Training camp is just about a month away, and with that, it is time to predict how every team will finish, including playoffs and the Super Bowl.
Several questions linger as we make the turn towards training camp.
First of all, how will the champs respond to Michael Strahan's retirement and minicamp holdouts? Secondly, how will the Patriots rebound after the crushing defeat in Super Bowl XLII? What affect will the new regimes have in Miami and Atlanta?
My predictions feature at least one team that will go from worst to first, and the fall of a long-running division champ. The Bengals' antics will propel them to the playoffs...or not.
Super Bowl XLIII will feature a team making their first appearance and a first-time winner.
Without further delay, here is how I see the AFC shaking out.
Winner: New England Patriots (13-3)
The Patriots are just too explosive on offense, and the rest of the division is terrible. The Patriots don't go undefeated, but they learned last year that that's not such a bad thing. They drafted LB Jerod Mayo to inject some youth at the position.
The Bills improve by one win over last season, but it's not enough to make the playoffs. The defense will be improved, but the offense will continue to struggle.
Bill Parcells begins to put his stamp on this franchise. A four-win improvement over 2007 is a start in the right direction. The sooner they start Chad Henne the better.
New York (3-13)
The Jets made a flurry of offseason moves, but I don't see them paying off. Teams without a quarterback go nowhere in this league. The Jets have two, which means they have zero.
Winner: Pittsburgh (10-6)
Pittsburgh has a tough schedule (@Phily, @Jacksonville, @Washington, @ New England, home games against Indy, San Diego, and Dallas), but I see them escaping to win the division. The only real threat is Cleveland. Baltimore is looking for a quarterback (what's new?), and Marvin Lewis has little control over his Bengals.
I see a drop-off from last season's run that ended in losing a tiebreaker with Tennessee for the last playoff spot. Derek Anderson needs to make better decisions with the football in his second year as the starter (19 INTs last year), or opposing defenses will figure him out. Jamal Lewis turns 29 before the season starts, so I don't see him having another 1,300-yard season in 2008.
A new coach, an aging defense, and either a rookie (Joe Flacco) or a second-year player (Troy Smith) leading the offense, and this team gets worse before it gets better.
I think this is Marvin Lewis's final season in the Queen City. His side of the ball has floundered during his tenure. Carson Palmer has had it with Chad's antics, and I'm going to guess that he's not the only Bengal that feels that way.
Winner: San Diego (13-3)
Okay, so there is absolutely no surprise here. If he hadn't already, Philip Rivers won the respect of all his teammates with his gutsy performance in the AFC championship game. Tomlinson is still the best back in the NFL. There won't be a slow start to the season this year, as the Chargers won't have to adjust to a new coaching staff.
The Broncos will improve on last year's performance. Jay Cutler will have another season under his belt, and he is one of the better, young QBs in the NFL. Cutler will handle his diabetes well, and he may be better off knowing that he has it. He was fatigued during the season, and now he knows why and how to treat it. A defense that gave up over 400 points last season is still a big question mark.
Kansas City (6-10)
A modest, two-win improvement from last season for the Chiefs. They're bringing in over a dozen rookies, including first-round pick Glenn Dorsey. Like the Jets, the Chiefs have questions at quarterback, and Larry Johnson looks to rebound from a disappointing 2007. The offense has to step it up, or Herm Edwards will be out of a job.
Another cellar-dwelling season for the Raiders. The offense should improve slightly with JaMarcus Russell taking over full-time and the addition of Darren McFadden. The Raiders, though, overspent for new additions. First, Javon Walker had as many touchdowns last season as I did, and he is coming off an injury. Then there's Tommy Kelly. No one outside of Oakland had heard of him before he signed a $52 million contract as he recovers from an ACL injury.
Winner: Jacksonville (12-4)
This is the season the Jags topple the mighty Colts in the AFC South. This hard-nosed team is led by David Garrad. Coach Jack Del Rio made the ballsy decision last year to cut incumbent Byron Leftwich and go with Garrard.
It certainly paid off as Jacksonville went on to beat Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. With Garrard as their leader, and Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew at running back, the Jags proved they could score points. I see this team getting deep into the playoffs this year.
The Colts' reign over the AFC South comes to an end in 2008. The status of Marvin Harrison should have Colts fans worried. A knee injury limited him to just five games last season, and he isn't getting any younger. Marvin will turn 36 before the start of the season.
The schedule is tough for the Colts. They are going to have tough out-of-division road games against Minnesota, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Cleveland. There's also that annual game with New England. Oh, and we can't forget that they play in the toughest division in the AFC.
I've got a feeling that this is the year for the Texans. They went a respectable 8-8 last season, despite only a 1-5 division mark. I see them winning half of their division games this year.
The Texans return with QB Matt Schaub as the starter and Sage Rosenfels as a quality backup. It's good to have two quarterbacks in this league, unless you don't know who the starter is (see New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs).
Houston has a stud at WR in Andre Johnson. Let's just hope he can stay healthy enough to play every game this year. Houston's young defense is sure to improve this season after statistically finishing in the bottom half of the league last year.
Someone's got to finish last in this division, and I think it's going to be the Titans. The strength of this Tennessee offense is the run. The Titans drafted speedster Chris Johnson to add to an already loaded backfield.
Despite signing Alge Crumpler, who I believe is a top-10 tight end, the Titans lack weapons for QB Vince Young. The Titans need to give Young better and more explosive targets if they plan on improving their passing and scoring averages.
In 2007, Young threw for under 200-yards per game, while the offense managed less than 20 points per contest. In a division with the Colts and Jags, that will not get it done.
Wild Card Round
#3 Jacksonville over #6 Houston
#5 Indianapolis over #4 Pittsburgh
#3 Jacksonville over #2 New England
#1 San Diego over #5 Indianapolis
AFC Championship Game
#3 Jacksonville over #1 San Diego
I got the feeling that Jacksonville is a mentally tougher team than San Diego. This will give Jacksonville the edge it needs to get past San Diego and advance to their first Super Bowl.
Check back tomorrow for the NFC predictions and Super Bowl XLIII winner.