Here is a preview of how I think the AFC will shake out this year. If you read my preview last year, you’ll know that I’m usually wrong in my football predictions (although I did pick the Steelers as champs) so you can take this for what it’s worth.
4. Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs have some talent on offense. Unfortunately, new QB Matt Cassell may miss some time with a knee injury, and there’s no guarantee his success last year wasn’t just a byproduct of the Patriots system. Star running back Larry Johnson is among the best in the NFL when healthy, but he’s rarely healthy. And he’s even more rarely happy. Their defense is being reconfigured this year, and doesn’t figure to be a team strength either. Combine an injured and inconsistent offense with a bad defense, and you probably end up with a losing season.
3. Denver Broncos – This team is in a bit of turmoil this season. After new coach Josh McDaniels inquired about trading for QB Matt Cassel, their QB Jay Cutler insisted on a trade. He was replaced by Kyle Orton, who never played well in Chicago, and doesn’t figure to do much better here. Their best offensive player, WR Brandon Marshall is unhappy, and has expressed a desire to be traded. They added a future hall of famer in Brian Dawkins, but Dawk is well past his prime, and his absence will probably hurt the Eagles more than it helps the Broncos. No starting caliber QB and some turmoil should lead to a losing season.
2. Oakland Raiders – One of the most dysfunctional franchises in sports, the Oakland Raiders have become a laughingstock in recent years. And while they probably won’t be good this year, they may show signs of improvement. Their defense is actually quite adequate, although it was hard to know that last year considering how poorly the team did. And last year, Darren McFadden was supposed to be the hotshot rookie. Injuries kept him from reaching that status, but it’s possible he has a breakthrough season, which will go a long way in making the Raiders at least respectable this season.
1. San Diego Chargers – Normally, it’s a bad sign when a team’s star running back starts going downhill. Once older RBs start showing sign of slipping, they tend to never rebound. And LaDanian Tomlinson definitely showed signs of slipping last year. However, the Chargers are blessed with a good backup in Darren Sproles who should be able to give LT a break, and make the Chargers’ running game one of the best in the league. Philip Rivers continues to develop as a QB, and combined with a good defense, this team is a Super Bowl contender.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags had a lot of injuries last season, and it killed their chances. On offense, they added a past-his-prime but still dangerous WR Torry Holt to go along with star running back Maurice Jones-Drew. It’s a good foundation, but they don’t have much else. They have some good players on defense, but a lot of young players are filling in the gaps. Sometimes young players step up and excel, and sometimes they play with inexperience and make mistakes. I don’t think this team has enough to cover for those mistakes.
3. Tennessee Titans – Last year, the Titans shocked the football world when behind former backup QB Kerry Collins, they had the best record in the AFC. Unfortunately, they wasted that by being upset in the first round of the playoffs. While they have most of the same crew coming back, I think the Titans will regress a bit. Collins played a bit over his head last season, and with deposed former golden boy Vince Young waiting in the wings, a QB controversy may not be far off. Plus, many of their players seem to be on the older side, and sometimes older teams don’t perform well down the stretch.
2. Houston Texans – Last year, I – like many in the national media – picked the Texans as a surprise playoff team. I instantly regretted my choice, as whenever the national media decides on an “IT” team for the season, that team is almost guaranteed to disappoint. The Texans were 8-8 last season, and looking at their roster, I’m guessing more of the same is in order. They have some stars in Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, and RB Steve Slaton was a big surprise as a rookie last season, but I’m not getting fooled by them again. They’ll finish somewhere around 8-8 and won’t seriously contend for the playoffs.
1. Indianapolis Colts – Coach Tony Dungy may have retired, but the team still has Peyton Manning, who will still be one of the two best QBs in the league. With him and WR Reggie Wayne leading the way, the Colts offense should be as high powered as usual, although it would help if RB Joseph Addai rebounds from his injury plagued 2008 season. The question with the Colts is usually their defense. Their strategy typically amounts to just keeping the opponents from scoring as much as their offense. The strategy usually works well, and should do so again this season as the Colts win the division.
4. Cleveland Browns – The Browns were another team that many in the national media predicted a breakthrough season from. Instead, the Browns were horrible, and finished 4-12. They don’t have a starting QB yet, as Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are still fighting for the job. Their starting RB is the well past his prime Jamal Lewis. Their best WR Braylon Edwards led the league in drops. Their second best WR Donte Stallworth is in jail. And their defense doesn’t appear to be anything special either. This should be a long season in Cleveland.
3. Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals have been another dysfunctional team in recent seasons, highlighted by the antics of Chad Ochocinco. He used to be one of the best receivers in the league, but last season, the antics overshadowed his production. Combined with another injury riddled season by Carson Palmer, the Bengals did not have a strong year. The defense is loaded with a bunch of good, but not star level players, which means that it won’t lose games for the Bengals, but it isn’t going to win many games for them either. It’s up to the offensive stars to come through. They’ll have their moments, but not enough for the Bengals to be a playoff team.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers did not look like a great team last season, and yet any time a big play was called for, they were the team to make it. Eventually, they made enough big plays to win the Super Bowl. They have most of the team coming back, so you’d think they’d be an easy pick to repeat. I don’t see it. Until QB Ben Roethislberger plays more consistently, I don’t think they’re a lock. Also, it’s rare for a team with as many offensive line problems to do as well as the Steelers did last season. I can’t see them continuing to overcome that. The talent here will get them a wild card playoff spot, but they will not be a repeat champion.
1. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens were a surprise team last year, making it to the AFC Championship game behind rookie coach John Harbaugh and rookie QB Joe Flacco. Flacco has all the makings of a star, but one potential problem is that he doesn’t have any standout receivers. The Ravens coaches seem to have realized this, and therefore the Ravens are very heavy dependent on the run. They have some good running backs in Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain, so this strategy often works. The Ravens should have a strong defense as well, so if they get anything out of their receivers, this could be a Super Bowl team.
4. Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins were a huge surprise last year, following up a last place finish with a division title. Much of that was due to them using the much heralded “Wildcat” formation which saw the QB line up as a wide receiver, and RB Ronnie Brown take direct snaps. It worked very well, and the Dolphins carried that success into the postseason. But this is the NFL, and one season’s hot new system has usually been figured out by defenses by the following year. The Dolphins will need talent in order to succeed, and while they have some playmakers on defense, the offense doesn’t look like it has enough pieces to truly be great.
3. New York Jets – After the success that rookie coaches and rookie QBs had, it isn’t surprising that some teams are going that route this season and expecting success. QB Mark Sanchez only had one year of starting experience in college, so it would be a lot to expect him to play well immediately. Some might argue that the Jets would have been a playoff team if Brett Favre hadn’t collapsed down the stretch last year, but I don’t see Sanchez improving on his performance this season. Rookie coach Rex Ryan could get the defense shaped up quickly, so if the Jets are going to show any improvement, that is where it will probably come from.
2. Buffalo Bills – Welcome to Terrell Owens’ latest stop on his tour of the NFL. Ignoring all of the drama that surrounds TO, he usually does well in his first season on a team, and along with fellow WR Lee Evans and RB Marshawn Lynch, the Bills have some big weapons on offense. They also have some young defensive talent that may just blossom together. This team will surprise and make the playoffs as a wild card.
1. New England Patriots – When Tom Brady went down in the opening week, the Pats title hopes went with him. While they still had an 11-5 record (yet missed the playoffs), they weren’t a championship caliber team. So with Brady back, should they make the Super Bowl? While it’s possible, I always remember that football players coming back from catastrophic injuries tend to perform inconsistently in their first season back. Brady has looked good in preseason, yet I can see him having a few un-Bradylike moments throughout the year. Still, a non-perfect Tom Brady is still better than most QBs, and there’s a good team around him. They’ll win the division, but fall short of the Super Bowl.
Wild Card Round
Colts over Bills
Patriots over Steelers
Patriots over Chargers
Ravens over Colts
AFC Champion: Ravens