You may have noticed that there were two AFC playoff tournaments this season.
One determined the conference's Super Bowl representative, and to no one's surprise, the New England Patriots easily won. After going 14-2 during the season to earn a No. 1 seed, they drilled the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers to win the conference title.
The other tournament – a second-tier NIT for sure – identified the last AFC team standing beside New England. The winner earned the right to lose to the Patriots Sunday, and after absorbing a 36-17 whipping, the Steelers might wonder why they bothered.
From that blowout, it's evident the rest of the AFC needs to get its butt in gear.
The Patriots have dominated the conference forever, making seven Super Bowl trips since 2001, but the distance between them and everyone else has never been wider. The Kansas City Chiefs, this year's No. 2 seed, surely would have suffered the same fate as Pittsburgh Sunday if they had made it that far.
The AFC was about as compelling as a bad year at the Oscars this season, and the Ravens' regression is part of the issue. They're pretty much the only team that goes into New England in January with any swagger and confidence. They've split four playoff games there since 2009, while the rest of the AFC has just one playoff win in 16 tries at Gillette Stadium since the Patriots' run began.
But of course, to play the Patriots in January, you have to make the playoffs, and the Ravens have failed to do it three times since 2013. The Patriots don't miss them, I can assure you.
Another threat to their supremacy, the Denver Broncos, also took a step back and dropped out of the playoff picture this year after Peyton Manning's retirement. Again, I'm sure the Patriots didn't mind.
Meanwhile, they just keep rolling, seemingly impervious to salary-cap-mandated roster restrictions, injuries and other problems that trip up teams. Tom Brady is playing as well as ever at 39. When they lose Rob Gronkowski, their best offensive weapon, they just find someone else, like Chris Hogan, a former lacrosse player who tore up the Steelers Sunday.
Right now, there's no reason to think the Patriots won't be back on top in 2017. Everyone else in the AFC has a lot of work to do to catch them.
Ravens Were Not One Outstretched Arm Away From Steelers' Success
Were the Ravens really one outstretched arm away from the NFL's final four this season? You can make a case, but I have my doubts.
Yes, if the Steelers' Antonio Brown hadn't stretched his arm across the goal line to score the winning points against the Ravens in the final seconds on Christmas, things could have turned out differently. The Ravens probably would have won that day, putting them in position to win the AFC North in their season finale. With that motivation, they might well have won in Cincinnati and earned the AFC's No. 3 seed.
Instead, the Steelers won the division, took the No. 3 slot and beat Miami and Kansas City in the playoffs to reach the final four – a hard road but not an impossible journey.
So while the Ravens' 8-8 record suggests they were a long way from January glory, the line between success and failure in the NFL is narrow, and in fact, they weren't that far away.
But there's a big difference between being able to construct a plausible scenario and seeing it actually unfold, and I think it's a stretch to think the Ravens could have replicated the Steelers' trip to the final four.
The Steelers won nine straight games to get that far, exhibiting a level of consistency the Ravens never attained in 2016. Baltimore's longest winning streak was three in a row.
Also, five of Pittsburgh's nine straight wins came on the road, where the Ravens really struggled in 2016, going 2-6.
Just generally, the 2016 Ravens didn't have the offense to fuel a long playoff run. Sunday's conference finalists were ranked No. 2, 4, 7 and 8 in total offense, and No. 1, 3, 4 and 10 in scoring. Baltimore was in another league, ranked No. 17 in total offense and No. 21 in scoring.
Yes, the Ravens did beat the Steelers in November, then came heartbreakingly close to completing a sweep on Christmas. There's no doubt they give Pittsburgh a hard time.
But they ended up three games behind the Steelers for a reason, actually multiple reasons, and it's hard to imagine them getting deep into the postseason without those reasons rearing up at some point and causing them to fall short.