The Houston Texans got their man, locking up veteran safety Ed Reed with a three-year deal. Was it enough of an acquisition to shake up the power structure in the AFC heading into the 2013 campaign? Looking at the conference's final four from last season -- the Texans, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens -- who is the way-too-early front-runner to reach Super Bowl XLVIII?
Ed Reed is not necessarily an upgrade from Houston's free safety last season, Glover Quin. (Remember, the Texans prioritized re-signing Quin before he left for Detroit.) Reed is a solid starter and is getting paid like one -- not like a star.
Denver had the most balanced team last season, and there's no reason to think the Broncos aren't the slight favorites again. Free-agent pickups Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Terrance Knighton are all guys who will contribute right away.
But does it really matter who the front-runner is? We'll enter the playoffs with four to five teams having roughly equal chances of making the Super Bowl. That's the NFL in 2013.
The Texans are nearly complete as a team, at the point in building where adding a piece here or there might put them over the top. The acquisition of Ed Reed could serve this exact purpose, but not just because Houston needed ball-hawking skills and leadership. It's also because he's the one player Tom Brady and the Patriots have never been able to account for. Brady isn't shy about saying you simply can't game-plan for Reed, because he doesn't read what other players read. One offensive coordinator I spoke with called Reed "scary to game plan for."
But this doesn't shift the balance of power. All it does is put the Texans on a nearly level playing field with the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens. The others are too good for one player to make the difference. But the playoffs often come down to one play. At least in the secondary now, the Texans have one player who can make it.
Nothing stays the same from year to year, and we still have a long ways to go before the season starts. But right now, I like Denver. The Broncos had the best record in the AFC last year. The additions of Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez will help the offense. (Not to mention, this offense should improve just in being together for a second season.) The Broncos have time to make up for the apparent loss of Elvis Dumervil, but they will have to address that.
Meanwhile, Baltimore will be going through a transition year. I don't see them in the final four again. Ed Reed can help Houston with his experience and ball-hawking ability, but the Texans still will struggle in coverage against New England and Denver. Also, Houston's offense still needs a right tackle and another wide receiver. That said, the Texans are still a threat in the playoffs. New England will be strong yet again with Tom Brady and that running game. The loss of Welker could hurt, but Danny Amendola is a talented player. There will be some offensive drop-off early in the season, but New England will field another high-scoring team. Getting Aqib Talib back helps the Pats' secondary, but this is still a weakness.
Denver is looking pretty thus far. The signing of Louis Vasquez was a nice move, both in terms of protecting Peyton Manning and running the football. As far as the overall short game, many of the throws directed Wes Welker's way essentially will be extended running plays, allowing the Broncos to move the football without having to make dangerous throws. Of course, once Manning lulls teams to sleep with the ground attack and Welker, he can hit Demaryius Thomas vertically. Simply put, the Broncos are going to be even tougher to defend this season than in 2012.
As far as the other clubs, I see more question marks than in Denver. The Patriots' pass catchers have a lot to prove, particularly in terms of staying healthy. Houston lost some players and needs a WR2. Baltimore has been depleted by cap woes and an organizational shift to look toward the future.
Thus, my sense is that the Broncos are the team to beat.
The correct answer is: none of the above.
As consistently great as the Patriots have been, their seasons are now too much like "Gilligan's Island" reruns: They never end with the cast getting off the island (and onto the victory stage). The Broncos are stacked, but if you think a 37-year-old Peyton Manning suddenly will overcome a career-long plague of throwing bad picks in big spots, you're more optimistic than I. The Texans ought to be good again, but sharing the AFC South with the rising Colts (and Titans?) will make it tough to get one of the top-two playoff seeds. And the Ravens might want to consider combining with the equally depleted Steelers to make one team.
I know how weird it sounds, but Cincinnati is in the best position to make a big run in 2013 -- especially if you believe the cliché about games being won at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals are loaded in the trenches, plus they have the AFC's version of Calvin Johnson in the person of A.J. Green. Unlike Megatron's Lions, though, the Bengals a bevy of young pass-catching weapons (see: Sanu, Hawkins, Gresham) who'll make defenses think twice before triple-covering Green. And like I hinted at earlier, their division should be a cakewalk. Sure, Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis are two pretty big question marks. But I (and probably you) would have said the same thing about Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh 52 weeks ago. Or 11 weeks ago, for that matter.
I don't think there's any doubt the Broncos are the way-too-early AFC front-runner for the Super Bowl. Yes, the Elvis Dumervil fiasco was embarrassing. But the acquisition of Wes Welker means the Broncos' offense will be basically unstoppable this season. New England has lost a ton in the WR department -- you can't just sign Danny Amendola and say he's immediately going to give you Welker's production. Believe me, the AFC East is doing backflips over Welker's departure. Although selfishly, I'm excited to see New England unveil their new four-tight end set. Baltimore had to cut half its roster to pay Joe Flacco. Not only that, they lost three huge leaders, as well. That's a tough combination to overcome.
As for the Texans, I like the Ed Reed acquisition, because it's possible his leadership is the missing ingredient. I say "possible" because I don't know how Houston's still falling short of at least the AFC Championship Game. It's time to start throwing things up against the wall and seeing if they stick -- that's what this move is all about. It's time for the Texans to get desperate. Their window is closing. Andre Johnson deteriorates bit by bit each year, and Houston still hasn't found another WR to put opposite him and help the offense. Matt Schaub struggled down the stretch and is no longer an elite QB. Most importantly, the Colts aren't that far away from putting another 10-year stranglehold on the division. I can't say Reed put Houston over the top. He's a guy who picks his spots to make plays nowadays, which is still good, but the image of Ed Reed is greater than the all-around impact. There's a reason why his free-agent tour didn't have a lot of stops.
And if you're a fan of one of the other teams in the AFC? You're having a great offseason no matter what, because three of the final four teams from last season have taken steps backward in the last three weeks. So everybody wins!