We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Jeremy Stahl
To: Luke O'Brien, Robert Weintraub
I'm not sure what you gentlemen thought, but for me, Sunday's game of the week between the Steelers and the Patriots brought back some old feelings of apprehension for the season ahead. It's not that I didn't enjoy the game. Pittsburgh's dominance in the first quarter—the Steelers ran 27 plays in the opening period to New England's three and controlled the ball for 13:39 minutes to 1:21—was deliciously Patriots-like. And Mike Tomlin's decision in the fourth quarter to grind out the clock with short pass plays as well as runs, to stave off of the Brady-Belichick offensive machine was also immensely satisfying. As was the game's conclusion on a flagrant Holy Roller by Samoan Jesus.
It was probably also the second-best game of the year in terms of the quality of the two teams on the field. And that was precisely my problem. Back in September I was hoping that this could be the season that the NFL's constantly touted parity actually extended to the AFC. For all the talk of football being the most socialist of the world's great sports leagues, since the turn of the century parity has really only existed in the NFC, which has given us ten different teams in the past ten Super Bowls.
The AFC champion, meanwhile, has been the Patriots or the Steelers or the Colts for nine of the past ten seasons. On top of the playoff domination, those three teams came into the season with the three-best regular season records in football over the past ten years (.756 for the Patriots, .719 for the Colts, and .666 for the Steelers).
After Peyton Manning was lost for the season with a neck injury, the odds of one of the AFC dynasties appearing in the Super Bowl again this season went down by 33 percent—a reason to rejoice even if Indy's loss of Manning meant I had suffered a great personal tragedy, fantasy-wise. And when the Ravens absolutely humiliated the Steelers in their season opener, and the Bills outgunned Brady in Week 3, my hope for a fresh representative only grew.
Maybe one of the conference's second-tier teams would finally break through and make it the first time since 2003—and the second since 2001—that a team other than one of the three dynasties won the AFC. The Colts were clearly done, the Steelers defense was looking like it might just live up to its "too old" billing, and the Patriots pass defense was porous. The Ravens, the Texans, or the Jets all might be able to come in and fill the void. (I had disqualified the Chargers in my mind from this grouping because, having suffered through seven seasons worth of Norv Turner football as a Redskins fan, I can never consider any team led by the league's definitive great-offensive-coordinator-turned-terrible-coach as a legitimate playoff challenger no matter how talented that team is).
But after the Ravens played six quarters' worth of pitiful football against two of the worst teams in the league the past two weeks, that early blowout of Pittsburgh now looks like a simple emotional fluke. And with Mario Williams out for the season it doesn't seem nearly as likely that the Texans will be a real playoff force. As for the Jets, it doesn't even look to me like they're going to make the playoffs.
The Steelers and the Patriots, meanwhile, seem to both be returning to their traditionally dominant roles after their shaky starts. So what does it take to break up a dynasty—or conference dynasty—anyway? The answer has historically been the retirement or aging of a star quarterback (Elway, Aikman, Jim Kelly, Montana/Young, Bradshaw, Tarkenton ... Manning?). So as long as Brady and Roethlisberger are healthy, are we doomed to see the same teams compete for the title again and again?
Maybe I'm not giving enough credit to your Bengals, Rob, or to Buffalo. Both of them seem to me, though, like any other of the AFC upstarts we've seen fall by the wayside over the past decade: very good young wild card teams with solid-to-strong defenses and sometimes smart game-managing quarterbacks, who are destined to lose to one of the top teams when they have to face a big playoff game on the road.
By the way, did you catch the Lions-Broncos game? I didn't, but I heard that Tim Tebow's patented fourth-quarter heroics weren't quite enough this time around. Inspired by his performance (18-for-39 passing with most of the completions coming after the game was out of hand and 56.8 passer rating) and by this wonderful Google recommend trick that one of our interns discovered, I found this fun little gem. Check out what happens when you suggest to Google that Tim Tebow has what it takes to be an NFL quarterback:
Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. Before joining Slate, he worked as a sports editor at Yahoo U.K. in London and as a contributor for the Riviera Times in Nice, France.