The American Football Conference is there for the taking.
Armed with their high powered offense, it looked before the game that the only thing that would stop Denver's momentum in the years to come would be the impending retirement of Peyton Manning. But after their 35 point loss Sunday, Denver looks to have returned to the field of AFC teams looking to take control of the conference.
Since the quarterback royalty of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and the elder Manning won six Super Bowls in an eight year span, the NFC has won four of the last five big games. That's the conference's best run since they won 13 straight Super Bowls from 1984-1997.
So, what does this mean for the AFC?
It could mean a shift in power within the conference. No team has returned to the Super Bowl following a loss in the big game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. Baltimore followed up their Super Bowl XLVII run by missing the playoffs in 2013, with many of their defensive studs either departing or showing their age.
New England hasn't won a Super Bowl since 2004, and it finally looks like their time in the sun is fading. They looked outmatched on both sides of the ball in their AFC title game loss to Denver.
This could mean good things for the Steelers and other teams looking to move up the AFC's pecking order. Cincinnati looks to be Pittsburgh's biggest obstacle within their division. But even though the Bengals are the defending AFC North Champions, the Steelers 30-20 win over Cincinnati in Week 15 reinforced that Pittsburgh isn't too far behind and should contend for the division crown in 2014.
The rest of the conference has question marks within each division. Can Geno Smith and the Jets' offense finally catch up to their defense? Can the Dolphins rebound after last year's offseason drama and a late season collapse? Were the Chiefs' and Chargers' 2013 seasons flukes?
In a conference that looks entrenched in mediocrity, the play of the quarterback could make the difference in who breaks free from the pack. With that said, Steelers fans should feel confident heading into 2014 with Big Ben under center.
Roethlisberger will be 32-years-old when the Steelers kickoff 2014. That's a prime age for a passer, as Big Ben should continue to add on to the success he and the offense had in the second half of 2013. After a strong rookie campaign, second year running back Le'Veon Bell should be able to make the next step as one of the league's premier backs. Year three for Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley should be their best season yet.
But as the Broncos showed against Seattle, you need a defense as or more talented as your offense to compete against the NFC's best. As great as he's been, Manning and the offense looked overwhelmed and outmatched Sunday night. Manning's old team, Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts, are another contending AFC team that also showed gaping holes in their defense in their second round loss at New England.
Pittsburgh's defense has their own, well-documented flaws, but when looking at the rest of the AFC, their flaws seem much more manageable. How many other teams can say they are returning a surefire Hall-of-Famer safety in Troy Polamalu, fresh off of another Pro Bowl year? Second year linebacker Jarvis Jones and the rest of his young defensive teammates should also make another step forward in 2014.
It's ironic now when looking back at Pittsburgh's 55-31 Week Nine loss at New England. The Steelers looked old and slow as Steeler Nation braced themselves for a rebuilding session. Three months later, there are many reasons for optimism for Steelers fans while New England fans wonder if their window to add more Super Bowl hardware is fading.
The question is whether or not the Steelers will seize the opportunity to take over a conference that is very much up for grabs.
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