The Broncos, Raiders and Patriots have all reached the midway point of the 2016 season, and despite ups and downs for all three clubs, they remain in most projections the three favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs and Steelers are both in the mix as well, but still have one game remaining to officially hit the halfway mark.

The Patriots at 7-1 have surged ahead in most national power rankings, and rightfully so. The hardly missed a beat with Tom Brady sidelined due to suspension and have looked like the hands-down favorite since his return. That’s especially bad news for the Broncos and Raiders (and Chiefs), who figure to duke it out for the AFC West title all the way down to the final two weeks of the season.

The other bad news for the rest of the AFC? The Patriots are a much-improved team on defense this year, earning them the highest grade possible from 120 Sports’ Bryant McFadden.

“A+, easy,” McFadden says. “Points per game that defense … they’re third in points per game.”

New England is middle of the pack in terms of total defense, but they’re keeping opponents off the scoreboard better than anyone in the AFC. Even their one blemish, a loss at Buffalo, has to be considered with extenuating circumstances, according to McFadden.

“They lost to Buffalo with their third-string quarterback,” he says, “and, by the way, their third string quarterback won them a ballgame. Now how many teams can go in with their third-string quarterback and win a ballgame?”

Denver certainly can’t, after dropping a game at home to the Falcons with backup Paxton Lynch at the helm in place of Trevor Siemian in Week 5. Denver’s offense sputtered in that game, and has struggled to find rhythm all year – especially during the first and third quarters. Denver has been the league’s best fourth-quarter offense, helping propel them to a 6-2 stat, but the inconsistency leads McFadden to give Denver a “B” grade at the midway point.

The fact that the Patriots emerged from Brady’s suspension at 3-1 having played two games each with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett is reason alone to give them McFadden’s highest possible rating.

“Many folks felt if they can be .500 – 2-2 [without Tom Brady] – they’d take that and run,” McFadden notes. Adding, “They’re 7-1 and they’re not barely winning ballgames. They’re not pulling off Oakland Raider-type victories. They’re winning with style points.”

Oakland is 6-2 and tied with Denver atop the AFC West, although several of their games have come down to the final seconds if not overtime. Derek Carr and the Raiders escaped Tampa Bay (a team the Broncos beat handily) in Week 8 with an overtime win and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against New Orleans, Baltimore and San Diego, winning those three games by a combined five points.

Still, McFadden rates them a notch above the Broncos with a B+ because they’ve managed to go undefeated on the road in five games.

“I’m a little concerned with that defense. I think that defense should be better. They should be at least a top-15 defense when it comes to points allowed and they need to get the yards down,” he says. “But for them to be undefeated on the road and getting ready to have a long, critical home stretch is huge for them.”

They begin that home stretch, which includes four straight home games and a bye (Week 10), beginning with the Broncos on Sunday night.

McFadden isn’t completely correct about the Raiders – he says they didn’t win a game on the road last year and Broncos fans certainly remember their trip to Denver when they pummeled Brock Osweiler – but he does think all the close calls could eventually catch up with Oakland.

We’ll get some clarification between two of those teams this weekend as Denver and Oakland square off to start the second half of their seasons. As for adding separation at the top, New England has a bye this week before they host Seattle.