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Mike Preston: In ‘week-to-week’ NFL, good luck predicting the winner of the AFC | COMMENTARY

The new catchphrase in the NFL has changed from “any given Sunday” to “it’s a week-to-week league.”

Everybody uses it. It’s basically a new way of saying the NFL is full of mediocrity and it’s hard to predict who is going to win the title. This has been the NFL’s goal ever since the Dallas Cowboys went on their championship tour in the early 1990s.

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With the exception of the New England Patriots, the league has been successful at creating parity. It wants to maintain fan interest throughout the season and then let the Super Bowl be decided by which team gets hot late in December and rides that momentum throughout the playoffs.

Over in the NFC, they don’t want to follow the script. The unbeaten Arizona Cardinals (7-0) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1) have established themselves as the clear front-runners, with the Green Bay Packers (6-1), Los Angeles Rams (6-1) and Cowboys (5-1) a notch below. In the AFC, the top teams change “week to week.”

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Two weeks ago, it was Buffalo, and then the Bills got knocked off by the Tennessee Titans, 34-31. The Ravens had a chance to become the clear front-runner Sunday until the Cincinnati Bengals trounced them, 41-17, in a game that was so lopsided that coach John Harbaugh had to wave the white flag with about six minutes left.

Who is the top dog in the AFC this week? Well, it might be better to just flip a coin.

Three division leaders — Cincinnati, Tennessee and Las Vegas — are 5-2, but so are the Ravens. Buffalo is in front in the AFC East with a 4-2 record, followed by New England at 3-4. The hot team appears to be Tennessee, which has won three straight since its unpardonable sin of losing to the New York Jets, 27-24, in overtime Oct. 3.

Since then, the Titans have beaten Jacksonville, Buffalo and Kansas City. The Titans are doing it the old-fashioned way with running back Derrick Henry and a rapidly improving defense. Plus, it’s hard not to like coach Mike Vrabel. As a Patriots linebacker, he was always tough, mean and ornery. He coaches in the same manner with that smirk on his face.

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The Raiders have won two games in a row since coach Jon Gruden resigned, which isn’t surprising. Gruden’s personality can rub a lot of players the wrong way, and they probably wanted to show they can win without him. Now, can that carry over into the second half of the season? As long as quarterback Derek Carr stays hot, so will the Raiders.

Buffalo is intriguing. The Bills are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, with the No. 6 ranked offense and No. 1 defense. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Josh Allen, but their biggest weakness has been scoring touchdowns inside the red zone.

In 29 possessions inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, the Bills have scored 16 touchdowns, a rate of 55.2% that ranks No. 26 in the NFL. A failed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line cost them in the final minute of that loss to Tennessee.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have been one of the league’s most productive teams inside the red zone, scoring 16 touchdowns on 22 possessions. But they aren’t balanced, boasting the league’s No. 4 offense and No. 24 defense, and have been the picture of inconsistency.

In Week 3, the Ravens needed an NFL-record 66-yard field goal as time expired to beat the winless Detroit Lions, 19-17. A few weeks later, they crushed the Los Angeles Chargers, 34-6. The loss to the Bengals was simply another mess. One of the best things about the Ravens is that they are 5-2 despite suffering more injuries than almost any other team.

But remember, this is the NFL. It’s all about living week to week, and things could fall apart. Good teams expose weaknesses, and the Ravens have several. They don’t have an outside threat in their running game except quarterback Lamar Jackson, and their pass protection is solid at best. If the Ravens aren’t bringing pressure or blitzing to create some type of chaos on defense, the communication in the secondary breaks down.

Oh, and the Ravens can’t tackle.

Unfortunately, their AFC North rivals all have enough athleticism in their defensive front seven to slow down the Ravens’ offense. The Bengals also have great offensive talent in quarterback Joe Burrow, receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin should never be underestimated. The Browns not only have the second best defense in the league, but the No. 1 running game, averaging 170.4 rushing yards per game.

At this point, no team can be left out, especially the Patriots (3-4) and coach Bill Belichick and the two-time defending conference champion Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Nostradamus would have a hard time predicting the winner of the AFC. Maybe the Ravens can pull it together and make a late run.

Anything is possible. It’s all week to week.

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