The Favorites: New England Patriots and New York Jets – The front-runners continue to become stronger in this division. The Patriots had one of the deepest drafts with five picks in the first three rounds and then added WR Chad Ochocinco and DT Albert Haynesworth in free agency.
The Patriots have been retooling in the last three drafts and 34-year-old MVP QB Tom Brady is still in the prime of his career. Many people thought 2010 would be a reloading year, but the Patriots went 14-2 and had the top seed in the AFC. This team is poised to make another Super Bowl run in 2011.
The New York Jets have been the talk of the league since head coach Rex Ryan took over in 2009. The Jets have appeared in back-to-back AFC Championship Games but came up short in each contest.
They also have been busy this offseason, keeping WR Santonio Holmes and adding WR Plaxico Burress in free agency. The defense will be solid again in 2011, and if QB Mark Sanchez can make bigger strides in 2011, the Jets could be an AFC title contender for a third straight year.
The Dark horses: Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins – It is going to be very hard for either of these teams to make noise in this division. The Bills were an exciting team last year and lost five games by three points or less, including three games in overtime. Their problem is they are a small market team that cannot add a lot of pieces in free agency having to compete with big spending teams like the Patriots and Jets.
There are some good pieces in Buffalo, but they were 28th in points allowed, 28th in points scored, 25th in yards gained and 24th in yards allowed last season. It is going to take more than RB Fred Jackson and WR Steve Johnson to lift this team to prominence in the AFC East.
The Miami Dolphins are also in bad shape. QB Chad Henne was a second round pick in 2008 but appears to be more of a bust than a quality starting quarterback. They added QB Matt Moore in free agency, making this one of the weaker quarterback situations in the NFL. They traded for RB Reggie Bush, who could provide some exciting plays but is also injury prone. The Dolphins were 6-2 on the road last year, but just 1-7 at home. It is a perplexing team with a good defense, but many questions on offense.
The Favorites: Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans – This is probably the most wide open division in the AFC. The Colts were 10-6 last year but needed a four-game winning streak to close the season to make the playoffs. The Colts ranked 23rd in points allowed (388), 20th in yards allowed (5,465), 25th in rushing yards allowed (2,032) and 20th in rushing touchdowns allowed (14). Compounding that problem, they could not run the ball, ranking 29th in rushing yards gained (1,483) and 27th in yards per attempt (3.8).
Without four-time MVP QB Peyton Manning, this team could have been one of the worst in the league. He is coming off offseason neck surgery and there are questions about whether he will be ready to start the season. Manning is 35 years old and started 208 games in his Hall of Fame career. Time is running out for him to add a second ring to his legendary career.
There really is not a second favorite in the division. The Jaguars finished 8-8 and the other teams finished 6-10 in 2010.
This is going to sound like a broken record; the Texans have been next year’s team the last three seasons. However, they had a very explosive offense, ranking ninth in points scored (390) and third in yards gained (6,186). Their problem was a pas defense that was 32nd in passing yards allowed (4,280) and 31st in passing touchdowns allowed (33).
They have made a number of additions. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was hired to transition the team to a “3-4” defense. They drafted DE J.J. Watt, DE/LB Brooks Reed, CBs Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael in the first four rounds to bolster the defense. They also signed veteran CB Jonathan Joseph and S Danieal Manning to help their secondary. If their defense can even be respectable, the division is up for grabs and could finally be theirs in 2011.
The Dark horses: Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans – The Jaguars were 8-8 last year, but this feels like a team on the decline instead of on the rise. They used their 10th pick on QB Blaine Gabbert. They lost WR Mike Sims-Walker in free agency to the Rams, leaving WR Mike Thomas as the top receiver. There are some solid pieces with RB Maurice Jones-Drew and TE Marcedes Lewis, but the lack of an explosive receiver is a setback for the offense. On a positive note, they were able to improve a terrible secondary by signing S Dawan Landry and CB Drew Coleman in free agency.
The Tennessee Titans tried to use this offseason to build for the future and the present. They used their eighth pick on QB Jake Locker, but also added veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck in free agency. The only question with the latter is durability and whether he can lead this team for a 16-game schedule. RB Chris Johnson is holding out for a new deal and a lengthy holdout would be detrimental for the team.
The Titans are going to be competitive this year, but I really do not see them as a serious playoff contender. This team lost eight of their last nine games and had a lot of issues on both sides of the ball. There are some good pieces, but not enough to make a serious playoff push.
The Favorites: Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens – This rivalry has turned into one of the best ones in the NFL. The two teams have dominated the AFC North in recent years and have met each other in the playoffs twice, with the Steelers emerging victorious both times. Both teams are built around their strong defenses and their running games.
The Steelers have had the edge for two reasons. First, QB Ben Roethlisberger has been able to make the big plays in key moments, whereas QB Joe Flacco either has had a costly turnover or has not been able to lead the game-winning drive. Second, the Steelers' defense has played better in the big moments and not given up costly plays like the big third-and-18 conversions in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Round last year. The 58-yard pass play set up the go-ahead score for the Steelers.
The Ravens have suffered more losses this offseason. The Steelers were able to keep CB Ike Taylor and T Willie Colon. The Ravens, on the other hand, lost S Dawan Landry in free agency and had to cut RB Willie McGahee, NT Kelly Gregg, TE Todd Heap and WR Derrick Mason. They added WR Lee Evans, which could help their passing game. Until the Ravens prove they can beat the Steelers, it is Pittsburgh’s division to lose.
The Dark horses: Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns – It is going to be hard for these teams to make any noise this year. Both teams made changes to their coaching staff and have young quarterbacks.
The Browns cleaned house, firing head coach Eric Mangini and hiring Pat Shurmur. That means that second-year QB Colt McCoy is going to have to learn a new offense without the benefit of the traditional offseason. He has looked sharp in the preseason; it will be interesting to see if that translates into regular season success. The Browns still need to improve their receiver situation. The Browns were 31st in points scored and 29th in yards gained. There is a lot of work to do there before they can think about the playoffs.
The Bengals decided to keep head coach Marvin Lewis but fired offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. They are going to be starting over on offense. QB Carson Palmer appears to be retired until the Bengals deal him, WR Terrell Owens will not be back with the team and WR Chad Ochocinco is now a Patriot. The Bengals will instead go with rookie QB Andy Dalton and rookie WR A. J. Green as they build for the future.
The Favorites: San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs – The Chargers were one of the most puzzling teams in the NFL last season. They finished the season gaining the most yards in the league (6,329) and allowing the fewest (4,345). They were second in points scored (441) and 10th in points allowed (322).
When a team does that, they usually are a 12-win team competing for the top playoff seed. Instead, they were 9-7 and missed the playoffs. The Chargers are led by QB Philip Rivers, who has developed into an elite NFL quarterback. If they can avoid a 2-5 start like the one they had last year, they should be able to recapture the AFC West.
The Chiefs are polar opposites of the Chargers. The Chargers are an explosive passing offense that sets up their running game. The Chiefs led the league in rushing with 2,627 yards but were 30th in passing yards (2,968). The Chiefs attempted to improve their passing offense by signing free agent WR Steve Breaston and drafting WR Jonathan Baldwin. It remains to be seen how much the Chiefs will miss offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, but if these receivers can mesh with QB Matt Cassel, they have a great chance to repeat in 2011.
The Dark horses: Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos – The Raiders were 6-0 against their division last year, outscoring their divisional opponents 215-107. Unfortunately, they were 2-8 against the rest of their schedule and were outscored by their non-divisional opponents 195-264. The Raiders fired head coach Tom Cable and promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. They also lost All-Pro CB Nnamdi Asomugha to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Raiders are improving from the team that would finish in the bottom five of the league, but they do not look like a playoff team yet.
The Denver Broncos had the second pick in the draft and are in complete rebuilding mode. The Broncos drafted LB Von Miller hoping he would be the answer for a defense that ranked 32nd in yards and points allowed. This team is still at least a year or two away from thinking about the playoffs, depending on how quickly the defense can retool and if QB Kyle Orton is a long-term answer at quarterback. The Broncos appear unwilling to go with second-year QB Tim Tebow, who has not impressed the Broncos in training camp.
Playoff Predictions - Seeds
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
2) New England Patriots (12-4)
3) San Diego Chargers (11-5)
4) Houston Texans (9-7)
5) New York Jets (11-5)
6) Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
AFC Playoff Predictions
The Steelers draw a much more favorable schedule than the Patriots. The Steelers have four games against the NFC West. The Patriots draw the NFC East, which means games against the Eagles and Giants. Even though the Cowboys are down, they have more talent and lost only one more game than the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks. The Patriots do catch a break drawing the AFC West and they do draw both the Chiefs and Chargers in New England. I would not be surprised if the Patriots earn the top seed, but the Steelers have the easier road.
The Chargers should rebound from their disappointing 9-7 season last year, but they have a much tougher draw than the Steelers and Patriots. They play the NFC North, which features the Super Bowl Champion Packers, the NFC runner-up Bears, the improving Lions, and a Vikings team that is a year removed from the NFC Championship Game. San Diego is plagued by slow starts and they play at the Patriots and home against the Chiefs in Weeks 2 and 3. They also have a three-week stretch where they play at the Jets, at the Chiefs, and home against the Packers in Weeks 7 through 9. That should be enough to keep them out of the top two seeds.
I am always weary of picking the Texans; they have burned me in the past. The Colts are on the decline and the only thing keeping that team in the playoff hunt is Manning. I would not be shocked if the Colts win the division again, but I think the neck injury is going to cause a slow start for the Colts, especially if Manning is not able to start those early games. The Texans have added many pieces on defense and I think they will show better in 2011.
As for the wild cards, I like the same two wild cards as last year. The New York Jets did well to resign Holmes and bring in Plaxico Burress as an adequate replacement for Braylon Edwards. I am uneasy about picking the Ravens, but I think the schedule saves them this year. Playing the NFC West should be able to allow them to hold off teams like the Colts and Chiefs for the final wild card spot. They have some key players that are advancing in age, and this is probably their last year to think about competing for the Super Bowl under LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed, both of whom are Canton-bound once their careers are done.
In the playoffs, I look for the Patriots to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. The Patriots have won there in the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship Games. I look for New England to emerge from Pittsburgh victorious and return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2007.
AFC Champion: New England Patriots
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