Warning! A dip into our Icy Issues is like a dip into frigid arctic waters. It's going to be sharp, brisk and maybe even painful. And it's sure to cause your ignorance to shrivel.
Today, we tackle the chilliest issues within each AFC division as we gear up for the 2008 season.
AFC East
Icy Issue: Has Bill Belichick lost his mojo?
Icier Response: Yeah, baby, yeah!
Pro football's resident Dr. Evil built his Hall of Fame resume with a license to kill enemy offenses. He silenced Buffalo's mighty K-Gun when he was an assistant with the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, he closed the curtain on the Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl XXXVI, and he dismantled the explosive Colts offense on the way to victories in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX.
But Belichick's once-formidable defenses have disintegrated live on national television each of the past two seasons, at the most critical moments of the biggest games.
Belichick's Patriots suffered one of the most stunning second-half collapses in postseason history in the 2006 AFC title game: a 21-3 first-half lead ended in a 38-34 defeat. The most shocking Cold, Hard Football Facts to emerge from the game was that New England's defense allowed 32 first downs – the most ever in a regulation playoff game.
Then, of course, came Super Bowl XLII, when the undefeated Patriots fell to the Giants. New England's record-setting offense generated plenty of blame for tanking in the biggest game of the year. But don't forget that the Patriots defense held the Giants to just 3 points through three quarters – then suddenly surrendered TD drives of 80 and 83 yards in the fourth quarter, the final score coming with just 35 seconds to play.
The Patriots could very easily be winners of a record five Super Bowls in seven seasons – were it not for a pair of colossal fourth-quarter collapses by Belichick's once-impenetrable defenses.
AFC North
Icy Issue: Where are the NFL's best coaches?
Icier Response: You sure as hell won't find them here.
Legends roamed the sidelines when the AFC Central, the precursor of today's AFC North, was formed in 1970. Paul Brown coached the Bengals, Chuck Noll led the Steelers, and the relative unknowns were pretty damn good, too. Cleveland's coach at the time was Brown disciple Blanton Collier – he led the Browns to the 1964 championship and his .688 winning percentage is fourth best in NFL history (among coaches with 100 or more games). Even Houston Oilers coach Wally Lemm made three postseason appearances and boasted a 1961 AFL championship.
Today, no division in football suffers such a dearth of accomplished leaders. The AFC North's four head coaches claim a combined nine years of experience, a cumulative 72-72 record and not a single postseason victory among them (0-2).
Cincinnati's Marvin ".500" Lewis was the Super Bowl champion defensive coordinator with the 2000 Ravens, a team that fielded stingiest defense of the Live Ball Era (10.3 PPG). But his Bengals defenses are consistently among the league's worst, his team's police blotter consistently among the league's longest, and he boasts just one winning record in five years at the helm.
Cleveland's Romeo Crennel won five Super Bowls as a defensive assistant. But that resume hasn't translated in his first three years as a head coach. Even with an encouraging 10-6 run by the Browns last year, the defense was a disaster (382 points allowed) and Crennel's yet to reach the playoffs.
Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin raced out of the gates last year in Pittsburgh, his first season as a head coach. His Steelers sported a nifty 9-3 record in early December and he was a legitimate coach-of-the-year candidate. But they lost four of their last five games, including a pair of Heinz Field defeats to the Jaguars – the first time in history that the Steelers lost at home to the same team twice in one season.
Baltimore's John Harbaugh enters the head coaching ranks virtually unknown to the pigskin public: he was a defensive backs assistant with the Eagles last year. Harbaugh certainly has coaching in his genes. His dad was a long-time college assistant and head coach. His brother Jim, the former NFL quarterback, is the head coach at Stanford. But the Harbaugh family's humble coaching history does nothing to raise the stature of the men roaming the sidelines in the AFC North.
Of course, somebody's gotta win the division this year. And sooner or later, one of these coaches has to win a playoff game. Don't they?
AFC South
Icy Issue: Are the glory days over in Indy?
Icier Response: It's starting to look that way.
The Colts have been one of pro football's dominant teams of the 21st century, winning 12 or more games in a record five straight seasons.
But the victory machine shows plenty of wear and tear.
Future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison missed 11 games last year with a knee injury and turns 36 before the start of the season, making him a virtual fossil in wide receiver years. Defensive star Dwight Freeney went down with a foot injury last season, missed seven games and will be on the PUP list when training camp gets underway Thursday. So will 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. No less a figure than Peyton Manning himself underwent minor knee surgery recently, and may even miss the first game of the year – which would end his amazing ironman streak at 160 starts. Most reports indicate that, at the very least, he'll miss all of training camp.
Meanwhile, the Colts last year continued their grand tradition of failing to live up to expectations in the playoffs, with a one-and-done appearance following an impressive 13-3 season. The fact that the Colts lost at home on a fourth-quarter TD by San Diego back-up QB Billy Volek made it something of a humiliating playoff exit, even for an organization that hordes humiliating playoff exits like prized family heirlooms.
Oh, and don't forget: rumors continue to float around Indy that this is head coach Tony Dungy's last lap around the track.
But not only are the Colts wounded physically and emotionally, now they have to deal with the toughest division in football. The AFC South sent three of its four teams to the playoffs last year, and even traditional red-headed stepchild Houston went 8-8, the first non-losing season in the franchise's brief history.
But those are just the anecdotes. Consider the Cold, Hard Football Facts: the AFC South combined to go 42-22 (.656) last season, the best record ever by an entire division.
Manning is still only 32 and still in the brief window of prime performance age for a quarterback. He'd give even a bad team a fighting chance each week. And the Colts are hardly a bad team.
But the Colts will limp into the 2008 season, the competition will be tougher than ever, and Indy's success-starved opponents certainly smell the blood in the water.
AFC West
Icy Issue: Will San Diego ever fulfill its promise?
Icier Response: Don't bet on it.
Back in high school, we had a category in the yearbook called "talks most, says least."
We bring it up only because that phrase is a pretty fair description of the Chargers of recent vintage (not to mention the Chargers of years past).
A lot of talent. A lot of hype. A lot of players who spout off about themselves (Shawne Merriman), spout off about their opponents (LaDainian Tomlinson) and even spout off at opposing fans (Phillip Rivers).
And yet this pigskin cacophony emanates from an organization whose only championship came 45 years ago in the fledgling AFL and from players who experienced their first-ever playoff victories last year.
San Diego, quite frankly, hasn't earned the opinion it has of itself.
Of course, the Chargers took a giant leap toward respectability last year. After a series of one-and-done postseason defeats under Marty Schottenheimer, the Chargers booted him out and gambled on journeyman coach Norv Turner.
They won the bet, as Turner led the organization to its first two playoff victories and first AFC championship game appearance in more than a decade. But beating the 10-6 Titans at home in the wildcard round was an accomplishment only by the lowly standards of San Diego. And the list of teams who have walked into Indy and knocked the Colts out of the playoffs is so long we confuse it with Cincinnati's rap sheet.
Still, it's progress. And the Chargers are now favored by many to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year, and perhaps even capture the organization's first Lombardi Trophy.
But we wouldn't gamble just yet on Turner's career 69-87-1 record (.443) or on players who always seem to promise more than they can deliver.