Awards and Extras
Team To Beat - Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were already the best that the AFC had to offer in 2009 and Bob Sanders' importance to this team continues to be understated. Cornerback Marlin Jackson (Eagles) was also important to this defense but alike Sanders, he is injury prone and it was the time for him to move on. Indianapolis still has a good young secondary though and it has potential to be great.
Surprise Playoff Contender - Oakland Raiders
The Raiders made a dumb move when they traded away Kirk Morrison (Jaguars), but they made up for the loss when they drafted Rolando McClain to complete their solid linebacker core. The losses of JaMarcus Russell and Javon Walker were really gains and Lamarr Houston, the defensive tackle out of Texas, was a great choice in the second round of the draft. Also, with Jason Campbell stepping in as the new starting quarterback, talented receivers such as Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, and Darrius Heyward-Bey could have breakout seasons.
Surprise Playoff Pretender - Tennessee Titans
Do not be deceived by the Titans' 2009 midseason turnaround. I think of it as more of a midseason strength of schedule turnaround. While Vince Young did inject some energy in to the Titans' lacking pass offense, that can only last for so long. And with the loss of key veteran leadership (Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Mawae, Jevon Kearse), the Titans may be in for a rough going in 2010. Not helping their cause is their extremely difficult schedule, where there is not one weak opponent.
Least Likely To Succeed - Buffalo Bills
Count them out for 2010. While they did add temporary starters in Cornell Green, Dwan Edwards, and Andra Davis, the Bills can barely see the light. They still have a decent defense, but they are making the transition to a 3-4 defense, which could set them back and with their schedule, there will not be much time to get on track.
Rookie nose tackle Torell Troup, who has impressed, might make the transition a bit smoother though. That is where the positives end though. Adding to the list of negatives is that they are still offensively challenged and Clemson standout C.J. Spiller is the only skill player they have added. Although, wide receiver Steve Johnson could possibly add some flare to their offense.
Breakout Offensive Player - Chaz Schilens, Wide Receiver, Oakland Raiders
With Jason Campbell's arrival in Oakland comes great potential for a rejuvenated pass offense that Raiders fans have been yearning for since the Rich Gannon era. They could also be looking at their next Rice-Brown combination. Well, for now we'll just call it the next Porter-Curry receiving combination. But I digress. Schilens is blessed with size, speed, and great hands. The only thing that has been holding him back is quarterback play. Let's see if Campbell can even hold onto him this season.
Breakout Defensive Player - Dannell Ellerbe, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
He is a passionate football player and is great against the run. Physically, he is a beast and he developed ability as a pass defender last season. In 2010, he could be key to the Raven's Super Bowl hopes and gain attention on the way.
Top Offensive Player of the Year Candidates - Matt Schaub, Chris Johnson, Philip Rivers
The entire hopes of the Houston Texans' season rests on Matt Shaub's arm. Because of that, he is my favorite to win the Offensive Player of the Year right now, although Chris Johnson and his wild expectations are not far behind. If the Titans' season goes down the toilet, it could be Chris Johnson's chance to break 2,000 yards once again. Philip Rivers also has a chance, but is far behind. The drafting of Ryan Matthews and contract dispute with Vincent Jackson could hurt his chances, but if Jackson is on the field, he could close in on Schaub and Johnson.
Top Defensive Player of the Year Candidates - Ray Lewis, James Harrison, Brian Cushing
Over the years, Lewis has been one of the most consistent players in the league, winning multiple POTYs. You can never count him out to win it, especially if the Ravens are on the list of top Super Bowl contenders. Harrison won the award a two years ago and is still a sack machine. Cushing won the Defensive ROTY and if the Texans are a playoff team, Cushing could garner a lot of attention.
1. New England Patriots, No. 2 Seed - The Pats went with quality and quantity in the draft, selecting four players who will see significant playing time in Brandon Spikes, Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Cunningham, and Devin McCourty. The loss of Ty Warren for the season will hurt, but with Tom Brady, lowered expectations, and division rivals who are susceptible to implosion, the Patriots will rise back into the limelight in 2010.
2. New York Jets, In The Hunt - The Jets went nuts this offseason, adding big names and making big moves. The losses of Thomas Jones, Alan Faneca, Kerry Rhodes have gone relatively unnoticed, but all will bite them in the butt this season. Another negative is the drama added by "Hard Knocks" and the Darrelle Revis holdout. I expect the Jets to implode this year, leaving New England atop the division standings once more.
3. Miami Dolphins, Almost There - Miami had a good offseason, but they are not on the Jets or Patriots' levels at this point. Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby are franchise players though, and will keep them competitive in the AFC east. The future is bright for this young franchise.
4. Buffalo Bills, Not Even Close - The Bills are switching their primary defense to the 3-4 which does not particularly suit their personnel at this point, but linebacker Aaron Maybin and nose tackle Torrell Troup should play well in 2010. On offense, the Bills added no firepower. They will have a solid to above average running game, but their passing game will be abysmal.
1. Baltimore Ravens, No. 4 Seed - The Ravens are a team you can believe in. They have loads of talent on both sides of the ball and you can make the argument that there is not one weak point on their team. They also have chemistry and leadership, which is essential to a Super Bowl contender.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 6 Seed - Mike Tomlin's 9-7 squad was just as competitive as any other in 2009. They did not lose one game by more than one score and five out of their seven losses were by three points. Despite trading away Santonio Holmes, the Steelers added experienced former-Steelers and had a great draft. Steel City should be in for a great season as long as Big Ben returns smoothly and Polamalu stays healthy.
3. Cincinnati Bengals, In The Hunt - The Bengals had a decent offseason, adding two receiving threats into the mix on offense. They will be an improved team, but the Ravens and Steelers are even more improved. And when you consider their tough schedule, it will be quite the challenge for the Bengals to return to the playoffs. The big three in the North will be fun to watch though.
4. Cleveland Browns, Almost There - I feel for you Cleveland fans, especially those who are also Cavaliers fans. I am also a Cavaliers fan and it is depressing to watch what has happened to this city. Alike the Cavs, the Browns had a very active offseason in which they added 11 players, five of which will see consistent playing and possibly even start. They also had a great draft. I especially like their first three choices (Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Montario Hardesty). 2010 will be more positive than 2009 though and Mike Holmgren could have the Browns back on track by the start of the 2011 season.
1. Indianapolis Colts, No. 1 Seed - As long as Peyton Manning is there, they will be Super Bowl contenders. The Colts are even better looking coming into this season than they were a year ago. They are a very young team and their defense will be back in the top half of the league this season as long as Bob Sanders can make it through the season without a major injury.
2. Houston Texans, No. 5 Seed - For the first time in franchise history, the Houston Texans will reach the playoffs. Arian Foster brought life to their running game late last season and Steve Slaton is more than a capable backup. As a rookie, he looked like a franchise back, but he caught a case of the fumbles and the starting running back job went up for grabs. It will remain that way until Week One.
3. Tennessee Titans, In The Hunt - The Titans had a tough offseason. Gone are veterans Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Alge Crumpler, Kevin Mawae, Nick Harper, Craig Hentrich, and Jevon Kearse. Stepping in are cornerback Tye Hill and outside linebacker Will Witherspoon. Rookies Derrick Morgan and Damian Williams could also have an impact, but the Titans defense is not even a shadow of what it has been in previous years. Last year, Tennessee's defense ranked 28th. This year will be a slight improvement, but not enough to catapult them into the playoffs.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars, Not Even Close - The Jags were one of the more inconsistent teams in 2009. One week they lost 41-0 to the Seahawks, but four games later they beat the Jets in New York. The trade for Kirk Morrison really impressed me as it was very lopsided in Jacksonville's favor. It was a trade with the Raiders after all. Despite this acquisition, the Jaguars offense is not explosive enough to make up for their lackluster defense.
1. San Diego Chargers, No. 3 Seed - The Bolts remain unrivaled in their division, but last season marked the end of their domination over the Raiders. LT was the "Raider Killer" but that LT has been gone for around a season and a half. Another player who could be gone is Vincent Jackson, who is in the midst of a very serious contract dispute. So while San Diego is still the West Champion for now, the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs will come knocking within the next few seasons.
2. Oakland Raiders, In The Hunt - The Raiders are one more good lineman away from a solid defense. They have improved, but their defensive line is still not where they want it to be. Lamarr Houston may be the man for the job, but for now, we wait. This offseason, the Raiders addressed their offensive struggles by trading for Jason Campbell. This may be the turning point for the Raiders, as they finally have an unquestioned starter at the most important position on the field.
3. Denver Broncos, Almost There - The decline of the Denver Broncos has been overblown. They will still be competitive and I'll tell you why. Jamal Williams, Justin Bannan, and Jarvis Green enter and while they will miss the pass rushing abilities of Elvis Dumervil, their run defense will be improved. This is still a good defense, but their offense will struggle. Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter are both injured and the loss of Brandon Marshall will set them back, but Josh McDaniels will have his team fighting every week against a weak lineup of opponents.
4. Kansas City Chiefs, Almost There - The Chiefs are young and improving, but at this point, they still have some work to do. Their offense is coming together and we'll see if Matt Cassel can improve with Charlie Weis stepping in as the new offensive coordinator. Romeo Crennel also arrives as the new defensive coordinator, taking pressure off of head coach Todd Haley. The Chiefs are a season away from becoming part of what will be the most competitive division in football.
Top to bottom, there is not a huge difference in talent among AFC teams. To decipher the division standings, it took more than just looking at the team. I had to look at their schedule and use individual matchups to decide who would make the playoffs and who wouldn't. The better team doesn't always make the playoffs and that was the case for the Bengals.
1. Indianapolis Colts
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. New England Patriots
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
5. San Diego Chargers
6. Cincinnati Bengals
7. Houston Texans
8. New York Jets
9. Tennessee Titans
10. Oakland Raiders
11. Miami Dolphins
12. Cleveland Browns
13. Jacksonville Jaguars
14. Denver Broncos
15. Kansas City Chiefs
16. Buffalo Bills