Some portions of this column previously appeared on Vype.com and Vype.com/dfw.
It's football season at long last! In this column, I will preview each and every team from the AFC, and next week I'll post my NFC predictions. After that, look out for a playoff preview plus an in-depth look at who will win the different individual awards. Will Tom Brady regain control of the AFC East with the Patriots? Can the Steelers win the AFC North in their quest for a second straight Super Bowl ring? Just how awful will the Broncos and Raiders be this season? Read on to find out...
1. New England Patriots Predicted Record: 12-4
2. New York Jets Predicted Record: 9-7
3. Buffalo Bills Predicted Record: 8-8
4. Miami Dolphins Predicted Record: 6-10
Adding what appears to be a healthy Tom Brady to a team that managed to finish 11-5 last season means a division title and a playoff run is in the cards for the Patriots. Fred Taylor might be older, but he can help carry the load if Laurence Maroney struggles yet again this season. I have some concerns about whether or not Randy Moss might start to wear down at age 32, but with Wes Welker and new guy Joey Galloway lining up next to him, that shouldn’t matter. The Pats D should be one of the league’s best. They are highlighted by their linebacking corps (even without newly retired Teddy Bruschi). If I had to pinpoint a weakness, it would have to be in the secondary. As a Redskins fan, I saw Shawn Springs appear to be burnt out by the end of last season. The rest of the back four is solid but less than spectacular with the loss of Asante Samuel. Even if the secondary struggles though, expect New England to be Super Bowl contenders in 2009.
Let the surprises begin! Yes, the Jets are inexperienced at QB, but they have a super deep and talented defense plus a solid cast of playmakers for whoever does end up leading the offense. I have a feeling that Mark Sanchez will have a Joe Flacco-like efficient year and help establish Chansi Stuckey and Dustin Keller as fantasy studs at their respective positions. I fully expect the Dolphins to fall off from last year, and the Bills still aren’t great even with T.O. The Jets could definitely compete for the last wild card spot.
So, what exactly will T.O. do for the Bills? He’ll add one win and a whole lot of extra attention to a team that most people normally don’t care about. Buffalo’s D is sub-par at best, their QB is barely average, and Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games. Oh, and the guy filling in for him, Fred Jackson, has a career path that includes a trip to the NIFL (National Indoor Football League, I kid you not). A strong special teams unit and a great one-two punch at WR will be enough for the Bills to win some ball games, but don’t expect a run to the playoffs.
The honeymoon is over for Dolphins fans. The Wildcat is not going to catch anyone off guard in year two of its experimental usage. I fully expect it to die off by year’s end. Chad Pennington could put up the same stats as he did in 2008, but I highly doubt it. Ronnie Brown can’t carry this team alone, and unfortunately, he probably will have to. Ted Ginn Jr.’s make or break time is now, so he could be in store for a nice year. The Dolphins D should be in the top half of the NFL, but it simply doesn’t stand out enough to stop the passing games Buffalo and New England will throw out at them. Jason Taylor’s return to Miami is an underrated storyline after being shunned by Bill Parcells a season ago for being on “Dancing with the Stars.” Since then, he’s played in an injury-filled season with Washington followed by a refusal to return to D.C. because he didn’t want to participate in most of the off-season tasks. Apparently, however, Parcells had a bizarre change of heart, because Taylor is back.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers Predicted Record: 12-4
2. Baltimore Ravens Predicted Record: 9-7
3. Cincinnati Bengals Predicted Record: 7-9
4. Cleveland Browns Predicted Record: 3-13
The defending champion Steelers didn’t make many off-season moves, but they also didn’t lose much. Rashard Mendenhall can finally make his true debut and should challenge Willie Parker for some of the carries. Santonio Holmes is slowly emerging as a superstar receiver. Hopefully he won’t suffer the Plaxico Burress effect of off-the-field issues now that his ego has probably increased. The Steelers D will once again be top three in the NFL. Since they play in such a weak division, it wouldn’t a surprise to see them get a first round bye in the playoffs.
The Ravens will probably be a playoff bubble team fighting for their lives by season’s end, but you will have to wait until I finish all my previews to see if they will actually make the postseason (oh, the suspense). I know Joe Flacco is in year two and so is Ray Rice, but when your best receiver retired earlier in the off-season before deciding to return, you have to question the depth of your receiving corps. Plus, Bart Scott is gone, Ray Lewis is a year older, and so is Ed Reed (who is also playing with a pinched nerve in his neck). If Rice or Flacco can truly have a breakout season, as in a trip to the Pro Bowl, Baltimore will be a shoe-in for the postseason. If they only barely improve from year one, it will be very, very close.
Believe it or not, I don’t think the Bengals will be that awful in 2009. Chad Ochocinco will return to about 85% of his playing abilities from pre-2008, and Laveranues Coles is a solid possession receiver to replace T.J. Houshmanzadeh. The x-factor will be Chris Henry, who I fully expect to break out this year. Carson Palmer has raved about Henry’s improvement this off-season. With his legal troubles behind him, watch out. A weak running game and poor defense will keep the Bengals from qualifying for the playoffs, but they will have an exciting offense.
Man oh man, where to begin? The Browns are simply a mess from top to bottom. They are playing a dangerous game with their quarterback situation, and whomever they choose will be without two of their main targets from the past two seasons (Kellen Winslow Jr. and Donte Stallworth). Jamal Lewis is entering his tenth NFL season, which is when a running back usually starts to falter. If he does, there’s no dependable backup in sight, which will only hinder the Browns’ offense even more. And don’t even get me started on Braylon Edwards, whom I had the displeasure of owning on my fantasy team in 2008. On defense, Cleveland should be a bottom feeder in practically every major category. Shaun Rodgers will be solid, as will D’Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley, but after that there’s a huge drop off in talent.
1. Indianapolis Colts Predicted Record: 11-5
2. Tennessee Titans Predicted Record: 10-6
3. Houston Texans Predicted Record: 9-7
4. Jacksonville Jaguars Predicted Record: 6-10
The Colts bring in a new head coach Jim Caldwell, but lost legendary WR Marvin Harrison. I still see them as the team to beat in the AFC South. Peyton Manning is still one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and he still has Reggie Wayne as a go-to target. With Harrison gone, Anthony Gonzalez will likely eclipse 1,000 receiving yards and establish himself as a legitimate number two receiver. Rookie RB Donald Brown could be in for a big season if Joseph Addai goes down, which is pretty likely. If Addai stays healthy, Indy will have a two-headed monster for a running game. That would be welcomed after a poor season running the ball in 2008. On the defensive side of the ball, Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders should once again be two of the best players at their respective positions. The Colts will also gain DT Ed Johnson starting in week two of the season. Johnson was cut due to drug problems last year but has apparently cleaned up his act. Indy could be a win or two less than normal without longtime coach Tony Dungy, but the vibe I’m getting is that Peyton Manning has enough leadership skills to carry on the torch for the Colts.
I loved watching the Titans hard-nosed football style of play in 2008, where they had an amazing defense and a great running game. I expect Chris Johnson and slimmed down Lendale White to carry (literally) the Titans’ offensive load, and both are appealing options for fantasy football owners. Without Albert Haynesworth to clog up the middle though, don’t expect a deep run into the playoffs for Jeff Fisher and company. Kerry Collins is another year older and still without a reliable receiving target, but even if Collins struggles I wouldn’t trust his backup, Vince Young, in a million years. The Tennessee secondary is amongst the best in football, and as an overall defensive unit they should still be a top ten club stat-wise even without Haynesworth.
For the past couple of seasons, Houston has been a popular sleeper choice that has failed to put the pieces together. This year, I truly believe they will compete with the Baltimore Ravens for the final wild card spot. When healthy, Matt Schaub is an above average QB who is fully capable of leading a football team. Steve Slaton should be a gem both in real life and for fantasy football owners, and Andre Johnson is a top-five receiver. Owen Daniels has a chance to break out at TE too, so there are plenty of offensive weapons at Schaub’s disposal. Mario Williams should continue to live up to his number one pick status as he plays alongside a beast at LB in DeMeco Ryans. If Houston stays healthy, they could give Tennessee a run for their money at second in the division.
The Jags cut Fred Taylor to officially hand the reigns over to Maurice Jones-Drew for the 2009-10 season. It’s a very questionable move to make. If Jones-Drew goes down to injury now that he will receive all of the carries (which is a fair assumption to make), Jacksonville has absolutely no backups with experience to take his place. David Garrard is capable of airing it out and is an underrated commodity, but his only target is an aging Torry Holt. The Jag’s defense is solid, but isn’t going to scare anyone off, and overall it seems like besides their star RB, the Jags lack the firepower needed to compete for a playoff spot.
1. San Diego Chargers Predicted Record: 11-5
2. Kansas City Chiefs Predicted Record: 7-9
3. Oakland Raiders Predicted Record: 5-11
4. Denver Broncos Predicted Record: 4-12
San Diego will continue to underachieve for as long as Norv Turner sticks around, but the Chargers will improve their record from last year. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a much better team, it means their division somehow got even worse (thanks to the Jay Cutler to the Bears trade). I’m one of the fantasy owners who completely avoided Ladanian Tomlinson in every draft as it’s very hard for a now ten-year veteran RB to maintain the pace they established years ago. Even if LT is done, Darren Sproles should provide big numbers out of the backfield (although the Chargers are probably wishing Sproles was Michael Turner). The Chargers passing attack will be one of the league’s best as Phillip Rivers has Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and, of course, Antonio Gates at his disposal. Shawn Merriman returns at LB to give San Diego a much-needed boost defensively. He should pick up right where he left off two years ago. While the Chargers should cruise into the playoffs as one of the most talented teams in the NFL, they will more than likely find a way to mess everything up come postseason time.
Everyone in the state of Missouri (plus fantasy owners such as myself) has been holding their collective breath since Matt Cassel went down with a leg injury. Assuming it’s nothing serious, this could be a positive year for the Chiefs. A high octane offense featuring Dwyane Bowe means the Chiefs will put up a ton of points. Even if their defense struggles, it’s not like their division foes, besides San Diego, will give them much trouble. Without a healthy Cassel, Kansas City is still probably better than Oakland and Denver. Don’t expect playoffs in 2009-10, but things are starting to look up for the Chiefs.
On paper, Oakland has a team capable of competing for a wild card spot in the weak AFC West. However, they have an incredibly inexperienced coach plus an owner who is practically insane. That spells disaster for the Raiders yet again in 2009-10. JaMarcus Russell is simply not a better QB than Jeff Garcia, who wins football games wherever he plays. Russell will likely start all season, however, because Al Davis is a very stubborn man. Darren McFadden, on the other hand, will have a breakout season. You can mark that down right now. The Raider’s receiving corps is flat-out awful, and picking Darius Hayward-Bay over Michael Crabtree was a typical boneheaded move for Raiders management. The Oakland secondary should be pretty solid, but it seems like there’s no chemistry at all for Tom Cable and friends. If Al Davis stepped down and a new coach was put in place, Oakland has the talent to win nine games. As of now though, this team will continue to be a bottom feeder in the AFC West.
I’ve found something that either the Broncos or Raiders can win! Which team will attract the most media attention for all the wrong reasons by season’s end? The safe pick is Oakland since they usually take the title, but I could see Denver swooping in and becoming number one. Josh McDaniels was successful in losing his two best players (Jay Cutler and soon Brandon Marshall) and gaining pretty much nothing. Even if Marshall sticks around, it’s obvious that his head really isn’t into football and winning games at the moment. Kyle Orton is an o.k. QB at best, and the Broncos will start a rookie at RB. On defense, which happened to be one of the worst units in 2008, the Broncos added absolutely nothing. I’m not really seeing how any games are going to be won in Colorado. If Marshall manages to get traded, Eddie Royal will enjoy a breakout year, so I guess that counts as a positive for Broncos fans.