The NFL season is fast approaching, and as always, there are questions that need to be answered before the season starts. This year, there's so many questions for both conferences, I decided to make them into my favorite kind of test: a true/false exam. We'll continue (and conclude) with my questions (or rather, statements) for the AFC.
Not yet at least…
Over his career, Kyle Orton has been a mediocre quarterback at best, even when he was with the Chicago Bears. While he is the incumbent heading into training camp, the Broncos signed a whole mess of quarterbacks to make the competition exciting.
He needs to have a disastrous training camp to lose the position. If he does, someone will replace him, but it won’t be Tim Tebow.
Brady Quinn will probably have the inside track on the second string. He has been relatively good, even though he played second fiddle in Cleveland for his first three seasons. If Orton falters, Quinn will be able to finally prove himself as the best quarterback in Denver.
Tebow needs to hold a clipboard for at least a year before he’ll even be in the running to start. He had a very good offensive line in Florida, and the one in Denver is rebuilding. He’ll have to learn to work under pressure before he can even be considered to start.
Everybody in the AFC North is hurting, including the powerful Steelers.
The Steelers, for obvious reasons (see question 5), have a wide open quarterback battle for the first four games. Byron Leftwich will be taking over those duties for the time being. He was a pretty good quarterback at Marshall and in Jacksonville, but he hasn’t really played very much, except for mop-up duty in Steeler blowouts. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be bad. However, recent history (aka Troy Polamalu) proves that when a star gets sidelined for a while, the Steelers seem to fall apart.
The Ravens are still relatively good, but they’re aging rapidly. Joe Flacco is youthful, but the rest of the team is getting to be over the hill. They did almost nothing to get younger, and I really don’t like their chances to make it their way through the entire season unscathed.
The Bengals aren’t really contenders, with all of their off-the-field distractions. They are all over the place on both sides of the ball, and need at least another year before they’re contenders again. For all those reasons and more, it’s not a stretch to say that the Browns could make a run for the playoffs.
The main reason why I think the Jets supplant the Patriots is their youth.
They proved throughout the playoffs last year that they could run with the big dogs in the AFC. Their defense was one of the best in the NFL, and they only got better on both sides of the ball. With a little tweaking from their blitz-heavy package that got them to the AFC Championship, the Jets could be the best defense in the NFL.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez came into his own during the playoffs, and he can only get better from there. Factor in a pretty soft schedule (five games this year against playoff teams), and the Meadowlands will be celebrating their first AFC East Championship since 2002.
However, don’t think it’ll be a cakewalk, Jets fans. Their hated rival, the Miami Dolphins, are getting strong as well, and could give the Jets a run for their money. However, with a much tougher schedule (seven playoff teams to the Jets’ five), I give the edge to the Jets. I think that the AFC East is the best division in the conference this year, so it’s not a stretch to think there will be three playoff teams from there. However, with the aging Patriots and the still-rebuilding Dolphins, I give the East to the Jets.
They’ll be awfully close, though.
The Titans had an absolutely horrible start to their season, losing their first six games before finally gelling and winning eight out of their last 10.
However, their extremely slow start can only be attributed to two things: injuries and an aging Kerry Collins. Vince Young finding his form again, along with the emergence of Chris Johnson as the best running back in the NFL, saved their season last year. If those two can keep it up and the Titans can stay healthy, they will have a shot at getting at least a winning record.
The playoffs are a little iffy, just because there are so many other good teams this year.
The Steelers were floored by the conduct of Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, and now have lost their leader for four games, due to a forced vacation by the NFL.
However, this is not necessarily problematic for Pittsburgh.
Their first four games (home against Atlanta and Tennessee, at Tampa Bay, and back home against Baltimore) are relatively easy games for a hurting team.
They still have a solid defense, bolstered by the return of Troy Polamalu and a defensive line that is still as dominant as they were when they won the Super Bowl five years ago.
They have a running game that can still dominate, even without Willie Parker (who left for greener pastures in Washington). The only thing on the offense that seems a little shaky is the quarterback position. Byron Leftwich has lost that starting edge he had in Jacksonville, but could still help the Steelers in this situation.
With the soft schedule starting out, I think the Steelers will win three out of the four games without Big Ben, with their only possible loss coming to Baltimore.
No matter how many people Al Davis drafts, it’s still not enough.
He could draft the entire USC football team, and they’d probably still wind up going 2-14.
They still need a whole mess of players, and they added to their troubles when they got rid of JaMarcus Russell. Now, they have no solid leader (they got Jason Campbell from the Redskins, but he’s mediocre at best), and their offense looks totally slapped together (with the exception of Darren McFadden, who is the only bright spot on their running game).
Their defense is nothing short of abysmal, with Richard Seymour being the only thing quarterbacks are afraid of.
The Raiders have to hope a couple of teams forfeit games, because that is the only way they are winning more games. At best, they have three games they can conceivably win, and two are against fellow bottom-feeder Kansas City.
Anything higher than that is California dreaming.
It’s a possibility, but I’m saying fiction for the time being.
The Bills did a great job shoring up their running game, drafting C.J. Spiller to back up Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. Even with the loss of Terrell Owens, they still have a great receiving corps.
The only problem that plagues the Bills is a lack of leadership at the quarterback position. The Bills bounced back and forth between quarterbacks for most of the season, and that came back and bit them. If they want to contend for the AFC East championship, they need to get some solidarity at that position.
Their defense is very strong, with very good players at every level. If the Bills stay healthy on this side of the ball, they should be one of the best in the conference, if not the league.
However, as was said before (see question 3), they would have to contend with one of the strongest conferences in the AFC, if not the NFL. The Patriots, Dolphins and Jets (see questions 3 and 10) are all very strong teams this year. The Bills will need to establish themselves early to return to their glory days of the early ‘90s, and with three playoff teams early on, I really don’t see that happening
Unfortunately, none of the teams in the AFC South are quite up to the level of the Colts.
The Houston Texans are the only team that really comes close. They do have the talent to challenge the Colts, but unfortunately, talent will only take you so far. They usually falter around midseason, and recover too late to make the playoffs.
As said before, the Titans (see question 4), still need a little bit of work to make it back to the playoffs. They need to start by taking some of the pressure off their main running back, Chris Johnson. With a little bit more reliance on the passing game, the Titans could possibly challenge for the title. However, it won’t be this season.
The Jaguars are woeful in every sense of the word. Their offense is woeful, with Maurice Jones-Drew being the only bright spot there. Their defense is terrible, but they are getting better. However, in the “what have you done for me lately?” NFL, that isn’t going to win them the AFC South.
The Colts continue to be a really good team, and they won’t be challenged for their division’s playoff spot this year.
It’s not only because of LaDanian, though.
They also lost Antonio Cromartie to the Jets. That leaves Shawne Merriman to anchor the entire Charger defense, and he’ll be hard-pressed to carry that weight alone.
They did shore up their offense, picking up Ryan Mathews in the draft. However, he still needs a couple more years before he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the running game. They do have Darren Sproles, but he’s not exactly a full-time running back.
Factor in a relatively tough schedule (some mediocre teams, with a few playoff teams sprinkled here and there), and the Chargers might be hard-pressed to make it to .500 this year.
That team will be…are you sitting down?
The New York Jets.
The pieces are all in place for a big run in the playoffs. They have a solid offense, bolstered by the signing of LaDanian Tomlinson. He’ll probably play second fiddle to Shonn Greene, but if he shows shades of his glory days in San Diego, the Jets will have no objection to making him the workhorse.
Their defense is absolutely solid, and with the signing of veteran lineman/linebacker Jason Taylor, they got even stronger. The veterans of both groups, especially the defense, have taken the younger players under their wing and given them the tools they need to be dominating.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Jets took the Colts to the mat in the AFC Championship game. Had it not been for a couple of mistakes, they could have very well gone to Miami. There is no doubt that they have learned from their mistakes, and it will end in an AFC Championship this year.
There you have it…the biggest questions that needed answers in the AFC.
Will the Jets be able to improve on their miracle run last year?
Will the Steelers be able to survive without Big Ben?
You’ll just have to watch the 2010 NFL season to find out!