AFC East (predicted order of finish and records)
New England Patriots (10-6) – As long as Brady and Belichick are around, it’ll be difficult for any other team to hold an edge over the Patriots in the AFC East. The recently employed youth movement has made the defense better than the one that helped them reach the Super Bowl just a few seasons ago, especially with regard to the linebackers and secondary. This is a very tight division with the exception of the cellar-dwelling Bills, but I think the Patriots have the talent and experience to win it once more.
New York Jets (9-7) –You’d think these Jets had a few rings on their fingers already, but only a playoff run made possible only by a few breaks late in their schedule has given them this heir. All that aside, it is clear that the Jets have the best team top to bottom in the AFC, and maybe in all of football, but for them to make it work, many new personalities, will have to mesh with their already in place balance of veterans and youth. In the end, the Jets at full strength are among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
Miami Dolphins (8-8) – After winning the division, the Dolphins set themselves back to 7-9 and out of the playoffs last season, but should certainly be in the mix this season. Chad Henne’s development is of primordial importance and should be smoother with the acquisition of the great Brandon Marshall. Usually, a group with this much talent is playoff-bound, but this year’s version of the AFC will have twelve teams competing for six playoff spots, which doesn’t bode well for Tony Sparano’s squad.
Buffalo Bills (3-13) – Things are going to get ugly in Buffalo this season. Though C.J. Spiller may turn out to be a stud down the road, they failed to address need in the draft, one of many critiques that can be had about the Bills. Just 2-10 against their AFC East foes over the past two seasons is a hideous mark that might only get worse. Can anyone figure out why they hired Chan Gailey rather than someone even halfway decent? This edition of the Bills has a 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick written all over it.
AFC North (predicted order of finish and records)
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) – Though Baltimore has done little in big spots as of recent years, this Ravens squad rivals teams like Indy and New York as the most talented in the conference. Carried by their defense for years, the Ravens can actually flaunt a good offense this year, led by breakout star Ray Rice and a solid receiving core, which must pick up the mistake-prone Joe Flacco under center. Though they did go 1-6 against teams that reached the playoffs last year, they might be among the elite in 2010.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8) – It’s been nearly three decades since the Bengals have put together consecutive winning seasons, and by watching the end of last year, you wouldn’t think they had one at all, especially with a putrid playoff showing. This is a deep and talented group that Marvin Lewis leads, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it has the potential to blow up in his face, especially with the is signing of Terrell Owens. They should compete for a Wild Card spot, but may wind up on the outside.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) – How can anyone think this team will be better than average? Not having Roethlisberger is an obstacle that they can overcome, but you’re looking at essentially the same group that choked away a playoff spot with losses to Oakland, Kansas City, and Cleveland down the stretch last year. The North is no pushover, and it looks like the Steelers won’t be challenging for the top, but we’ve seen this team be dominant in years past, so they should stay in the mix for the duration of the year.
Cleveland Browns (4-12) – The Browns are way too short on talent to be any semblance of a factor in the AFC North, but I would say that the arrow is pointed in the right direction with the team being run by Holmgren. The quarterback situation just doesn’t leave a very good taste in my mouth, and this could be another team poised to go winless within the division. A bad Browns season would be another punch in the gut for a city that doesn’t need any more, but the forecast is gloom to be rather generous.
AFC South (predicted order of finish and records)
Indianapolis Colts (13-3) – The last time the Colts didn’t win 10+ games was 2001, and in 2009 when some predicted they would dip a bit, they held a lead at halftime of the Super Bowl. Winning this division and making hay in the playoffs is a certainty for Peyton’s bunch, as over the past decade, the Colts have become the closest entity to what is a sure thing in any sport. What makes them particularly scary is the fact their defense is growing up, something they’ve won without. They’re en route to Dallas. Bet on it.
Houston Texans (9-7) – The Texans are inching closer to postseason play every year, but getting over that hump has been a true challenge for the only American sports team never to make the playoffs. They’re really playing for a Wild Card since winning the division is truly out of the question, but the lethal duo of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson make for a fun offense to watch. Houston should really be able to crack into the tournament this year, if not, expect heads to roll for this Texan organization.
Tennessee Titans (9-7) – Always loaded with young talent that few people outside the organization know, expect the Titans to be in the running for a playoff spot. A full season for Vince Young should allow Tennessee to garner more success, but it is highly unlikely that the great Chris Johnson will be able to replicate his 2009. To be honest, Jeff Fisher keeps them competitive, exactly why the Titans are never bad, and as we’ll see, Tennessee will be as steady enough to remain in the fight for the playoffs.
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9) – The AFC South is easily the deepest division in football, and a team like Jacksonville, which might even finish under. 500 is by no means a bad one. They do however seem like a team not cut out to crack the AFC’s elite, but wouldn’t be a cellar dweller in a run of the mill quartet. Maurice Jones-Drew carries the brunt of the load on offense, and their defense actually got better this offseason. It’s just really a case of grouping and too much stiff competition for the Jags to contend.
AFC West (predicted order of finish and records)
San Diego Chargers (10-6) – Like the NFC West, no team should really win this division, but as they do perennially, the Chargers remain the best of the bunch. Philip Rivers has surely taken the next step into the elite, but is not surrounded by the loaded squads as he has been in years past. I won’t deny that their ten game winning streak to end last season wasn’t impressive, but as always, they came up small where it counts. They’ll win the division for the sixth time in seven years, but will fizz out in January.
Denver Broncos (6-10) – There really is much separating the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders, and after starting 6-0 last season; they lost eight of their last ten games. It seems like none of their young stars desire to play for this once proud franchise that has faded into oblivion and not made the playoffs since 2005. I don’t know if they want to admit that they should rebuild, especially with a young coach, but as long as they remain stubborn in their ways, the Broncos will experience the same, familiar result.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-11) – They have a chance to be improved, and are building a decent team under a new regime. They won’t be a factor in the West, and that won’t be helped by the fact that they have a rough September schedule-wise. It was a lousy 2009, for Matt Cassel and Co., that ended with a 4-12 mark for Kansas City. But building through the draft always works, so expect the Chiefs to take baby steps, but are well on their way to being a factor in the AFC as they were just a few years ago.
Oakland Raiders (5-11) – Like Kansas City, they’re another team going in the right direction, especially by ridding themselves of the albatross that was JaMarcus Russell. Their defense is and has been pretty good for the past few years, and the organization actually did some competent drafting this year, but the offense is still average at best with a muddled running back situation and a lousy wide receiving core. It takes time to come back from where the Raiders have been, so more patience is needed.
AFC's Top 10 Offensive Players
1) Chris Johnson, RB - Tennessee
2) Peyton Manning, QB - Indianapolis
3) Maurice Jones-Drew, RB - Jacksonville
4) Ray Rice, RB - Baltimore
5) Tom Brady, QB - New England
6) Philip Rivers, QB - San Diego
7) Matt Schaub, QB - Houston
8) Andre Johnson, WR - Houston
9) Brandon Marshall, WR - Miami
10) Randy Moss, WR - New England
AFC's Top 10 Defensive Players
1) Darrelle Revis, CB - New York
2) Troy Polamalu, S - Pittsburgh
3) Dwight Freeney, DE - Indianapolis
4) Nnamdi Asomugha, CB - Oakland
5) Ed Reed, S - Baltimore
6) James Harrison, LB - Pittsburgh
7) Mario Williams, DE - Houston
8) Haloti Ngata, DT - Baltimore
9) Shaun Rogers, DT- Cleveland
10) Champ Bailey, CB - Denver