AFC Division Breakdown (Two Months Too Early)
While the NFL regular season is still more than two months away (NOOOOOOO!), football is in the air.
When the plethora of NFL preview magazines hit the newsstands, I know it's time to start thinking about football.
That, and the fact that the best sports on TV right now are baseball and golf.
Anyway, with football right around the corner (and since I really have nothing better to do), I'm going to do a series of NFL predictions that are probably two months, too early.
Today we'll begin by forecasting the divisions in the AFC.
Hopefully this will help tide some of you football junkies (myself included) over, at least until preseason.
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl last year, I thought it would only be fitting to start with the AFC North.
First: Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Record: (13-3, No. 1 AFC seed)
Overview: The champs are back at full strength. Losing Nate Washington looked like a potentially big loss, but the team brought in veteran Shaun McDonald and drafted Mike Wallace from Ole Miss.
If Limas Sweed can live up to his potential, the passing attack should be fine. If Willie Parker can stay healthy all year (or if Rashard Mendenhall has a breakout campaign), Pittsburgh should be just fine. The defense should be strong as ever.
LaMarr Woodley really had a coming out party in the Super Bowl. And as long as Dick LeBeau is in the picture, the defense will remain stout.
Second: Baltimore Ravens
Projected Record: (10-6, wild card)
Overview: I can't see the Ravens being as successful as they were last year. Willis McGahee seems to be hitting the twilight of his career, Le'Ron McClain will not sneak up on anyone this year, and I don't think Ray Rice will ever be an every-down back.
Add to that equation the fact that Joe Flacco's favorite target was 35-year-old Derrick Mason, and that offense is destined to take a dip. I also think the loss of Bart Scott will hurt more than most people realize.
Third: Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Record: (7-9)
Overview: A rejuvenated Chad Ochocinco, a healthy Carson Palmer, an emerging Andre Caldwell and the addition of Lavernaues Coles should have the offense clicking on all cylinders again.
However, the defense will still stink, despite the fact that the team drafted Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson. I have a feeling that this will be Marvin Lewis' last hurrah in 'Natti.
Fourth: Cleveland Browns
Projected Record: (4-12)
Overview: Where to begin? The Browns still haven't resolved their quarterback problem (at this point, it's not a competition, it's a dilemma), they couldn't get rid of Braylon Edwards, the defense is a disaster, and they brought in a coach in Eric Mangini that none of the players can stand.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.
Perhaps the toughest division in all of football, I expect the teams in the AFC South to wage in a war of attrition against each other.
When all is said and done, I think the Colts will make their way back to the top of the division.
First: Indianapolis Colts
Projected Record: (11-5, No. 3 AFC Seed)
Overview: Since drafting Peyton Manning about a decade ago, Bill Polian and Co. have always ensured that he has a strong supporting cast.
The trend continued with this year's draft, as the Colts took running back Donald Brown with their first pick. I see one of two things happening at RB: Either Brown will light a fire under Joseph Addai's rear end, or the fire will burn Addai up and Brown will be the starter by midseason. In my mind, it's a 50-50 proposition.
Perhaps the biggest news out of Indy were the new roles of Tom Moore and Howard Mudd (and the consternation it cost Peyton). The offense will experience some growing pains, I'm sure, but not enough to keep Indy from winning the division.
Second: Houston Texans
Projected Record: (10-6, wild card)
Overview: Call me crazy, but I think this is the year Houston puts it all together.
The addition of Steve Slaton last year added a new dimension to an already potent offense that includes Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels. Matt Schaub might not be the best triggerman out there, but if healthy, he can get the job done.
Adding Brian Cushing to a linebacker corps that includes DeMeco Ryans and Cato June should put the defense over the top.
Third: Tennessee Titans
Projected Record: (8-8)
Overview: I'm sure Tennessee fans will be bent to see their squad in this position, especially after last year's success. In my mind, there are two reasons the Titans won't approach those heights in 2009.
First, Baltimore provided the blueprint for every team in the NFL. Load up the box against the two-headed monster of LenDale White and Chris Johnson, and force Kerry Collins to beat you.
Second, the loss of Albert Haynesworth makes this defense a shell of what it was last year. Opponents will now be able to put together long drives by running the ball, and opposing defenses will be more rested when they go up against that once hard-nosed D.
Fourth: Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Record: 7-9
Overview: Jacksonville is certainly moving in the right direction, but there are still too many holes that need to be filled (WR, CB, DT, C).
On top of that, I think Jack Del Rio has lost this team. There is no doubt in my mind that the Jaguars quit on him last year.
The tough schedule out of the gates (@ Indy, Arizona, @ Houston, Tennessee) will revive the grumbling, and Jack will be out of work by the end of the season.
Following arguably the best division in football with arguably the worst division in football, I don't think any of the teams in this division can compete with the Chargers–yet.
First: San Diego Chargers
Projected Record: 10-6 (No. 4 seed)
Overview: Ladainian Tomlinson is still the cornerstone of San Diego's offense, but Charger fans have to wonder what could have been.
As in, what if we had let LT go and kept Michael Turner?
While Turner had a career year in Atlanta, Tomlinson had a subpar year in SD and is rapidly approaching the point of his career when it's all downhill for running backs.
Still, San Diego is far and away the best team in the division. Philip Rivers has developed into a top-five NFL QB, and the return of Shawne Merriman should make the defense ferocious once again.
Second: Denver Broncos
Projected Record: 7-9
Overview: If Josh McDaniels lasts more than a year, I'll be stunned. He has successfully chased off a franchise quarterback (and got Kyle Orton in return) and has alienated his best remaining offensive player, Brandon Marshall.
Knowshon Moreno was a nice pickup, but I don't think the running game will be nearly as effective without Shanahan's patented zone blocking scheme. All these elements add up to no playoffs for the Broncos.
Third: Oakland Raiders
Projected Record: 5-11
Overview: The Raiders continued their status as league laughing stock by drafting Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall and taking Michael Mitchell in round two.
Despite these hilarious blunders, Oakland is (slowly) moving in the right direction. Bringing in Jeff Garcia as an insurance policy for JaMarcus Russell was a great idea.
Free agent signings like Lorenzo Neal and Greg Ellis show that someone is thinking up there. Also, the duo of Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas could become an elite RB tandem.
Sadly for the Raider Nation, I don't think the Raiders will be truly viable until Al Davis either kicks the bucket or takes a step back and gives up some of his control (the former is probably more likely to happen first).
Fourth: Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Record: 3-13
Overview: The Chiefs successfully traded for Matt Cassel, which is definitely an upgrade over Quinn Gray and Tyler Thigpen. But they also got rid of Tony Gonzalez, who certainly would've been Cassel's security blanket.
I'm still trying to figure out why the team would've drafted Tyson Jackson third overall, especially with an opportunity to shore up an offensive line that is long removed from the glory years.
Add to this the fact that Todd Haley has no previous NFL head coaching experience, and there's no reason to be optimistic in KC.
(No one can accuse this writer of having an East Coast bias!)
The picture tells the story. With Tom Brady back in the saddle, the AFC East is once again New England's to lose.
First: New England Patriots
Projected Record: 12-4 (No. 2 seed)
Overview: Even without the best quarterback of the decade, New England still almost made it to the playoffs. Now that Mr. Bundchen is back to normal, he can go back to working with the best 1-2 receiver punch in the NFL in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Look for Brandon Tate to be an X-factor in the offense and special teams.
The Patriots also did their patented "pick up as many quality vets as we possibly can" routine. New to the fold are Fred Taylor, Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis, and Tully Banta-Cain, to name a few.
Just business as usual in Foxboro, I'm afraid.
Second: Buffalo Bills
Projected Record: 9-7
Overview: Obviously, the biggest news in Orchard Park is the signing of Terrell Owens. Since it's only his first year with the team, he probably won't destroy the team chemistry yet.
The move brings Buffalo closer to its first playoff appearance since the "Music City Miracle," but I just don't think the Bills have the quarterback to take advantage of the new toy. Also, Marshawn Lynch joins Brandon Marshall in my "Player most likely to be suspended for life" pool (does not include Stallworth and Vick because that would be too easy). Any takers?
Third: New York Jets
Projected Record: 8-8
Overview: The J-E-T-S succeeded in addressing their biggest need in the draft and took Mark Sanchez (the Hispanic version of Broadway Joe?). While I believe that he will be the most effective of the three QBs taken in the first round (Sanchez, Matt Stafford, and Josh Freeman), I think it's too much to ask to expect him to get New York to the playoffs his first year. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule (Roethlisberger, Brady, Flacco). But all the aforementioned teams had much better situations than Sanchez's with the Jets.
Fourth: Miami Dolphins
Projected Record: 6-10
Overview: The Dolphins took advantage of a perfect storm (crappy schedule, an injured Tom Brady, a motivated Chad Pennington, the Wildcat) to take the AFC East last year.
This year, Miami has a much tougher schedule (even though the team gets to play against the NFC West). That guy in New England is healthy again. The Wildcat won't sneak up on anyone this year (although Pat White adds an interesting new dimension).
The bottom line is that Miami was a flash in the pan last year, and it's not feasible that the Fins will have the same success in 2009.
Coming Soon: NFC Division Breakdown