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Midseason Report: 32 AFC takeaways

The AFC was supposed to be the weaker conference this season, but it hasn't played out that way. The AFC is winning the head-to-head showdown with the NFC (21-17) and has a number of "power teams."

The AFC might not have a lot of compelling division races, though. Three teams have at least a two-game lead in their division at midseason: New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Broncos and Chiefs will battle for the AFC West crown, with the loser very likely to get the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs.

We know things will change -- they always do -- but here's what we've learned from all 16 AFC teams at midseason.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs: 8-0

»Jamaal Charles is the most valuable running back in the league, so important that if he goes down the Chiefs essentially have no offense. Leading the team in rushing, receiving yards and receptions, Charles is the first player since Edgerrin James in 2005 with 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first eight games of the season. The coaching staff has to be careful not to overwork him the rest of the way.

» The Chiefs' defense already had four Pro Bowl players returning from last year's two-win team. Now nose tackle Dontari Poe and rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper are playing at that level as well. Kansas City is just the fourth team since 1970 to allow 17 points or fewer in each of the first eight games of the season. That streak will be put to the test with two games in three weeks against the Broncos after the Week 10 bye.

Denver Broncos: 7-1

» The Broncos' offense is operating on another level. Denver's 44 touchdowns are 17 more than any other team in the league. In fact, half of the AFC teams don't even have 17 touchdowns, period. Barring a string of injuries, Peyton Manning's offense will be favored to break the single-season records for passing touchdowns and points.

» Unlike the Panthers, this team has yet to put together a complete game -- even against weak opponents. The Broncos have been close, tied or behind early in the third quarter in six of their eight games, including the last four. Sunday's beatdown of Robert Griffin III was a good sign for Von Miller's impact on a defense that has struggled to rush the quarterback and defend the pass.

San Diego Chargers: 4-3

» Aided by pass protection that has graduated from abominable to mediocre, Philip Rivers has returned to the ranks of the game's best passers. He's a top-10 MVP candidate, making pre-snap adjustments and reading defenses at the same level as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. With Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead forming an imposing backfield tandem, this offense can hang with any in the league.

» The Chargers don't have a single player with more than three sacks. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has schemed well to get pressure, but the loss of Dwight Freeney will come back to haunt in the five remaining games against the Broncos, Chiefs and Bengals -- the best the AFC has to offer.

Oakland Raiders: 3-4

» An afterthought entering training camp, Terrelle Pryor has emerged as the most important player on the Raiders' roster. Like an early-career Michael Vick, Pryor remains a project as a passer but gives defenses headaches as the best athlete on the field. He's kept this team competitive and forced the front office to discuss his candidacy as the franchise quarterback.

» Defensive end Lamarr Houston is having a Pro Bowl season as the best player on a surprisingly stingy defense that entered the top-10 in yards per game after Sunday's win over the Steelers. Linebacker Kevin Burnett, safety Charles Woodson and rookie linebacker Sio Moore also have exceeded expectations, which speaks well of coach Dennis Allen's influence.

  • -- Chris Wesseling *

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts: 5-2

» Say hello to the toughest team in the AFC. The Colts went toe-to-toe with the 49ers and Seahawks and wore them both down. We wondered if last season was a mirage, but coach Chuck Pagano has buy-in from his players and nobody wants to play Indy down the stretch.

» The loss of Reggie Wayne is crushing. He drew coverage away from T.Y. Hilton and served as Andrew Luck's most reliable wideout on key passing downs. We're going to find out fast if LaVon Brazill's potential can be turned into production.

Tennessee Titans: 3-4

»Chris Johnson is a disappointment. Known for his ability to hit homers, CJ2K is running for a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry. He's also averaging just 1.4 yards after contact, currently second-to-last among halfbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

» If the Titans don't intend to make Gregg Williams their defensive coordinator, someone else will. Tennessee's aggressive pass rush bear the fingerprints of Williams and the secondary is improved. Lineman Jurrell Casey has been a revelation.

Houston Texans: 2-5

» The most disappointing team west of Atlanta. The tumble from grace has been fierce for the Texans, with Matt Schaub's comprehensive meltdown leading the way. Sitting at 2-5, Houston's no threat to win the South, but a nice long look at rookie Case Keenum provides intrigue.

»J.J. Watt remains a dominant force, but losing Brian Cushing will wreak havoc on this defense. He's an outstanding run stuffer and one of the few linebackers in Houston who can be relied on in pass coverage. A cruel fate, two years in a row.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 0-8

» For the sake of all that's right and true, end the Blaine Gabbert Experiment. He's received more than enough patience in a time when young passers are asked to carve up teams right away. Nothing will change in Jacksonville until a legitimate passer is unearthed.

» It's been a treacherous campaign, but there's hope in some of the roster's young players. Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts are interesting pass-catchers and rookie John Cyprien has shown flashes at safety.

  • -- Marc Sessler *

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals: 6-2

»Andy Dalton is making it tough on his critics. Three straight games with 300-plus yards passing, at least three touchdowns and a passer rating above 100. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says the doubts about his quarterback are "never going to be over," but a win or two in January could change perceptions.

» After Cincy piled up 51 sacks last season -- second-best in the NFL -- they're getting to the quarterback less in 2013. We're still impressed with Geno Atkins, who might not match his 12 takedowns from one season ago, but continues to win battles at the line.

Baltimore Ravens: 3-4

»Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce looked like the AFC's top backfield duo in August, but not today. Baltimore's problems on the ground begin with a line that can't blast holes or control the line of scrimmage. We're especially unimpressed with center Gino Gradkowski.

» Ozzie Newsome deserves credit for pairing a revived Terrell Suggs with Elvis Dumervil. Baltimore's pass rush has been frisky, meshing well with Ozzie's most underrated signing: Daryl Smith. The former Jaguars linebacker has been a rock in the middle of this defense.

Cleveland Browns: 3-5

» What an odd season. Eight games, three quarterbacks and endless trade whispers. My biggest takeaway watching the Browns? They're a quarterback away from being a contender in the AFC.

» The Trent Richardson trade will be analyzed for seasons to come. Make no mistake, Cleveland's ground game is a disaster right now, but at the midpoint, it's hard to kill the Browns for parting ways with T-Rich's three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust act.

Pittsburgh Steelers: 2-5

» It's tough to count out the Steelers based on their recent history, but this is a mediocre football team. Opponents have run the ball at will against Pittsburgh -- see: Terrelle Pryor -- and let's not pretend Ryan Clark or Ike Taylor are keeping coordinators up at night.

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»Le'Veon Bell has been uneven. His yards per carry swivel from 3.6 to 2.1 to 4.9 to 1.9 over his first four starts. He looked outstanding against the Ravens but struggled in Oakland behind a line that never seems to be healthy.

  • -- Marc Sessler *

AFC East

New England Patriots: 6-2

» Where's Tom Brady? Yes, there's a man matching Brady's appearance playing for the Patriots, but the similarities stop there. Bizzaro Tom has been pedestrian this season, leading a Pats offense that's statistically closer to the bottom of the league than the top. The struggles go beyond the substandard supporting cast and absence of Rob Gronkowski for the first six weeks. Bizzaro Tom has routinely misses throws that Brady could make in his sleep. That the Patriots have managed to win six of their first eight games is testament to coaching and improvements in other areas of the roster.

» Vince Wilfork. Jerod Mayo. Sebastian Vollmer. They were arguably three of the top six players on the Patriots' roster entering the season, and they're all out of the picture before Halloween. We won't be surprised if the Patriots navigate their way to another division title, but you have to wonder if losing that much top-end talent will do them in when the competition level jumps in January.

New York Jets: 4-4

» The Jets have been riding the Genocoaster for almost two months now. The results are about what you'd expect from a standard thrill ride: Moments of exhilaration mixed with mad grabs for the barf bag. Smith makes too many killer mistakes (including three pick sixes in the past eight quarters), but he doesn't shrink from the moment and has flashed legit ability during the Jets' surprise 4-4 start. The audition process will last eight more games with a QB-loaded draft on the horizon.

» The Jets have neatly shifted the strength of their defense from a Darrelle Revis-led secondary to a talented defensive line that could eventually rival the old New York Sack Exchange. The front is led by Muhammad Wilkerson, who has blossomed into a full-blown star in his third season.

Miami Dolphins: 3-4

» This was supposed to be the season Ryan Tannehill made the leap into the next class of NFL quarterbacks. The wait continues. Through eight games, Tannehill has 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and five lost fumbles. He's also been sacked 32 times, which speaks both to offensive line struggles and Tannehill's propensity to hold the ball too long. Tannehill makes throws every week that tells you the potential for greatness is there. He remains very much a work-in-progress, however.

» It seems like just yesterday the Dolphins were 3-0 and looking like one of the most promising teams in football. Four losses later, and the team has sunk back to mediocrity, a far-too-familiar setting in recent years. Jeff Ireland quietly signed an extension in the offseason, but a 2013 flame-out might be in the final straw for the oft-criticized general manager.

Buffalo Bills: 3-5

» The EJ Manuelknee injury was a tough setback for a Bills team that was just starting to learn what they had in their first-round pick. Before going down, Manuel showed some glimpses of promise, although with troubling inaccuracy. The good news for Buffalo is that Manuel should return in a few weeks. The development process will continue.

» That massive Mario Williams contract is looking a lot better in Year 2. The outside linebacker has racked up 11 sacks in eight games and could threaten Michael Strahan's all-time record in December. Is Williams worth the $14.5 million the Bills are paying him this year? Probably not, but ask Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine how important Williams is to Buffalo's scheme.

-- Dan Hanzus

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