Football is finally back after over four months of squabbling. Now that the preseason's nearly over, it's time to get down to business.
We've seen many gutsy calls in the offseason (the Ravens letting go of four seasoned veterans), surprising decisions (Nmandi Asomugha signed a five-year deal with the Eagles) and rules that make us sick (kickoff from the 35-yard line).
Nevertheless, there's the big question: Who will go to Indianapolis and win Super Bowl XLVI? That question will be answered on February 5th.
Until then, in the first of a two-part slideshow, here are the AFC teams with a very good chance to polish the Lombardi Trophy come late winter.
The Bengals still have a ways to go with the abrupt rebuilding project; the Browns are a year away from being playoff contenders; and despite cruising to the AFC title last season, the Steelers have hit roadblocks in the papers during the summer. That leaves the Ravens.
The Ravens are the only NFL team to win at least one playoff game in each of the last three seasons. Many would think that the Ravens are in trouble with to the soon-to-be retirement of Ray Lewis; the release of Raven targets Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, among others; and GM Ozzie Newsome's bold decisions to recruit former Bills wideout Lee Evans, journeyman running back Ricky Williams and signing over 20 rookie free agents in the offseason.
Although the team has a remarkable defense, it's been the Ravens offense that's been coming alive the last few years, with Joe Flacco budding as a top-10 quarterback and Ray Rice's versatility as examples. Some suggest the offseason moves are signs of Baltimore's collapse while others believe it's the start of the Ravens becoming a dynasty in this decade.
Football aficionados still imagine that the Colts will win the AFC South this year. But for the last two years, Indy has been back sliding with their loss in Super Bowl XLIV; the nagging injuries of Peyton Manning and his targets Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark; and making the playoffs in the final minute of the regular season (and being eliminated by the Jets six days later), implying that the long run is all but over.
The Titans and Jaguars share similarities with great running backs (Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson) and medicore defenses. So, they'll share the same fate: no playoff berth.
So, for all you General Zod fans out there, the NFL playoffs will arrive in Planet Houston.
The Texans will win their division with one major addition: a defensive coordinator, in the guise of Wade Phillips. The cloudy judgments of selecting Mario Williams over Reggie Bush and drafting Brian Cushing now look to be rather shrewd.
Also, Matt Schaub's rocket arm, Arian Foster's breakout performance a season ago and three great targets in Jacoby Jones, a healthy Owen Daniels and, of course, Andre Johnson, gives Houston good hope to make a deep playoff run since the "Luv Ya, Blue" days of the later 1970s.
First, let's look at the Bills and the Dolphins. Buffalo has a long journey to make it back into the playoff picture. But with the addition of Shawne Merriman in the defense and last season's surprising regular season totals from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson, the Bills would be great spoilers.
Miami seemed to have balanced their run with a good addition in Reggie Bush in the backfield to make up the loss of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to the Eagles and Ravens, respectively. But depending on how this season and the quarterback situation works out, the Dolphins would be extending one of two things for Tony Sparano: contract and pen, or a handshake and a sign to the door.
For the last few years, the Patriots has been spectacular; last year, they led the league in scoring. But since the "Spygate" ordeal of 2007, their defense has been suspect. The Patriots are risking a good bunch on Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. But with Bill Belichick, the risks come with the reward.
Like Rex Ryan's old squad the Ravens, the Jets have won four playoff games since the drafting of their young quarterback—in this case, Mark Sanchez. The grand signings of Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason as wideouts, the retaining of Santonio Holmes and a shutdown corners of Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis, would be enough for the Jets will soar to the AFC East sky.
Last year, the AFC West could be called the "Yeah, but..." division.
Yeah, Kyle Orton arguably had the best statistics of his career, but the Broncos still finished with a 4-12 record. Although Pat Bowen and John Elway made a good decision to hire John Fox as their new head coach and made good pickups with Willis McGahee to give Knowshon Moreno company, the quarterback carousel of Orton and Tim Tebow could make for some calamity.
Yeah, San Diego had the No. 1 total offense and total defense, but the Chargers didn't make the playoffs. We know that Phillip Rivers is still among the top elite NFL QBs and virtually no one expected the Chargers D to be the best in the league, but they still need an extra boost to get over the hump.
We know Kansas City's defense was pretty average, but the Chiefs had a great running game and they won the division. Kansas City still has a great signal-caller in Matt Cassell and great hands with Dwayne Bowe and the elusive speed of Jamaal Charles; yet with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis fleeing for Florida, there might be a few missteps.
Yeah, Oakland swept the division, but they only won two more games.
But the Raiders have an amazing special teams attack with Jacoby Ford, a hard-hitting underrated defense led by Richard Seymour, experienced a great resurgence with running back Darren McFadden and got three quarterbacks (Jason Campbell, Kyle Boller and Trent Edwards) that can flow easily with the system of their QB-coach-turned-head-coach Hue Jackson.
So, it seems that Raider Nation should rejoice for their first playoff appearance in nine years with the AFC West crown.
For seven of the last 11 years, the AFC representative in the Super Bowl has been either the Steelers or the Patriots. Both teams share numerous similarities: they play in respective areas of passionate sports fans; they have two of five best QBs in the NFL; they won titles in dramatic fashion and were embroiled in controversies for the last few seasons.
So, it's fitting that the two big favorites of the conference share one more thing: a wild card playoff spot.
The defending AFC champion Steelers hit both highs during this offseason (Hines Ward winning Dancing with the Stars, Troy Polamalu getting his bachelor's degree and Ben Roethlisberger getting married) and low blows (LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark bashing the Ravens future and questioning their rivalry and James Harrison outspoken comments directed at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell).
The Patriots still have Brady, Belichick and company, but since the "Spygate" controversy and Super Bowl XLII loss, they seem to be grounded a good deal. Though they've won the last two AFC East titles, they were quickly eliminated in their initial playoff games...and in embarrassing fashion, too.
Despite all that, the main reason Steel City and the Pats still have a good chance to win it all is basically because their core players remain, and they want to unleash their frustrations to get back to the top. But the offseason blights may cause them to slow down.
So, there are the bold AFC playoff picks. Stay tuned, as the NFC will be up in a few days.