In Week 9, several questions were emphatically answered while several new questions popped up. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots silenced all of their remaining critics and have emerged as the team to beat in a surprisingly tough AFC. The Arizona Cardinals continued to separate themselves from the pack in the NFC. Ben Roethlisberger continued his stellar play of late and is now a serious MVP candidate, and the San Diego Chargers continued their free-fall following their 5-1 start to the season. Here is a look at five significant takeaways from Week 9 of the 2014 NFL season.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.
1. The road to Super Bowl XLIX in the AFC runs through New England
The New England Patriots thoroughly dominated the Denver Broncos in Week 9, beating them 43-21 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The win not only sent a message to the rest of the league that the Patriots are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but it also showed that the Broncos are far from a lock to repeat as AFC champions. Quarterback Tom Brady may have leap-frogged Peyton Manning in the race for the 2014 NFL Most Valuable Player award; Rob Gronkowski showed he is at full strength and remains one of the biggest offensive threats in the league; and the New England defense proved they had been underrated all year. The loss leaves the Broncos hoping that an unlikely opponent will knock off the Patriots before the end of the season to give them a chance at the top playoff seed in the AFC, helping them to avoid another trip to Foxboro in the postseason.
2. The road to Super Bowl XLIX in the NFC runs through Arizona
Pundits continue to doubt the Arizona Cardinals, yet the Arizona Cardinals continue to win games. The Cardinals are currently 7-1, which gives them a two game lead in the NFC West and a one game lead on both the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC. Arizona still has a tough road ahead of them, but with a Week 8 win over the Eagles already under their belts, the Cardinals have a leg up on the rest of the NFC in the 2014 playoff race. If they can survive their remaining NFC West schedule, the Cardinals have an excellent chance at winning home field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs.
3. Ben Roethlisberger is a legitimate MVP candidate
How did Roethlisberger follow up his 522-yard, six-touchdown pass performance from Week 8? With another 340 yards and six touchdown passes in Week 9 against the Steelers’ bitter divisional rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger’s two-week run has put him right into the thick of the 2014 NFL MVP race. He ranks in the top five in nearly all major passing statistics and has led the Steelers to a 6-3 record, which puts them firmly in the mix for both the AFC North title and the top seed in the AFC Playoffs.
4. The San Diego Chargers are more pretenders than they are contenders
After a 5-1 start in 2014, there was buzz around the league that the Chargers were genuine contenders to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIX. Fast-forward three weeks, and the Chargers are now 5-4 and in third place in the AFC West. To make matters even worse, the Chargers were flat-out embarrassed by the Miami Dolphins in a 37-0 loss in Week 9. During their losing streak, quarterback Philip Rivers has gone from MVP candidate to looking like a middle-of-the-pack type of quarterback, and the San Diego defense has given up almost 32 points per game. With a difficult remaining schedule, it’s highly likely that we have already seen the best of the San Diego Chargers in 2014.
5. The AFC is the stronger conference in 2014
For all of the offseason talk of how tough the NFC is as a whole, it has been the AFC that has been the dominant conference in 2014. The AFC already has a whopping 11 teams with five or more wins in 2014, while the NFC only has six. While the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots have looked like the cream of the AFC crop, there are a handful of teams that have played well enough and have a good enough record to sincerely push them for the top two playoff spots in the AFC postseason. With so many teams still in playoff contention, it is highly likely that there will be a 10-win AFC team that is left out of the playoffs in 2014.