the Chargers.
That leaves the Broncos – who struggled through a 7-9 campaign in 2007 – as the lone team capable of challenging San Diego's dominance. But Denver was a defensive disaster last year, and did little to improve the situation, as we noted last week in our Fillability Index. The potential superstar tandem of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall need some more help before the Broncos can recapture the division.
San Diego, meanwhile, was a statistical juggernaut in 2007 and may have been better than their 11-5 season indicated. The fact that the Chargers toppled the Colts in the playoffs, and then gave New England a good fight in the conference title game, despite several key injuries, seemed to support this belief that they were better than their record.
The only thing left for the Chargers is to finally live up to the hype that has surrounded them for the past couple years.
AFC West champ: San Diego
A tired pick, we know. But the Patriots were one miracle play away last year from the first 19-0 season in history. They're 23-2 in their last 25 games, and both those losses came only after super-human efforts by their opponents.
The Patriots might be the toughest out in history, and they're in the midst of a record 19-game regular-season win streak. With an easy schedule, that streak could easily reach an astonishing 23 or more consecutive regular-season victories.
The Patriots still have the genius Bill Belichick. And they still have the best quarterback of our generation in Tom Brady. They scored nearly 600 points last season. And, though they are likely to have defensive problems, they have finally injected a bit of youth on that side of the ball.
There's a reason why Vegas has made New England a clear favorite to win the Super Bowl: even if they decline in all phases of the game this season, they're still a team that will be favored almost every week and that could easily win 12 games and earn a first-round bye.
SUPER BOWL XLIII: Eagles over Patriots
Andy Reid and the entire City of Brotherly Prison Shanking get revenge for the 3-point defeat in February 2005. McNabb hangs on to his lunch this time and leads the Eagles to three fourth-quarter TDs, as the New England defense collapses in historic fashion for the third straight season in the biggest game of the year.
Call it a hunch.