NFL Preview: AFC
As we get closer to start of the regular season in the NFL, every is getting riled up to know what team will reign supreme when the season comes to a close in February. The last edition had me breakdown how each division in the NFC would go and what teams would make the playoffs. In this edition we are breaking down the divisions in the AFC.
1. Denver Broncos (14-2)- For the third year in a row, the Broncos will end up the best team in this division. Peyton Manning showed he was back to being the future hall-of-famer that he is at QB. He still has his top two WRs in Demaryious Thomas and Eric Decker, and he is adding possibly the most dangerous third option in Wes Welker. The running game will be solid with rookie Montee Ball and second-year man Ronnie Hillman. While it does hurt to have lost Von Miller for six games to suspension, the defense will be able to hold up just enough for the offense to pull out the victories in the early part of the season.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)- The team has a new head coach, a new and improved offensive system, and a new QB to run the offense. Andy Reid knows how to get the best from his QBs and has an explosive West Coast style offense that opens up plays for the best players. Those players are WR Dwayne Bowe and All-Star RB Jamaal Charles. With Alex Smith under center to distribute the ball, the Chiefs now have consistency at the most important position in football.
3. San Diego Chargers (8-8)- The Chargers also have a new coach and new offensive system. The question mark is whether QB Phillip Rivers has the weapons to consistently succeed in the offense. Late last year, WR Danorio Alexander emerged as Rivers's top target, but he is already gone with a torn ACL in his knee. So you have to ask if Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal will be able to step up and be those top weapons for Rivers. You also have to ask exactly how does TE Antonio Gates have left in the tank?
4. Oakland Raiders (5-11)- It seems that for the second year in a row, QB Matt Flynn has been brought in to become the starter only to not be that good in the preseason and have a young QB be named the starter. Unlike last year, I don't expect Terrelle Pryor to become the savior Raiders' have been waiting a really, really long time for. Since Rich Gannon led this team to a Super Bowl over a decade ago, the Raiders have tried Jamarcus Russell, Carson Palmer, Jason Campbell, Matt Flynn (in preseason only), and, maybe now, Terrelle Pryor. This is not how you build a contender.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)- QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, and DT Geno Atkins are all great players to build a team around. All three are entering their third seasons in the NFL and that makes for a dangerous combination on both sides of the ball. Add TEs Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, and RBs Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard, and you have the recipe for an explosive offense. Atkins leads one of the toughest defenses in the league-- a defense full of young and hungry players.
2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)- The Super Bowl champs lost too many weapons on both sides of the ball to think that they will be able to pick up where they left off last year. Joe Flacco proved yet again, that he is a winner and can make the biggest plays on the biggest stage (Super Bowl MVP proves that). Ray Rice remains dangerous and Torrey Smith is ready to truly explode. Losing Anquan Boldin (free agency), Dennis Pitta (hip injury), Ray Lewis (retirement), and Ed Reed (free agency) is huge, but have no doubt that Ozzie Newsome and that front office have capable replacements ready to step up and replace these losses.
3. Cleveland Browns (8-8)- QB Brandon Weeden is showing that he has made leaps and bounds from a year ago and is ready to be the man in Cleveland. Even though he has issues with minor injuries, Trent Richardson is a workhorse RB the Browns can count on. The defense, led by LB D'Qwell Jackson, is tough-as-nails and ready to make QBs cringe when they step back to pass the ball.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-9)- Losing rookie RB Le'veon Bell for an undisclosed amount of time once again raises a question mark on the running game. Can Ben Roethlisberger stay healthy for a full season? Will the offensive line be able to provide adequate protection to Roethlisberger? Will anyone be able to fully replace the loss of WR Mike Wallace? Is the defense going to show its age and begin to break before our very eyes? Too many questions abound for this to be considered a contender in this division.
1. Houston Texans (11-5)- Getting rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins should open up the passing game for QB Matt Schaub, but this is still an offense that relies on the legs of RB Arian Foster. DE J.J. Watt returns to lead a defense that is getting LB Brian Cushing back (knee surgery) and is adding one of the best safeties in the game in Ed Reed. They will better than last year, but their record may not show it due to playing in a much-improved division.
2. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)- Entering his second year, Andrew Luck certainly looks like the perfect man to replace Peyton Manning. The question marks aren't on the offensive side though. You have to wonder how this defense will be after losing Dwight Freeney-- who most would consider the heart and soul of that defense-- to free agency.
3. Tennessee Titans (9-7)- QB Jake Locker will start showing more and more glimpses of his abilities this year, as an improved offensive line will give him more time to find his receivers. RB Chris Johnson seems rejuvenated by that new offensive line as well. Look for Johnson to have a very strong season, helped by the occasional breathers RB Shonn Greene will provide him throughout the season.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)- While Maurice Jones-Drew will continue to be one of the premier RBs in the game, I just don't see the offense being that much of a threat. The main reason is the team doesn't seem to really a QB they can count on to consistently make good plays. Entering his third year, it is becoming painfully clear that Blaine Gabbert is not the answer at QB. The even bigger problem is that Chad Henne is also not the answer. Jaguars' fans should prepare themselves for another long season.
1. New England Patriots (12-4)- Yes, they no longer have Wes Welker (free agency), Brandon Lloyd (free agency), or Aaron Hernandez (legal issues). Of course, no one yet knows for sure just how much Rob Gronkowski will be able to contribute or if he and Danny Amendola can stay healthy for a full year. But, this team still has Tom Brady at QB, Bill Belichick at head coach, and plays in the weak East division.
2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)- They added WR Mike Wallace, but lost RB Reggie Bush in the offseason. They have new uniforms, but still don't know if QB Ryan Tannehill-- entering year two-- is ready to make leap needed to make this franchise a contender. The Dolphins are the second-best team in the division, but that's not saying much.
3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)- I think once he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, QB E.J. Manuel will step up and become the starting QB the Bills envision him becoming. Until then, the Bills will continue to struggle and fall behind quickly and often.
4. New York Jets (3-13)- Talk about a complete and utter blunder. The way in which Rex Ryan has handled the QB competition with this team has been horrendous. If you were going give both QBs a solid and equal look to see who would shine, then you shouldn't wait until the fourth quarter of the third (and most important) preseason game to put Mark Sanchez in the game. If that decision leads to losing Sanchez for a prolonged period of time, the QB job goes to Geno Smith-- who showed through the first three quarters that he isn't ready.
In the Wild Card round, I have 6-seed and defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore visiting 3-seed Houston Texans and 4-seed Cincinnati Bengals taking on 5-seed Kansas City Chiefs.
Earning byes into the Divisional round are 1-seed Denver Broncos and 2-seed New England Patriots.
There you have how I believe the AFC regular season will unfold this year. Next, I will give you my predictions on how the playoffs will turn out and who will win this season's Super Bowl in freezing Metlife Stadium.