AFC East (predicted order of finish and records)
New England Patriots (13-3) - The defending AFC champs come into this season as one of the favorites to win it all. With a fairly easy schedule and no shortage of motivation, the Pats should be able to win the division rather handily. As long as some of the aging players don’t break down with injury, an explosive offense led by Brady and Moss should lead this team to at least twelve wins, a division title, and possibly another conference title and trip to Tampa for the Super Bowl.
New York Jets (9-7) - The beginning of the Favre era in New York should lead to tangible success in a rather shallow AFC East. They made big splashes in free agency (Faneca, Pace, Jenkins, etc.), something they haven’t done in the recent past. Their defense features a number of young, skilled playmakers (Gholston, Harris, Revis, Rhodes). After only four wins in 2007, Mangini’s squad has nowhere to go but up. Look for the Jets to have a solid year and sneak into the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills (6-10) - A team that made strides last year by winning seven games is still in the lower echelon of this division and conference. Inexperience at quarterback is never a good thing, though Marshawn Lynch is an extremely talented second year back. Buffalo will once again suffer through growing pains under Dick Jauron, and though they were in playoff contention until the final weeks of last season, the AFC is much improved, leaving the Bills on the outside.
Miami Dolphins (3-13) - Of all the reclamation work Bill Parcells has undertaken during his long NFL career, restoring the winning tradition to this franchise will be the most challenging. Bringing in Chad Pennington was a good move, stabilizing the offense, but there isn’t much around him, and with Ronnie Brown coming off injury, there are a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. The defense will have trouble stopping opposing offenses. A long year is in store for Miami.
AFC North (predicted order of finish and records)
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) - The offense isn’t flashy for this smash mouth football team, but it sure is effective, and with a shutdown defense, the Steelers should be among the AFC’s top teams. Roethlisberger is getting better with each passing year, and with the underrated Willie Parker in the backfield, and Holmes and Ward putting up solid numbers once again, Pittsburgh should be able to beat out its foes for the AFC North crown and go deep into the playoffs in 2008.
Cleveland Browns (9-7) - After a breakthrough 10-6 campaign, the Browns are surely headed in the right direction, and with key additions on both sides of the ball, they are only improving under coach Romeo Crennel, who’s been in hot water during his entire tenure in Cleveland. Derek Anderson surprised a lot of people last year, and with young weapons in Edwards and Winslow, the Browns could have a pretty explosive offense, and will live up to this year’s expectations.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) - As much talent as they have, the Bengals have been a colossal disappointment in recent years, and I’m afraid that trend will stay the same into 2008. Palmer puts up big numbers with his offensive arsenal every year, but the Cincinnati defense is constantly a problem under defensive-oriented coach Marvin Lewis. It won’t be a productive year for the Bengals, as they may only win six or seven games in what looks to be the beginning of a rebuilding process.
Baltimore Ravens (5-11) - The Ravens don’t want to admit it, but they have entered a rebuilding process. Their defense is still very talented, but is aging, and they are also undergoing a major transition on offense. Only two years removed for a 13-3 record, the Ravens have fallen into the doldrums of the AFC, and with a new coach, an injured starting running back, and worst of all, a rookie quarterback, the Ravens have really hit rockbottom.
AFC South (predicted order of finish and records)
Indianapolis Colts (12-4) - Probably the most consistent team in the NFL over the past five years, the Colts should christen their inaugural season in their new stadium with yet another division crown and playoff berth. The injury doesn’t seem to be a concern for Peyton, and with Addai, Wayne, and Harrison by his side, the Colts still have a top-tier NFL offense. The defense is the key, allowing the fewest points in the NFL last season. As everyone expects, it’ll be another good year for Indy.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) - A lot of people seem to be raving about the Jaguars after their 11-5 campaign last year, but the AFC is much improved, although their defense may be as good as any in the AFC. I’m still not convinced about Garrard or any of Jacksonville’s wide receivers. Del Rio usually does a nice job with the Jaguar squad, but this team who struggles in the passing game may have trouble putting points on the board. However, the Jaguars may prove me wrong and win double digit games once again.
Tennessee Titans (7-9) - Miraculously, the Titans have made the playoffs the past two years with Vince Young at the helm on a team with no recognizable faces. The Titans, in my estimation, are a wide receiver or two away from being a major player in the AFC South. They won ten games in 2007, some of which they had no business winning, getting by when their shaky offense repeatedly failed them. Don’t look for the Titans to put together another playoff campaign in 2008.
Houston Texans (5-11) - Still devoid of an identity, the Texans come into 2008 off of an 8-8 season where they exceeded expectations. Progress will continue to be slow if they can’t discover a consistent running game or offensive line. The Texans’ schedule doesn’t look promising, leading to this young team struggling on both sides of the ball. Gary Kubiak is trying to steer Houston in the right direction, but it doesn’t look like this is the year.
AFC West (predicted order of finish and records)
San Diego Chargers (13-3) - They finished strong with an improbable playoff run despite injuries to Rivers, Tomlinson, and Gates during the playoffs. Tomlinson is still the best back in the game when healthy, and even if Rivers struggles, their running game and aggressive defense led by Merriman will lead the Chargers back to the postseason. This team definitely has a chance to go deep into the playoffs once again and possibly reach the Super Bowl if injuries aren’t a problem.
Denver Broncos (7-9) - A team clearly on the downside, the Broncos only will finish second in the West due to the lack of depth in this division. Their defense is a mess, and their running game is rather uncertain. Jay Cutler hasn’t progressed as much as they would have expected, and even though Mike Shanahan has worked some magic in past years, the Broncos are far short of contending with the AFC’s elite, for it looks to be a long winter in the Mile High City.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-11) - The ambitious rebuilding project the Chiefs have assumed precludes them from a playoff. Too many things on both sides of the ball need to fall into place too quickly. The offense is full of question with uncertainty under center, despite the return of a healthy Larry Johnson. Herm Edwards and his staff can’t have much in the way of expectations this year, as the Chiefs come into 2008 with an extremely bleak outlook.
Oakland Raiders (4-12) - The Raiders aren’t looking at a very tough schedule this season, but that becomes a dead issue, seeing as how the Silver and Black will suffer more tough times. The offense is being built around young stars Russell and McFadden, but it just seems as if the Raiders are in a constant rebuilding process. Look for no more than four or five Raider wins in 2008; anything more would be a positive progression for the Raiders.
NFC’s Top 10 Offensive Players
1) LaDainian Tomlinson, RB - San Diego
2) Tom Brady, QB - New England
3) Peyton Manning, QB - Indianapolis
4) Randy Moss, WR - New England
5) Ben Roethlisberger, QB - Pittsburgh
6) Braylon Edwards, WR - Cleveland
7) Antonio Gates, TE - San Diego
8) Willie Parker, RB - Pittsburgh
9) Brett Favre, QB - New York
10) Kellen Winslow, TE - Cleveland
AFC’s Top 10 Defensive Players
1) Shawne Merriman, LB - San Diego
2) Bob Sanders, SS - Indianapolis
3) Ray Lewis, LB - Baltimore
4) Champ Bailey, CB - Denver
5) Ed Reed, FS - Baltimore
6) Troy Polamalu, SS - Pittsburgh
7) Dwight Freeney, DE - Indianapolis
8) Jamal Williams, DT - San Diego
9) Antonio Cromartie, CB - San Diego
10) Albert Haynesworth, DT - Tennessee